Tim Treanor was asked to recommend 7 plays for the lecture DC Theatre Season 2020 held January 14 in the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center. Since we’ve had several requests for his remarks, we publish it here, along with our thanks to the other critics Chris Klimek (Washington City Paper),Nicole Hertvik (DC Metro Theater Arts) and Susan Galbraith (DC Theatre Scene), to editor Rosa Cartagena (Washingtonian) to host Felicia Curry and organizer theatreWashington for an enlightening evening.
When I was a kid I read a science fiction story in which the laws of physics had been repealed. Chasms would open up in the ground for no reason; gravity would suddenly be repealed and then be reinstated, with cataclysmic results. Houses would turn into flowers. Food would turn into poison, sometimes in your stomach. Millions of people died.
For the last twenty years or so, I’ve felt like I’ve lived in a world where the laws of reason and civility had been repealed. Go to church and wait for the shootout — praying that your guys are better armed than the other guys. A political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner turns into a fistfight. It makes you edgy to make fun of the disabled. Everybody watches reality TV.
I trace our present dilemma to the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. This attack was a slaughter of civilians, of accountants and health care providers and fashion designers and chefs, many of them Muslims. It made no sense; it broke the rules; and we have been making nonsense and shedding rules ever since.
Because theater is serious, I look to it to address our present condition. So the first play I’m recommending was poorly received by critics and is being done by a relatively small theater company. See it anyway. Recent Tragic Events is the story of Waverly, a woman who has arranged a blind date for September 12, 2001. And when her young man arrives she’s distracted. Because her twin sister lives in New York City. And she can’t reach her on the phone.
So they do everything but address what’s on their minds. They talk about Anthony Trollope. A neighbor comes in. Then a woman with no pants. They play drinking games. Then the great writer Joyce Carol Oates comes in. As a sock puppet.
The Joyce Carol Oates as sock puppet thing probably had something to do with the negative reviews. But I think the critics missed the point, which was at this juncture everyone was insane. As we all had become. Twisted up in fear. Unable to talk about real things. In a hallucinatory fever dream.
And so I’m going to Prologue Theater, who will be doing Recent Tragic Events, which starts January 23, with the fabulous Kari Ginsburg, who you may remember from The Wild Party at Constellation. Because it will help me better understand these querulous, bellicose, fear-twisted times, by seeing where it all began.
But to do more to understand the times in which we live, to actually change them, we have to start with ourselves. That’s what the best theater does — avoids demonizing the other and makes us look at ourselves. The good news is that the dilemma we’re in — it’s our fault. That’s good news because if it’s our fault then we have the power to change things.
I’m going to recommend two shows which will help us dodge easy answers and look at ourselves. The first is Dominque Morriseau’s Pipeline at Studio, which starts tomorrow. It tells the story of Nya, an African-American who teaches in a public school so fraught that she is desperate to shield her son Omari from its misery, so she sends him to a very expensive, predominantly white private school. But violence follows him there, like a salmon swimming upstream.
Do you remember the story of Billy Budd? He was a sailor with a bad stutter, and his greatest torment was that it prevented him from responding to the taunts of his shipmate, John Claggert. His rage and pain became so great that he killed Claggert, and was hanged in consequence. In Pipeline we see a community with a social and emotional stutter, robbed of the vocabulary and grammar necessary to express its pain and rage. And we also see the first stuttering steps to a solution. This play will feature two fine actors I would be glad to see in anything — Justin Weaks as Omari and Ro Boddie — and a strong cast generally.
The other such story is Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017, which will be at Woolly Mammoth starting February 10. You probably remember her wild, wild Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. Shipwreck is more somber but blessed with the same off-kilter sensibility. It is 2017, and a crowd of erudite, well-meaning, politically aware folks — people much like us — try to come to grips with what the heck happened the previous November.
Washburn doesn’t use this as an opportunity to trot out ideological hobby horses. Instead, she allows us to see how our own lazy thinking, virtuous clichés, cant and hypocrisy prevented us from understanding our times and the people who share them with us. This play will feature Jon Hudson Odom, an actor of almost infinite range, and has my strongest recommendation.
I don’t like to do these shindigs without recommending at least one play by a local playwright, and for this year I’m recommending Alexandra Petri’s Inherit the Windbag, which will be at Mosaic between March 11 and 29. I’m not always a fan of Petri’s weekly humor column, but her plays have always been dead-on. In this one, she imagines a post-mortem conflict between the late conservative icon, William F. Buckley, and his equally late antagonist, the novelist Gore Vidal. As this is a world premier I do not know much about the plot, but with John Lescault as Buckley and Paul Morella as Vidal, I am confident in the result.
Do you ever wonder what Death of a Salesman would be like if it had been written in, say, 2015? I propose it would be a lot like The Humans, which will be at Olney starting April 1. In Salesman, Willie Loman dreamed of a bright and prosperous future for his children; in Steven Karam’s The Humans, the Blakes just want to get through life with their dignity intact. The diminishment of our expectations, and of our dreams, is an important explanation of our present dilemma, and The Humans portrays it with great specificity. Plus this show, like all the shows I’m recommending, has a very strong cast, featuring Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hébert, Dani Stoller and Sherri L. Edelin, and the very creative Aaron Posner will direct.
Does it strike you that the present age could be characterized as one of arrogance, spleen and pride? Perhaps it does, but perhaps you also recognize the phrase, from Henry IV, Part 1. Imagine Shakespeare in the sixteenth century, describing an event in the fifteenth century which throws light on the twenty-first century. And although overweening ambition is the scourge of our time, we have no national leaders who have acquired power by having their brother and their two nephews killed. So if Richard III provided the template for the early sixteenth century, perhaps Teenage Dick will provide the template for the early twenty-first. Michael Lew’s astonishing play has a young man, challenged by cerebral palsy as Richard was by scoliosis, rise to power in his high school using some of the techniques honed by the prior Richard. Woolly Mammoth will be using two of the acclaimed actors from the New York production, Gregg Mozgala and Shannon DeVedo. Both actors are physically challenged, playing physically challenged characters, and they both got terrific reviews. This Drama League nominee starts on June 1.
So theater holds¸ not a funhouse mirror, but a real one up to us. And what does it find? We’re twisted up in fear, prone to violence, no longer in control of our politics, adrift in a land of diminishing dreams, prone to arrogant manipulation and surrounded by windbags. What’s the solution? How do we get out?
I think there is a germ of a solution in a play that will be running at Washington Stage Guild starting March 19 — Sam and Dede. It’s a story about an adult who, in suburban Paris, takes compassion on the twelve-year-old son of a friend of his. The son is unusually large, and is tormented by his classmates. And so the man drives him to school every day, and they get to know each other.
The man, Sam, is no stranger to alienation. We know him as the great absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett. But to me he was always a poet of loneliness, a man who captured with magnificent precision the pain and nonsense of being alone. And the boy, Dede? He grew up to be the great wrestler, Andre the Giant — seven foot four, five hundred twenty pounds. Sam and Dede grow up together, learning how to be human. It is a true story, although the details, of course, are fictional. After they both drop their bodies, as they both have, we see them again in adjacent trash cans, as Nagg and Nell were in Beckett’s Endgame, reminiscing about lives well lived.
So in 2020 I’m looking for theater to do two things. Tell me where we have lost our humanity, and show us ways we can find it again. And the lesson I’m taking from this set of plays leads me to seek out the weirdest, most alienated guy I know, and be good to him.