Sam Forman is back in town, and, for a 34-year-old playwright who has spent much of his life writing stories of nervous, young men whose ambitions crash up against their daily insecurities, he’s surprisingly calm. As Forman looks ahead to the opening of The Moscows of Nantucket, premiering at Theater J on Wednesday, he shows no signs of doubt. DC Theatre Scene spoke to him about comedy and family in his new play, and about how the charm of Moscows comes from a feeling of real love lying beneath all the neuroses.
Hunter: Welcome back, Sam!
DC audiences may recognize your name from Theater J’s 2008-2009 season, when they produced your play The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall. Tell me some more about your involvement with Theater J during this process.
I was originally introduced to [Theater J Artistic Director] Ari Roth by Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright. She had sent him The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall, and he liked my stuff, so we did several readings and talkbacks and workshops. I had the same process basically with Moscows. In both cases we had about a year to develop the script, which means I’ve been writing fairly consistently. I also did the Page-To-Stage festival at the Kennedy Center for Moscows. So, we’ve had a lot of time to work on them together.
Tell us some more about the plot of this new show.
It’s a family play, about a Jewish family on Nantucket. This is a Jewish family that’s living for the summer in a traditionally WASP-y area. So, they’re already fish out of water, just by being a Jewish family there.
The family is made up of two parents, who have recently retired, and their adult sons. The younger son is a struggling novelist who has moved back into their basement. But the older son is an Emmy-nominated Hollywood producer. And he’s bringing back his new girlfriend, who’s the star of his most recent sitcom. Now, this is a girl who grew up in a trailer park in Georgia. So, bringing her back home to his wealthy New England family is complicated.
Well, leave it to your family to always be honest about how they feel.
Right. When a drama takes place in a family, the characters are more free to show the ugly sides of themselves. You show a side to your family that you don’t show in public. I play with that idea quite a bit.
I’d love to hear more about why the play’s set in Nantucket, in particular. You’re a Massachusetts native, and you’ve spent time on the Cape and the islands. Why the world of Nantucket?
I’m hoping that this has a kind of Chekhov feel — that feeling of being at the estate, in the summer, full of unrequited love. I’ve always been a huge fan of Chekhov. I mean, the style of humor is different here. This has more of a fast-paced American comic style. But the basic setting and situation of Moscows were inspired by the feel of plays like The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard.
The Moscows of Nantucket is a world-premiere for you. How does it feel different the first time a show is produced than the subsequent times it’s produced?
With a world premiere, I’m still investigating what the play wants to be. I tend to be more involved in rehearsal. So, I’ve been grateful for this time! Sometimes in the past, I’ve enjoyed coming in at the last moment and seeing what’s been done. But at Theater J, I’ve been very involved, from the beginning, on every stage of the process, from the readings to the casting to the rehearsal. And I’ve been working very closely with [director] Shirley Serotsky on every part of the process.”
That can be a real blessing with a new play.
Yes, with any new play, you tend to want a lot of feedback. Most of the notes have come from Shirley and Ari — they’ve given a lot of really good feedback. I’ve done a lot of writing. They’re very respectful of the writer. It’s been a very intelligent, gentle group of people.
There are six characters total, played in this production by James Flanagan, Michael Glenn, Heather Haney, Bob Rogerson, Susan Rome and Amal Saade. During a first production, do you feel the stakes are higher, since this is the first time audiences will be seeing these characters?
Sometimes I don’t know when to step away during rehearsal. But I know that having the writer hovering over your shoulder can be a little claustrophobic for actors. We’ve been working with this cast since pretty much a year ago, and I think everyone always related pretty strongly with these characters. There was never a real issue for the actors in understanding the play. It’s great. I knew when this cast walked in the door that they, in particular, got these people.
How are the themes and characters in this play informed by the previous shows you’ve written?
People who saw The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall will recognize Benjamin Moscow, the protagonist of this play, as another desperate, neurotic type. He’s a sort of thematic cousin to the protagonist in Annie Hall. But in Annie Hall, the protagonist’s parents were just mentioned, and kept offstage. There were no adult characters. So I think Moscows is a more ambitious play, and a harder one for me to write. I’ve had to get inside the voices of people who aren’t from my age group. And, hopefully, this is a more mature, sophisticated play. I do think Annie Hall captures something about my generation. But, I think in this play there’s more for everyone.
Why do you write in the first place? And, what do you find yourself focusing on?
Well, I’ve rarely written about kids and their families before. I started as a very young kid writing plays. I was twelve years old, and the main characters were often someone my own age. So, as I’ve gotten older, the protagonists have gotten older. The younger son is my age in Moscows, and he’s at a specific time in his life. This play came from me looking at the lives of my friends, and thinking about whether they’ll end up where they want to end up.
What part of Moscows came to you first?
I think the setting was probably the first thing I had in mind. My own parents have been going to Nantucket for almost 40 years at this point. I had a visual of the patio in that house in Nantucket where I spend a lot of time. I knew that I wanted to write a family play, and so from there the characters started to emerge.
I usually just start from the beginning. I tend to think for a long time about the general structure. And then, even though you know the basic arc of the play, when you sit down to write you realize that things are going off in directions you weren’t expecting.
What do you hope audiences take away from this show?
The play is ultimately a comedy, and it’s about people trying to work through their familial gripes with each other. So like any family play, Moscows will make you think about your own family. Even during major conflicts in a family, we still find a way to push through and feel a connection with each other. And we keep coming back year after year to these places where families reconnect.
Do you think this piece will influence what you will write next?
I think my next couple of projects are going to be really different. I also write musicals, and I’m working in various stages of development on a couple different projects. But when you work on a musical, you’re working with a whole team of writers. I wasn’t working with any collaborators at all on Moscows. This is a much more personal project for me. This play is very much from my heart.