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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
Suitable for Children," are designed to send a chill up your
as they reveal the sinister side of suburbia. The Texas-born
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."
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
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
it is two actors in an acknowledged situation in continuous time
to each other, while "Baby Talk" is a dramatization of a
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
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
his "labor of love," as he calls it, a full-length play that
was subsequently produced by the New York Theater Workshop and
regional theaters in the states and abroad. Wright has since written
his own screenplay for the film version that stars Kate Winslet,
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
Emily Mann, who, he says, "became a very supportive presence in
my life." Another advocate of Wright is McCarter’s literary
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
Because of his association with McCarter and Princeton, Wright is
getting the opportunity to direct his plays, thereby making his
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.
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,
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
check one — Actor, Director, Writer. You find yourself making
an artificial designation. In a way it’s a false construct. In
day, playwrights staged their own work," says Wright, who hopes
in the 21st century that writing can still "lead to a more organic
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,
— 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,
and television actors Olivia Birkelund and Jonathan Walker, all
One hopes that the plays, which will be presented through Sunday,
January 30, will be amusing and disquieting, and also raise
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
University Place, 609-258-2787. An evening of three short plays begins
today and plays through January 30. $20 adults; $10 students.
January 13, 8 p.m.
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