Corrections or additions?

Author: Simon Saltzman. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January

12, 2000. All rights reserved.

Suburbia’s Sinister Side

Audiences can expect to feel a chill in the air when

the vast stage of the McCarter Theater is turned into an intimate

120-seat space this week. It won’t be for a lack of heat, but because

the three one-act plays by Doug Wright, under the umbrella title

"Not

Suitable for Children," are designed to send a chill up your

spine,

as they reveal the sinister side of suburbia. The Texas-born

playwright

says that he has focused his attention and dramatic skills on certain

and unusual aspects of modern suburban life. Unusual, indeed: In each

play, says Wright, "some sort of unspeakable tragedy seems to

befall upper-class suburbanites."

In the first play, "Lot 13: The Bone Violin," a young violin

prodigy vexes his parents, supersedes them, and pushes his talent

to the limit and beyond in all kinds of compelling ways. In the second

play, "Baby Talk," a pregnancy goes devilishly awry when the

fetus begins to talk. And in the third, "Wildwood Park," a

real estate deal takes on a macabre edge when the house in question

is also a crime scene, and the prospective buyer’s curiosity gets

the best of him. Audiences who attended the staged readings series

a couple of seasons back will remember "Wildwood Park."

Commissioned

by McCarter, this is the play’s first full production. This is true

also of "Baby Talk," which was first heard this fall in the

series "Ghost Stories."

"They’re all disquieting little plays," says Wright, who feels

that since tragedy befalls children in them, he chose the warning

title "Not Suitable for Children."

Although Wright refers to the "quietly unnerving" plays by

Harold Pinter as role models for the sinister style he most admires,

he sees himself as "a more florid writer." While also

acknowledging

the darkly comic plays of Joe Orton and the extravagant comedies of

Charles Ludlam as his favorites, Wright says it is always good to

re-read "the meat and potatoes" Ibsen, who reminds us of the

rudiments of structure.

Each of Wright’s plays is structured differently. He describes the

"The Bone Violin" as almost a piece of choral music, like

performing a poem. "Wildwood Park" is more conventional

because

it is two actors in an acknowledged situation in continuous time

talking

to each other, while "Baby Talk" is a dramatization of a

psychiatric

case history. "While they all have a macabre edge, they are all

formally quite different."

Hardly macabre is Wright’s academic life. Not wanting "to malign

Texas," Wright says he did "escape to go to Yale when he was

18." With art history and theater as his undergraduate major,

Wright continued his "tunnel vision" at New York University,

where he received his masters in playwrighting and screenwriting in

1987.

Wright’s relationship with McCarter began in 1993 when he was spending

the year at Princeton University as a fellow in the Alfred Hodder

Writers Fellowship program. During that time, Wright completed

"Quills,"

his "labor of love," as he calls it, a full-length play that

was subsequently produced by the New York Theater Workshop and

numerous

regional theaters in the states and abroad. Wright has since written

his own screenplay for the film version that stars Kate Winslet,

Geoffrey

Rush, and Michael Caine. "Even I haven’t seen the film yet,"

says Wright, who expects it to be released in the fall of 2000.

It was in 1993 that Wright met McCarter’s artistic

director

Emily Mann, who, he says, "became a very supportive presence in

my life." Another advocate of Wright is McCarter’s literary

manager

Janice Paran, whose idea it was to put three of Wright’s short plays

together and create an evening. As one-act plays can be orphans since

they are not easy to produce, Wright says, "It’s really gratifying

to have McCarter endorse three of them all at once and give them a

full production."

Because of his association with McCarter and Princeton, Wright is

getting the opportunity to direct his plays, thereby making his

professional

debut as a director. "If Martha Stewart can write the recipe,

chances are she can bake the cake," is Wright’s glib response

to my question whether it is wise for a writer to be entrusted to

direct his own plays. Wright knows how rare an experience that can

be. Luckily for him, Mann has written and directed her own work. So

Wright feels this is the reason she has allowed him the luxury.

Although

Mann and Paran are a presence, he says he is pleased that "they

aren’t sitting on my shoulder to see that I behave."

Although Wright says he hasn’t directed a play since college, he sees

this step, while acknowledging it as not the norm, might well begin

to be. "A lot of us entered the theater with the expectation that

we would be able to craft plays, including writing, directing,

designing

etc. It’s the graduate school that makes you choose and define your

role when you are sitting there with the application and it says

please

check one — Actor, Director, Writer. You find yourself making

an artificial designation. In a way it’s a false construct. In

Shakespeare’s

day, playwrights staged their own work," says Wright, who hopes

in the 21st century that writing can still "lead to a more organic

experience."

He does see the loss of objectivity as one of the potential pitfalls

for a director staging his own work. But with Mann and Paran around

he doesn’t see that happening. Wright says he can turn to them and

ask, "Do I have appropriate distance? Is this moving too quickly?

Is this moment too slow?" Because Wright is serving as both writer

and director, Mann and Paran provide the necessary third eye,

especially

— as Wright puts it — "if I find myself falling a little

too much in love with my own language."

Wright also has enjoyed being part of the casting process, along with

resident producer Mara Issacs. "As a playwright you always have

input, but this was the first time I was part of the one-on-one with

actors in an audition situation." The acting ensemble for "Not

Suitable for Children" features three Obie Award winners —

Joanna P. Adler, Jefferson Mays, and Tom Nelis — plus stage,

screen

and television actors Olivia Birkelund and Jonathan Walker, all

doubling

in roles.

One hopes that the plays, which will be presented through Sunday,

January 30, will be amusing and disquieting, and also raise

provocative

questions about the culture. When I suggest to Wright that his tone

is so jolly that he doesn’t sound at all sinister, he responds that

"all my venom goes on the page." We agree that there’s nothing

like venom to accompany the chills.

— Simon Saltzman

Not Suitable for Children, McCarter Theater, 91

University Place, 609-258-2787. An evening of three short plays begins

today and plays through January 30. $20 adults; $10 students.

Thursday,

January 13, 8 p.m.


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