Clare Barron

New Plays Showcased Next Weekend

Preview of Contemporary American Voices Festival, Long Wharf Theatre

This week the Long Wharf Theatre opens its 2016-17 season with the Contemporary American Voices Festival, a two-day presentation of new plays. In its second year, the Festival seeks to introduce “adventurous and innovative” new work by emerging playwrights whose plays have not been seen in the area. This year the plays featured are Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi, on Friday, September 9th at 7 p.m., Jeff Augustin’s Last Tiger in Haiti, on Saturday, September 10th, at 5 p.m., and Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, on Saturday, September 10th, at 8:30 p.m. The Friday and Saturday evening presentations will be preceded by a Happy Hour reception, featuring a cash bar with beer from Thimble Islands Brewery, and food for sale from Katalina’s Bakery and Stellato’s.

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In preparation for the Festival, Long Wharf’s Literary Director Christine Scarfuto read over 100 scripts, looking for the kind of plays that would add significantly to the Long Wharf season, then she and Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein chose the finalists. The staged readings have directors and involve actors, who will be at music stands giving dramatic readings of the script. The amount of staging, Scarfuto says, varies but “all three plays are narrative-driven and beautifully told.” All share an emphasis on stories worth telling and the power of the stories is what drew Scarfuto to them.

The featured plays are very different, but all involve young characters. Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi is a play of multiple generations within a family, set in the Deep South and spanning the 1960s to the 1990s so that we see characters at different ages, from teens to adults. Looking back on issues of Civil Rights through one family’s experiences and “descent into ruin,” the play explores, Scarfuto says, a subject very relevant to our contemporary times. Scarfuto describes the play as “heartfelt, with lots of emotion and life.” The play won the 2015 Leah Ryan Prize. Among Killebrew’s awards are two New York Innovative Theater Awards and two Fringe Excellence Awards. Miller, Mississippi is directed by Lee Sunday Evans.

Last Tiger in Haiti, by Jeff Augustin, is set on the final night of Kanaval in Haiti, when a group of restaveks—abandoned children living in servitude—share imaginative stories; the play then takes us to 15 years later and the way reality and fantasy interacts. Scarfuto describes the play as “wildy imaginative” and “a very important story to tell” that looks at the cultural value of storytelling. The play will be given several productions in the coming year and Augustin is the Skank Playwright-in-Residence at Playwrights Horizon; his work has been produced at Roundabout Underground and Humana and elsewhere. Last Tiger in Haiti is directed by Yale School of Drama alum and former Yale Cabaret Co-Artistic Director Lileana Blain-Cruz.

Dance Nation, by Clare Barron, centers on a pre-teen dance competition and looks at “ambition, competition, and growing up.” It’s a play, Scarfuto says, that looks at competition as an element of female empowerment but also at “unpopular truths” about teens in our day. While “not necessarily realism,” the play is contemporary and casts actors of all ages and races to play the young girls. Barron is a playwright and an actor, and Long Wharf theater-goers may remember Barron from her performance in Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant. Dance Nation co-won the inaugural Relentless Award, established in honor of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and is directed by Lee Sunday Evans, an OBIE Award-winning director.

The Contemporary American Voices festival reflects Long Wharf’s commitment to new play development, a mission that, Scarfuto says, was difficult to pursue during the recession and its drop in arts funding. “New plays can be risky, commercially,” Scarfuto says, but, as the Long Wharf’s literary manager since March, with an MFA in Dramaturgy from the University of Iowa, she sees the Festival as the “first step in introducing new playwrights and plays and helping to build audience interest.” As Edelstein says, “receptivity to new writing represents the very best of remedies for spiritual, emotional, and intellectual stagnation.”

Staged readings are excellent opportunities to become familiar with new playwrights and to experience a play in the early stages of its path to production. Each reading will be followed by a Talk Back that will include the playwright, giving audiences a rare chance to ask questions about a play’s themes and background and gestation. Suggested donation, $5.

For more information: Long Wharf Theatre

Contemporary American Voices Festival
September 9 and 10, 2016
Long Wharf Theatre

On the Job

Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant is a thoughtful comedy, a consideration of the kinds of relationships that form in the workplace. In a world where “job security” is a great desiderata, one would expect that meaningful relationships at work would also be desired. Such seems to be not always the case, and that leaves room for a play like Schreck’s, a way of investigating the interplay of personality and opportunity on the job. That’s not to say that The Consultant is a job-based play, as in an exposé of a certain profession. The main players at Sutton, Feingold, and McGrath—such as the boss Harold—are never portrayed. We’re viewing the middle management level but we spend most of our time in the reception area where Tania (Cassie Beck), an NYU grad with a Comp Lit degree, mans the ship, sorta. Tania’s not very good at her job and from that follows much of what happens here. One of the subtle aspects of the play is that it shows us people who, in being themselves, aren’t quite what their job descriptions require. This isn’t a play about the dehumanization that takes place in the workplace but rather about the human situations that fleetingly come and go while the world of work churns on. Sometimes, indeed, work seems to be an inconvenience even while on the job.

SFM is a pharmaceutical ad agency. A business that we might imagine to be fairly flush, as such things go, but even such a major contributor to our collective well-being is feeling the pinch in the “global downturn” of 2009, which is to say that no one we meet feels quite so secure as they might otherwise. In particular, Jun Suk (Nelson Lee), who has taken on the clients of the recently departed Barbara (Lynne McCullough), is having problems. He’s a capable designer but not a capable presenter of his ideas. Enter Amelia (Clare Barron), hired to be “the consultant” who will help him get his act together. Amelia, a student at NYU, is more or less moonlighting here, as her real expertise is ESL tutoring. No matter, Jun Suk is desperate for a helping hand and, while not enthusiastic about her or her coaching, lets it continue, largely because of the earnest efforts of Mark (Darren Goldstein), a manager, to get him some help. Jun Suk doesn’t suffer fools gladly and that’s the sort of thing that can sour your audience in a corporate presentation.

As Amelia, Clare Barron is perfect. She has a girlish earnestness that flirts with cluelessness but comes off as authenticity. Amelia’s not really faking anything and that in itself seems a breath of fresh air in this environment. Barron has a knack for non-reaction reactions that does a lot for her role as witness more than catalyst—though in one key scene she unwittingly helps to bring down the “friends” she has tried to make here, particularly Tania and Mark. Such unwittingness is what keeps this play interesting. Rather than watching for “agendas,” we’re watching how people undermine themselves and others even when trying to be helpful.

As Jun Suk, Nelson Lee has the role with the most leverage, so to speak. Do we warm to him or not? He’s a prickly guy and yet, because he seems the most put-upon, we tend to hope he’ll be ok. This isn’t the kind of play where romance bells are going to sound for Jun Suk and his consultant, so the suspense is in whether or not Amelia’s work with him pays off. Romance might be happening between Tania and Mark, but on the other hand, it could just be a shack-up with consequences, or not.

Schreck’s dialogue has an ear for natural wit, the kind of comebacks that occur normally. It’s not sit-com humor and, as directed by Kip Fagan, everyone is sorta likeable, but also at times questionable. It’s a lot like life in that way. When Amelia, filling in for Tania, meets the formidable Barbara, we get a whiff of life outside the ad agency—Barbara seems to have become some kind of self-help guru and Amelia might be a likely candidate for her teachings. The situations in The Consultant suggest a world where no one is happy with their jobs and everyone is worried about keeping them anyway. Schreck wants to suggest the possibilities that come when things crash.

From that point of view, the play ends on a positive note, as the last scene takes place outside SFM with perhaps the beginnings of a bond between Amelia and Tania, to convey the “family” of co-workers. But the scene that struck me most between the two was when Tania—stressed out at losing her job and losing Mark’s attentions—gives Amelia, who is feeling newly empowered à la Barbara, the cold-shoulder, though Amelia clearly wants to be friends. It’s a moment where all the good will in the world doesn’t work if someone—in this case Tania—won’t let you in. True, that’s part of family and friendships too, not just workplace bonhomie, but it spoke volumes about the difficulty of relationships that take place only “on stage”—on the job.

As a staged space, Andrew Boyce’s set design and Matt Frey’s lighting are very realistic, so much so that when Amelia and Jun Suk go into the conference room we overhear them through miked pick-ups. This has the effect of putting distance between the common space of the reception area and the inner sanctum of the conference room, which made the interactions in the latter seem more forced—it was easy to understand why no one would want to stay in there. Outside, in Tania’s space, is where all the meaningful slippages occur, including the after effects of hard partying by Mark and Jun Suk.

The Consultant has the feel of “a couple months in the life”—just time enough to see everyone’s fortunes change without being able to say for certain “what next.” We begin and end in medias res. Will our jobs still be here tomorrow? Will our relationships? Will we? Heidi Schreck’s play asks us to think about the implications of those questions and the answers that matter.

 

The Consultant By Heidi Schreck Directed by Kip Fagen

Set Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design: Matt Frey; Composer & Sound Design: Daniel Kluger; Production Stage Manager: Sunneva Stapleton; Casting: Calleri Casting

The Long Wharf Theatre January 8-February 9, 2013