"If I'm worried about being safe, what is there to look forward to?," mused New York-based playwright Keith Reddin, 30. "That's why we're young: We don't have to worry about that. Now is the time to take risks."
Reddin's latest risk is "Highest Standard of Living" (opening Tuesday at the South Coast Repertory), a "Kafkaesque comedy" inspired by the playwright's 1974 trip to the Soviet Union.
"I had some strange experiences there," he noted. "So it starts off being autobiographical, but then it takes off into complete realms of bizarreness. You know all the insecurities and fears we have about going to an Eastern (Bloc) country: 'They're listening to my phone calls, watching me, they know my every move.' I said to myself, 'What would it be like if everything bad you thought was going to happen, really did happen?' "
The flip side of the Russian sojourn is the main character's equally unsettling re-entry into Western society via New York City, as the oppressive climate of the Soviet Union clashes with modern-day America where "everything is so open, anybody can do what they want. When there's that much freedom, you start thinking about the danger of anarchy.
"I'm not saying this is a realistic portrayal," he stressed. "It's a piece of theater, a play. I never claimed I was writing docudramas. That stuff is better left for television or films; they can create that kind of documentary realism far better. I don't think the stage should do that. We have all the possibilities for being stylized, larger than life."
And, he hopes, challenging.
"I'd like it if people see a play of mine and feel that it's provocative, that there are things to think about. It's not me telling them that there's a right way, a wrong way, correct politics, incorrect politics--I have my own ideas, but I'm not one to judge the audience. What I try to do is agitate them a bit. So I don't write agitprop--just agit.
"I hope they won't accept what I say at face value. When a politician tells me something, I always question it. The irony of the title of this play is that both the United States and Russia say they have the highest standard of living, the most freedoms, that their people are the most well off. And both governments believe you must accept that what they say is good for you. I say judge for yourself."
Reddin's own judges were out in full force--and disagreement--last year as his "Rum and Coke" (on the CIA's plans to thwart Castro at the Bay of Pigs) was presented in in a trio of regional venues, with responses ranging from the politically questioning (locally, at South Coast Rep), to blanket acceptance in New York City, to bomb threats in Miami. ("I guess once you hear something is controversial, has political content, people are going to complain.")
They aren't the only ones.
"The people who really get upset after reading my plays," Reddin said cheerfully, "are the designers. They look at them and say, 'Great, we've got to put a screenplay on stage: 30 characters, 20 scene changes'--and I ask that those changes take no more than five seconds. For people excited by theater, that becomes a challenge, a problem to solve. And when you do that, the audience never knows what's going to come next.
"If you walk in and see a play set on a porch, you know you're going to spend the rest of the evening there. So that becomes very safe--and the audience is let off the hook. But if we start on a ferry going to Leningrad, and the next scene is a Moscow hotel room and we end up on a street corner in New York, it's like a roller-coaster ride. And anything's possible."
It was a sense of those possibilities that attracted Reddin (who'd vacillated between majors in Russian studies and theater at Northwestern) to graduate playwriting courses at Yale Drama School.
Since then, he's happily embraced dual careers: acting in controversial plays (such as Christopher Durang's "Baby With the Bathwater") and writing controversial plays (his Korean War-based "Life and Limb" includes a surrealistic scene where "the characters go to hell and make potholders"). Says Reddin of the juggling act, "If I don't get an acting job for a few months, I think, 'Well, I'm a playwright now. Time to write.' "