Photo by Chris Frazer SmithA consummate traveler, playwright Joe Penhall finds downtime difficult. So with rehearsals for the US premiere of his London hit Dumb Show still a week off, we meet for lunch at Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove: fish cakes, steamed rice, pad Thai. Something like relief—or noodles—washes over Penhall's face as he starts to eat and talk.
"I had a peripatetic childhood," he says as a beginning, "so I recently told my agent to make traveling to see productions of my plays part of any contract I might have with a theater that wants to do my work. I want to see how it affects different communities in Santa Ana, Notting Hill, Japan or Broadway." Penhall's plays follow his life; thus far, his fans and career are all the better for a frenetic existence. Born in London to a "wonderful, affectionate family," Penhall moved to Australia as a child, then back to England at 20: on the dole when he wasn't working odd jobs. His oddest, a pizza parlor gig that erupted into rivalry with another shop—and the trashing of his home—sparked his first play, the one-act Wild Turkey. The stage, he says, is the ideal venue to expand upon life.
"Theater belongs to all of us. It is the one place we have where we can relate to people's humanity at its rawest," Penhall says. "Where it can be divested of fashionable quirks. That's what excites me about theater. That and meeting people I like, having a drink with people I like . . . I wouldn't do it otherwise."
Continuing to mix life and work, he landed a stint as a journalist for The Hammersmith Guardian: council meetings, local news and the occasional celeb interview. This, plus his friendship with a schizophrenic man whom he didn't know was sick, subsequent time working with the mentally ill—and years of seeing government relief policies fail—became the basis for his second, very personal, play, Some Voices.It kick-started a theatrical revolution, together with works by his friend Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson and others—changing British theater seemingly overnight. Branded "In-Yer-Face" by critics, it was provocative, adrenalin-fueled work from young writers looking unblinkingly at the world. And it propelled Penhall to theatrical stardom. When Stephen Daldry, the Royal Court's artistic director, called Penhall to tell him he was producing Some Voices at the Royal Court Upstairs, Penhall quit journalism and has been writing for the theater ever since. His third offering, 1995's Pale Horse, was another hit, and he handily weathered a bit of critical storm over his fourth and fifth plays, 1997's Love and Understanding and 1998's The Bullet, which ran into resistance from theaters and artistic directors confused at their direction.
Now, after a Some Voices film in 2000—and the enormously successful Blue/Orange, a nuanced meditation about a mentally ill black man and the two white doctors battling over whether to treat him or dump him onto the street, comes his latest hit Dumb Show,which is in previews at South Coast Repertory and opens this weekend. An uber-black comedy about a pair of shifty tabloid hacks who trick a celebrity comedian into confessing his affairs and drug use, it was sparked by his fascination with the media's machinations and disgust with Blair government spin—how it and the U.S. have fed off each other over the past several years. England's celebrity jones is far worse than our own, Penhall says.
"In the U.S., you have the Enquirer and those little supermarket magazines. In England, they're daily tabloids," he says. "There's four of them . . . and they come out every day. That's a lot of innuendo and rumor. They're not a sideshow, they're the main media." And, perhaps letting his days as a reporter show, Penhall has done rewrites for this U.S. premiere, something he never does. "It's still the same play that people saw in London, but there were three or four parts that could be expanded on," he says, "a few points where the scene just ended, some fuzzy reasoning, wiggles and plot points that weren't figured out. It was only about 90 percent ready when it opened in London, but the U.S. production is 100 percent ready."
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In his own way, Penhall is ready for the U.S. too. Film offers have flooded in in the past few years: he adapted The Long Firm and Enduring Love and is currently considering projects from Warner Bros. and golden boy producer Scott Rudin. Considering is, perhaps, the key word.
"The theater eats up words. Film is suspicious and wary of words," Penhall says weeks later, when we meet over wine at Papa Hassan's in Orange. "Film is limited in what it can do because there's so much money wrapped up in it. The making of art is secondary, if it happens at all." Which makes it somewhat ironic that he's opened up a relationship with this industry, adapting other people's work. I ask him if he'd ever let another screenwriter adapt his work.
"Never," he says. "Not in a million years."
DUMB SHOW AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. PREVIEW PERFORMANCE THURS., SEPT. 29; OPENS FRI. TUES.-FRI., 7:45 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 2 & 7:45 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 16. $24-$55. OPENING NIGHT SOLD OUT.