Jul 3, 2014

Familiar Strangers

One challenge of my job trying to cover theater with a national perspective, both at American Theatre and, to a certain degree, at the NY Times, is how to keep tabs on work I can't actually see. With few exceptions (On the Boards, or this amazing Einstein on the Beach video, available for free viewing only through July 7, I've been informed), I can't look at a screener of plays outside the boroughs of New York, and my professional travel budget--well, let's just say it's non-lavish. So I do a lot of play reading and review reading, relying on buzz I hear around the halls of TCG; from the folks on the American Theatre play selection committee (whose ranks I only recently joined); and from contacts in the field, many of which I made in my long time on the West Coast, others here in New York, and some at the annual TCG conferences.

The conference in Chicago a few years back was a particularly fertile one on that score, leading me to discover two Windy City-bred talents in particular, both of whom I wrote features on: Tanya Saracho and Laura Eason. Both writers were more or less immediately snatched up by TV (Eason by House of Cards, where she's written some of the juiciest Claire Underwood material, and Saracho by a slate of shows including Devious Maids, Looking, and now Girls), and both writers have continued their theatrical careers apace. Now, this summer happily marks the Off-Broadway debuts of two of their signature works. Saracho's Mala Hierba, a thorny, steamy play about class and sex that bowled me over on the page, and has reportedly been a great calling card for Saracho's TV career but has never gotten a full staging, starts previews on July 14 at Second Stage's uptown space.

Meanwhile, at Second Stage's midtown space, Eason's prickly two-hander Sex With Strangers marks the splashy Gotham bow of a play that, as I learned in a recent interview with her for the paper of record, also opened doors for Eason, including landing her the House of Cards gig. SWS was staged before, in 2011 at Steppenwolf, in a production I thought didn't live up to the play's promise on the page (and my happening to catch that show onstage was a fluke--I've literally seen about three shows in Chicago in my life). Here's hoping that the new SWS, which has an inspired cast in Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen, does better by the play.

In my Times piece on Eason, I went further into a theme she'd mentioned to me before: that she has an easier time writing male characters than female ones. The one exception she's found has been House of Cards's leading lady:
“Claire has been very exciting to me and felt very easy to write, which is a little strange,” said Ms. Eason, who was quick to credit [Robin] Wright and the creator of the series, Beau Willimon, for the character’s essence. “It’s been thrilling to work on a female character so unapologetically strong, bold, ambitious. We’ve never, ever had a conversation about, ‘Is she likable?’”
You can read the whole piece here.

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