A look at the cast and crew bios for the upcoming In a Garden at South Coast Repertory, and it sure looks like several notable film and TV people are taking a momentary break from big paychecks and exposure by slumming it in a theater.
Director David Warren has helmed multiple episodes of Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty. The two lead actors boast scores of film and TV appearances. Writer Howard Korder is a supervising producer on the next big dramatic series from HBO, Boardwalk Empire.
The reality, however, sums up an uncomfortably sober truth about culture in contemporary America: All four men are actually eminently accomplished theater performers whose non-stage work stems from necessity as much as it does choice.
Take Korder. Twenty years ago, when his Search and Destroy premiered on SCR’s stage and two years after his play Boy’s Life earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination, he seemed on the fast track for dramatic success. The problem? No such fast track exists. So, while Korder has continued to write plays the past two decades (most notably The Hollow Lands,his sprawling epic of the American Frontier, which debuted at SCR in 2001), he pays the bills through writing for screens big and small. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t rather spend his time and considerable gifts on plays.
“I inevitably identify myself, still, as a playwright. Whether anyone else does is a matter beyond my control,” says Korder, a remarkably bright and refreshingly self-deprecating New York City native who has pitched his tent in the New Mexican desert since 1994. “For a long time, I thought that calling myself a playwright was dumb; now, I think it’s pathological. But you don’t get to choose your madness. When I began writing, that’s what I was drawn to, and it’s very hard to give it up because it’s still very exciting when something works because there is nothing that compares to the charged energy in a theater.”
Korder’s two previous SCR world premieres, which rank among the most intense and bold in the theater’s history, don’t seem to have much in common with his latest, which centers on the relationship between an ambitious American architect and the Middle Eastern patron who hires him. Though its backdrop is a fictitious Middle Eastern country with a culture, politics and history obviously reminiscent of Iraq, it’s actually intimate compared to his previous works, which were darkly honed vivisections of the American dream and approached epic scale with their multiple locations and characters.
But each in some fashion dealt with the relentless tug-of-war between art as idealized beauty and all-too-human commodity. That theme manifested itself in Search and Destroy via the main characters’ passionate desire to turn a best-selling self-help novel into a major motion picture, a desire derailed by moral corruption and hypocrisy. In The Hollow Lands,the theme surfaced in the equally fevered efforts of American settlers in the 19th Century to create a Xanadu in the untamed regions of a new world, only to leave a trail of senseless butchery in their wake.
In a Garden brings the theme center stage. It pairs Othman, the elusive minister of culture of the nation of Aqaat, with Hackett, a young American architect seeking his first major commission. Othman is charged with preserving and restoring the culture of the Aqaat people, and he attempts to enlist Hackett. But while both men seem earnest about their visions of the project, their increasingly complicated relationship and the project’s true nature move things in a far-more-troubling direction.
It’s hard from a reading of the play to not think of it as an allegory. It’s set in the 1990s in an oil-rich Arab nation awash in ethnic turmoil embarking on a course of modernization while led by a megalomaniac. Propaganda and subterfuge abound, and there’s an increasingly adversarial relationship with a certain Western superpower.
But Korder says that while details will have certain historical resonance, all that is a mere backdrop for a more private story. “The play will inevitably be viewed as a critique of our involvement in Iraq, but that wasn’t my intention at all,” says Korder, who likens his fictitious Aqaat to Costaguana, the fabricated Central American republic in Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novel, Nostromo. Though completely made up, that country still carried the weight of that region’s politics, culture and history.
“Like a lot of my stuff, it’s a dark and mournful comedy that deals with the messy underpinnings of creating something wonderful, but also about the war between artists and patrons and the transience of all things human,” he says. “Certainly, the play will seem to have contemporary, specific overtones, but to me, that’s secondary to the fact it’s an anti-buddy play about two people who come very close, but who don’t really like each other.”
Though Korder wrote In a Garden two years ago while playwright-in-residence at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, the idea had been percolating for some 17 years, after he read a New Yorker article about an Iraqi father-son architect team’s experience in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Much like the American architect in his play, the senior Iraqi architect was given an offer to help rebuild Babylon in the 1980s.
In a Garden begins with an architect striking that deal. It ends amid the dust of personal and national wreckage that, surprisingly, maintains a sense of the question of beauty that sparked it all in the first place. And in typical fashion for one of the most trenchant dramatic writers of his time, Korder leaves it up to the audience to determine whether the beauty that remains is a potentially flowering seed or the last vestige of a slowly expiring germ.
In a Garden at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Opens for previews Sun. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through March 28. $20-$65.
This article appeared in print as “Garden Variety: Playwright Howard Korder’s In a Garden explores the ‘messy underpinnings of creating something wonderful.’”