Photo by Christofer Gross/SCRJerry Patch is feeling like Bill Bennett with a bucket of quarters in front of the Circus Circus slots—except sober and not a hypocrite.
Director of the Pacific Playwrights Festival, South Coast Repertory's annual showcase of new plays, Patch figures this year's lineup is "probably the best group of plays we've ever had. Most of these plays are midcareer works from writers who have already found their voices and their concerns. There isn't a weak play in the bunch, and we haven't always been able to say that."
The playwrights on display this weekend are Nilo Cruz, Amy Freed, Howard Korder, Donald Margulies and Jeff Whitty. All but Whitty (whom Patch describes as an "abnormally talented playwright with an incredible sense of language") are in the upper echelon of contemporary American dramatists. Those five writers join Yale student Rolin Jones' The Intelligent Life of Jenny Chow and Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, both of which are receiving full-scale productions throughout the month.
Cruz is the buzz writer, recently collecting a Pulitzer for his Anna In the Tropics—quite an achievement given the play's appearance in just one venue, a 100-seat theater in Florida. (SCR will produce the play full-scale next season.) Patch says the Pulitzer "came as a complete surprise, but I knew right away this was his breakthrough play. He has always had that wonderfully poetic gift to write with so much passion and intensity. It's very specifically Cuban-American, but I think Nilo has gotten into a place where August Wilson has been for years. He hasn't given up a thing in representing his culture to a greater culture, but this play crosses over. That is a great challenge for any writer coming out of a subculture or minority culture: to give that culture a voice that is accessible to every citizen and every playgoer. It's a very hard thing to do."
Winning the Pulitzer pushed Cruz into the front ranks of American dramatists, a place already occupied by three of his Pacific Playwrights Festival colleagues—Freed, Korder and Margulies. While Margulies' Brooklyn Boyis essentially a first draft, Freed's and Korder's plays are good to go. Freed, whose Freedomlandand The Beard of Avon were huge hits at SCR, returns with what sounds like her most promising work to date. Safe In Hellis a delirious riff on the life and times of the notorious 17th-century American preacher Cotton Mather and his father, Increase. At its deepest level, the play probes two diverse strains of American spirituality: puritanical restraint and the idealism of colonial settlements. "She looks at how those strains have worked their way into American culture," Patch said. "Through it all, she's saying something about the nature of America and our spiritual history."
But Safe In Hell isn't a fire-and-brimstone piece. Freed has basically re-imagined the era of The Crucible, taking the story Arthur Miller viewed with such sobriety and lending "her Mel Brooks style to it," Patch said.
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Korder hasn't written anything new for the stage since his The Hollow Lands was unfairly savaged by reviewers three years ago. His latest, Sea of Tranquility, isn't nearly as epic in scope or theme, and it's a comedy, but one that veers closer to Samuel Beckett than Neil Simon.
"This is a comedy, but any Howard Korder comedy has its cynical or ironic side," Patch said. "Here's a man, Ben, who does everything right and who has the best intentions, but he keeps getting fucked, no matter what he does. So it's a play about endurance, about a man who has every reason to say, 'Fuck it' but doesn't. In that sense, then, it is Becketty: 'I can't go on; I'll go on.'"
Whitty is an emerging playwright whose The Hiding Place will be directed in a workshop production by Mark Rucker.
The Sixth Annual Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555.The Hiding Place, Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7:45 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $12. Readings of Safe In Hell, Fri., 1 p.m.;Anna In the Tropics, Fri., 3:30 p.m.;Sea of Tranquility, Sat., 10:30 a.m.;Brooklyn Boy, Sun., 11 a.m. $8 per reading.