Shut Up and Listen

Playwright Hortua on Making It

Photo by Christofer Gross/SCRTalk to playwright Joe Hortua for an hour about Making It, and you're going to discuss much more than just his play, which on the simplest level is about three conversations taking place in the same posh Manhattan restaurant, a play spawned in large part by Hortua's experiences as a waiter and bartender in similar Manhattan restaurants.

You'll also run across topics as apparently dissimilar as cultural solipsism, French deconstructionist philosophers, knee-jerk patriotism, media hypocrisy, the tantalizing promise and bitter poison of the American Dream, generational warfare, and the best place to get fish tacos in the South Coast Metro area.

In other words, Hortua is a very bright guy—and one who likes to eat. He's also a playwright with a promising future. At the age of 30, he's a mere pup in the graying world of commercial theater. But Making It, his second of four plays, is, as the title suggests, making a name for the New York City resident. South Coast Repertory, one of the nation's biggest purveyors of new plays and new playwrights, has chosen to stage its world-premiere production. That's a coup for any playwright but especially for Hortua, who has never before enjoyed a professional production.

"It's a pretty big deal for me," he says, in what ranks easily as the biggest understatement of the new theatrical year.

Eight years ago, Hortua couldn't have been more removed from the theater. "I was never a theater person. I didn't do it in high school. I didn't see plays; I didn't write them," he says. Hortua grew up in Chicago, attended the University of Iowa and, politically inclined, wanted to be a Washington, D.C., political correspondent. But just as he was being exposed to the grimy side of that profession—particularly the role public-relations firms played in disseminating news about atrocities in Kosovo and Kuwait as a way to drum up support for America's war effort—he was being turned on to fiction, poetry and playwright Naomi Wallace, a former University of Iowa instructor and one of America's most political playwrights.

Journalism's loss was theater's gain. But an interesting synthesis between journalism and playwrighting pulses through the script of Making It. On the one hand, Making Itis completely dialogue- and idea-driven, capturing the thoughts and concerns of real characters and using them as a microcosm for much bigger issues, just like the best journalism. It's not a play with much plot or character development. As Hortua says, he has always been fascinated by people "who speak in rants, long speeches." Making Itis full of such rants, whether it's the Arab kitchen workers in the restaurant who are simultaneously seduced and repulsed by America or the late-twentysomething who perfectly articulates the dissatisfaction of the so-called Gen-Xers with the "heroic" legacy of the 1960s.

But the script is far more than dialogue and rants. It has an unprecedented style and sense of language; few of its printed lines run more than a handful of words—like Greek verse in many respects, even though the characters are drawn from instantly identifiable cross-sections of American society and they're talking about wholly contemporary issues, fears and politics.

"I like to write with a lot of line breaks, with an ear for repetition that allows me to play with the form and with variation of theme," Hortua says, describing his style as influenced by the work of Austrian playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard. (His style also bears the obvious imprint of Harold Pinter, another of Hortua's favorites.) Rather than writing a play that connects point A to point Z in standard narrative form, Hortua is fascinated by the idea of plays that are more like music. "It puts the focus back on the language," he says. "It's a way to see if repetition and variance can keep people in their seats."

Here's an example of Hortua's style, from one of the three conversations in Making It, one between a young aspiring actor who is a novice waiter in a posh Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side and the jaded restaurant owner:

JACK: I do smile. DORA: [mimics]"I do smile." So sensitive. Merlot. More. Stop. If you skyrocket to fame. You'll be overpaid and arrogant. You'll devote yourself to a particular cause. Something serious. Animal rights. Abortion. The Internet. Gere and the Tibetans. Brando and the Indians. Bardot and those fucking mink coats. My God. The irony. You become a whore to succeed. And when you finally do. You spend the rest of your life trying to convince the world. You're a saint. [Pops antacid tablet.]

And what is Making Itabout? Most obviously, as the title suggests, it's about the American Dream. Every one of the characters yearns to succeed or has earned some measure of success only to find that it's not as golden as they thought it would be.

Hortua knows the territory. He's a first-generation American, the son of a Colombian native who grew up in stark poverty. The father passed on to the son the drive to make it materially, but with it, came the clear sense that the thirst to make it can create schizoid people—and a schizoid country.

"This obsession with pushing hard and succeeding instills a great work ethic, but it can also make for a rather neurotic country and culture, one that's self-absorbed and negligent in its relations toward other cultures and countries," Hortua said.

And it's self-obsession that "making it" and Making Itare all about. All these characters talk in long rants and are completely wrapped up in their own narratives. But while their desire to speak makes it appear they have a genuine need to connect with others, the simple fact is they can't communicate because they don't listen. At one point, successful playwright Leonard sarcastically rips into his whining protégé, Paolo: "Everything in the world is intended to hurt Paolo. Versus Paolo having a sense of other people's worlds coexisting around him. And guess what? I suffer from it, too. If it's any consolation. But get over it. Grow out of it. Write a play. Move on. Whatever."

"It's about solipsism, self-absorption, narcissism," he said. "I see it in the people around me. I see it in myself. I see it in the culture as a whole. The theme of self-absorption these days is enormous, and that's why I've never thought the three separate conversations in this play are separate. They all parallel one another."

If there's anything Hortua wants audience members to take from the play, it's a greater realization of how self-involved we've all become—how it's so easy to feel that our problems are huge and overwhelming and how, in effect, we are deaf and blind to everyone and everything around us. And how can we break that cycle? Maybe by shutting up, toning down our rants and honestly listening to the people around us.

As Claire, a woman stuck in the middle of a hilariously sad struggle between two men who are uncannily alike, tells her partner, "The two of you should listen to each other. It would help the situation."

Making It at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5500. Opens Fri. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Feb. 24. $19-$51; pay-what-you-will matinee ($5 suggested) Sat., 2 p.m.

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