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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 16, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From Princeton to Off-Off

The next best thing to having your play open on Broadway

is having it open Off-Broadway. The next best thing after that, as

you may surmise, is to have it open Off-Off Broadway at HERE. And

that is where 1988 Princeton graduate Ellen Melaver is seeing her

play, "The Right Way to Sue," produced. The place is HERE

Arts Center, which has housed some of New York’s most daring and unique

theater, including the initial production of "The Vagina Monologues,"

Basil Twist’s "Symphonie Fantastique," and Camryn Manheim’s

"Wake Up! I’m Fat." Melaver, who is getting used to being

"Off-Off," has already seen her plays produced way off in

London, Paris, Tel Aviv, and at the Avignon Festivals.

"I’m translated in four languages, she said during our recent

phone conversation, reflecting amusingly on her unintentional "international

career." "It’s weird. I didn’t set out to have an international

career. But after I had a play accepted at a one-person play festival

in Tel Aviv, a French director heard about it and did in Paris. Then

a director-playwright friend of mine took a bunch of my plays to Hungary

where they were produced in Budapest. "I hope that I’m not going

to be one of those playwrights who gets known more abroad than at

home."

At home, "The Right Way to Sue," is being produced in association

with HERE by the Obie award winning company New Georges, where Melaver

is the literary manager. Melaver, who in 1995 was playwright-in-residence

at the University of Iowa and Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop, says her

zany play fits perfectly into New Georges’ mission to produce imaginative

new plays by women in various downtown New York venues and where Melaver’s

previous plays, "Inside Out," "On the Brink," and

"Sophie’s Voice," have been seen.

Although New Georges has a permanent workspace in the Flatiron District,

it has produced 14 world premiere full-length plays and eight festivals

of short works and performance pieces at such spaces as the Ohio Theater

and Soho Rep, including new works by Diana Son, Elyse Singer, Neena

Beber, Stephanie Fleischmann, and Leigh Fondakowski.

There doesn’t appear to be any lack of imagination in "The Right

Way to Sue," which Melaver says is about an ambitious Upper Westsider

with a career, a co-op, a husband, and a new baby. But Maggie keeps

losing the baby — in cabs, at the dry cleaners, even in the cheese

case at Zabar’s. When a pissed-off teenager from Atlantic City named

Sue steals the baby, Maggie and husband Tom are forced beyond the

confines of Manhattan into the wilds of New Jersey. Guided by a hairspray

addict and a male Super-Mom, they take a lot of wrong turns before

finally regrouping as an anything-but-functional family. It is, during

the course of their comedic travels that Melaver says she wanted to

explore how this woman’s priorities had gotten screwed up.

Described as a madcap urban comedy about family, career,

parenthood and trying to make the right choices, "The Right Way

to Sue," is somewhat of a departure for Melaver who says she writes

"in a bunch of different styles." Giving an affirmative "No,"

to my question whether she was prolific, Melaver won’t blame that

on her day jobs as an adjunct professor teaching play writing at SUNY,

Old Westbury, and freshman composition classes at the College of New

Rochelle. Melaver says that it’s the emotional journey that makes

her write plays as opposed to other literary forms. Citing (with a

giggle) her favorite playwright Shakespeare "for being good and

prolific," she says, "I didn’t start writing seriously until

after college."

As literary manager of New Georges, Melaver says she reads tons and

tons of scripts as well as farming them out to interns. But New Georges’

artistic director Susan Bernfield picked "The Right Way to Sue"

to end the company’s ninth season. Picking the right director for

your world premiering play can be chancey. But after reading it, Anne

Kauffman, a Usual Suspect at New York Theater Workshop; a member of

Soho Rep Writers and Directors Lab; the Lincoln Center directors’ lab,

and the Drama League, called Melaver to say that she thought the play

was hilarious. That’s all Melaver says she needed to hear before

they plunged into the production.

Melaver says she was pleased that Kauffman, who recently directed

"Fear and Misery of the Third Reich," would not only direct

"The Right to Sue," but act as her dramaturg. Kauffman agreed

with Melaver that this was not a normal play and that "we are

not going to turn it into something normal." "She must have

put the fear of God into the actors, because they got the style and

the pace of the play right from the first reading." The cast,

which includes Kelly AuCoin, Stephanie Brooke, Robert English, T.R.

Knight, Caitlin Miller, and Jennifer Morris, has been chosen to fulfill

the requirements of this dark comedy. Because Melaver has directed

shows at Princeton, the Edinburgh Festival, and Atlanta, she says she

understands the rehearsal process better and is particularly responsive

to Kauffman’s suggestions.

That is, except when it comes to removing a joke: "There may be

a laugh there." She concedes that the director usually wins that

round.

A native of Savannah, Georgia, Melaver has been married for five years

to actor and playwright Jon Krupp. Since they live in New York with

their "mean little cat," I’m surprised at Melaver’s dream

for her future: "I want to grow old as an artist and live near

the water." Considering that Manhattan is surrounded by water,

all Melaver has to do now to fulfill her dream is to keep on writing

plays. Or as Dorothy might say, There is no place like HERE.

— Simon Saltzman

The Right Way to Sue (May 19 through June 9), HERE, 145

Sixth Avenue (between Spring and Broome). $15; $12 for students and

seniors.


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