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Another fine mess we're in

In `Urinetown' and now `Pig Farm,' Greg Kotis merrily splashes his way through the muck.

July 09, 2006|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

New York — For a man who writes about polities where you pay to pee and pigs run amok, Greg Kotis seems like a pretty regular guy. Seated in the darkened house of an off-Broadway theater during tech rehearsals for his new play, "Pig Farm," he calmly taps away on a laptop, making notes to fine-tune the finale.

Onstage, red police lights swirl and sirens scream. Husband Tom tries to hold his household together, while knife-wielding wife Tina takes cover on the landing, dodging bullets. Meanwhile, crazed gun-packing hired hand Tim is sprawled on the floor with blood on his shirt, while lawman Teddy and others are just outside, on the verge of busting in.

All hell has broken loose on a pig farm in hardscrabble America. And this "Pig Farm" is coming together onstage for the first time, at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre in Manhattan. The production, directed by John Rando, is a co-premiere with San Diego's Old Globe, which will present the play in the fall. (A separate production opens at South Coast Repertory in January.)

With his black-rimmed glasses and unassuming manner, the writer of "Urinetown," and now "Pig Farm," could pass for an assistant professor at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. Yet the dark comedy onstage comes from a daring and singularly quirky mind.

What's more, Kotis is as surprised as anyone to see the results of his labors. "Plays, for me, arrive in murky snippets," he says. "I don't really know what they mean or where they're going until I sit with them awhile, write down dialogue and listen to what the characters want to talk about.

"If I had known, after first hearing Tom say to Tim, 'How are them pigs doing?' that I'd be spending the next four years writing an absurdist, two-act, full-length play involving sludge-dumping and a pig run, I don't know that I would have gone through with it."

Like few playwrights today, Kotis, 40, mixes entertainment with social critique. "Greg's pig farm is a metaphor for today's America," says Jerry Patch, resident artistic director of the Old Globe. "We cut corners and put self-interest before communal interest. We're so polarized it takes a civic crisis or an actual disaster to get anything done. On Greg's pig farm -- and in our society -- nobody comes away clean."

The little show that grew big

KOTIS is wearing a well-worn "Law & Order" T-shirt when he sits down in a Times Square office for a conversation about his latest work. The faded shirt is a souvenir from his days as a location scout for the TV series, on and off from 1996 to 2001.

What enabled Kotis to give up that day job, as the "Urinetown" poster on the wall behind him attests, was his and co-creator Mark Hollmann's surprise success. The musical was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won three in 2002: best book of a musical for Kotis; best original musical score for Hollmann and Kotis; and best direction of a musical for Rando.

Kotis, whose background is in improvisational and experimental theater, began working on "Urinetown" shortly after the birth of his first child. At the time he figured it'd be his last play because off-off-off Broadway is no way to make a living. But after the show premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999, it became a cult hit that moved quickly to off-Broadway, then Broadway.

The story was inspired in part by a visit Kotis, who lives in Brooklyn, made to Paris -- where, oui oui, you have to pay to go wee-wee. In "Urinetown," an extreme drought has enabled an unscrupulous mogul to cash in by price gouging for the use of public urinals, thus sparking a community uprising. "It's twisted, funny, and I liked its kind of strange Brechtian style," Rando says. "I hoped it would do well, but I didn't know it was going to be what it turned out to be."

"Urinetown" was the first time Rando worked with Kotis. "With Greg's work," the director says, "the biggest challenge is getting the tone of the play right, getting the look of it right, and convincing the actors that, as ridiculous as the stories can be, they have to be played with the utmost seriousness."

"Urinetown" and "Pig Farm" share a highly stylized commentary on traditional American theatrical forms. " 'Pig Farm' is a twisted version of 'Buried Child' or 'Moon for the Misbegotten,' or all these great American kitchen sink dramas," Rando says. "There's a sort of deconstruction going on."

"What's unique about Greg's plays is how comically they capture today's ethical and political dilemmas," says the Globe's Patch. "He takes America's most popular dramatic form, a melodrama with a clear hero and villains, and blurs the lines between them. He undercuts the form and sends up its cliches."

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