An Energetic Presence

When South Coast Repertory, on the strength of his critically lauded production of The Hiding Place, commissioned the young Jeff Whitty to write a new play for them back in 2003, “I had 75 cents in the bank,” Whitty says. Like most on-the-cusp theater writers, he had been lurching from play to play, supplementing the meager income from his writing with acting gigs and the usual waiting of tables (unusual was his short stint as a go-go dancer). Then an agent for William Morris got hold of a copy of a script Whitty had written called The Plank Project—a very funny parody of a very serious play, The Laramie Project, about the murder of Matthew Shepard—which, Whitty says, “I tossed off in a few days,” as a lark. That crucial connection led to Whitty being asked to write the “book”—that is, the story and dialogue—for a musical that was being worked up by composers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. The musical, which came to be called Avenue Q, became a runaway Broadway hit, is now playing in its third year and spawned a concurrent production at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas as well as a new one beginning this June in London. And, oh, yeah, Whitty won the 2004 Tony Award for best book of a musical. Now he's got a new play at SCR, The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, and more than 75 cents in the bank.

Whitty, who is 34 but looks maybe 27, is an energetic presence: apple-cheeked, with glittering blue eyes and a wide, ingenuous smile. Refreshingly unfazed by his brush with Broadway glory, he's enormously grateful to SCR for having faith in him during his pre-Avenue Q days, and says of its mounting of the new play, “This has been the best experience of my life.” This has something to do with his collaborators, among them veteran director Bill Rauch and the classically trained and talented Susannah Schulman (who plays Hedda), but it also has to do with SCR's pull-out-the-stops production. “There are dozens of great costumes, and you should see the set!” Whitty enthuses.

The set had better be good, since the play takes place in a “cul-de-sac for tragic women,” a kind of parodic hell for fictional characters who are doomed to perpetually re-enact their dramatic fates—Hedda Gabler's, you may recall, is to point a gun at her temple and fire it—which makes the play a kind of dramatic love child of Sartre's No Exit and Groundhog Day.The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler is an homage to/parody of Henrik Ibsen's monument to modern alienation and panic, Hedda Gabler, which Whitty says he was “obsessed by” ever since he played Hedda's husband Tesman in a production years ago. But Whitty transforms Ibsen's intractably tragic sensibility—much as The Plank Project transformed The Laramie Project—into good-humored postmodern farce. (This is a play where, among other goings-on, Medea and Mammy [from Gone With the Wind] show up to help Hedda escape her cul-de-sac.) Still, the play is moving—”I cried myself through the whole second act,” Whitty says of his monitoring of the first night's preview—and demonstrates Whitty's conviction that “real emotion comes through much better through humor” than straight sincerest drama.

That certainly seems to have been the aesthetic formula for Avenue Q, a play whose success seemed to have come out of the blue. But it's not just the humor that's driven the play's enduring run. Avenue Q updates the “young man from the provinces” story for the Gen X/Y audience, plopping a recent college graduate at the gates of the big city and having the cast sing songs like “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?”, “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” and “It Sucks to Be Me.” The play, in fact, works off its audience's knowledge of both the blithe pop-culture allusiveness of The Simpsons and the innocent earnestness of Sesame Street, with speaking parts taken up as much by puppets as by live actors. But what has moved audiences, particularly the under-30 generation, is how Whitty has touched its sweet spot, gathered and articulated its peculiar combination of knowingness, innocence and apprehension about the future into a form that's charmingly cathartic. As Linda Winer pointed out in Newsday, Avenue Q is an “entry-level musical for overeducated, underemployed college graduates with no prospects but plenty of idealism.”

The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler promises to have that same sort of appeal, making Whitty one of the few up-and-coming playwrights who can speak to an under-30 audience. God knows that's performing an invaluable service to theater. But with Hollywood banging on his door, will Whitty stick to the genre that got him here? “Oh, absolutely,” he says. “People have an ancient need for theater that will never die.” In fact, he says, the computer-driven graphics that supposedly dazzle movie audiences (and dull them to live theater) will likely backfire. “CGI is killing the movies,” Whitty says, and is going to drive audiences back to the aliveness and presentness of the stage. “Oh no,” he says, ever enthusiastic, “I'm very optimistic about the future of theater.”

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