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Theater project holds a mirror up to the recession

'The Great Recession,' premiering off-off-Broadway, brings together six up-and-coming playwrights and a troupe of unpaid young actors. Waiting in the wings are their own real-life hard times.

November 20, 2009|By Geraldine Baum
  • Sarah Stephens and Robert Grant rehearse a fight scene for one of the plays in "The Great Recession."
Sarah Stephens and Robert Grant rehearse a fight scene for one of the plays… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — Two young actors are rehearsing a pivotal fight scene in a new short play opening tonight at a small theater in Lower Manhattan. They are portraying out-of-work laborers from the Midwest who have been flown to New York to participate in a kill-or-be-killed social experiment that earns the survivor $25,000.

For what feels like a very long minute, the actors struggle, their faces and bodies contorted, over a (fake) knife until finally they crash onto the stage floor. The thump shakes every inch of this 75-seat theater. But that is not what impresses the playwright, Adam Rapp, who is also the director.

"What's great about what just happened," Rapp later tells the actors from his front-row perch, "is that we, in the risers, felt that. . . . The more you jump . . . the more we feel this."

"This," in this case, is not just blood lust, but the universal desperation of people being swallowed up by financial chaos.

Last winter as the American economy seized up, the Flea Theater commissioned six rising playwrights, all beacons of New York's off- and off-off-Broadway theater scene, to write 10-minute plays for a series titled "The Great Recession."

The stories were to be tailored not to fiftysomethings losing a career after decades, but to twentysomethings barely out of college and foundering in a job market nobody prepared them for. The playwrights were given until the end of the summer to see if they could come up with something expressly for the Flea's young, unpaid acting troupe, the Bats.

At first, Rapp, who has written a dozen plays and several novels, was reluctant to attempt such a grand topic for so brief a time frame.

"When I heard 10 minutes, I thought, 'Oh, can it be 20?' " said Rapp, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.

But he got right on it.

"Yes, commissions aren't that much money, but at this point I'll take anything," said Rapp, who was paid $800 for his 12-minute play called "Classic Kitchen Timer."

That was also sort of the point.

Jim Simpson, the Flea's artistic director, was as eager to get a youthful outlook on this economic moment as he was to provide artistic expression for playwrights with immense talent and dwindling funds.

Simpson said he wondered, "What are they thinking?"

A stalwart of off-off-Broadway (think avant-garde and cheap tickets), the Flea has made a mission over the last 14 years of not waiting to ask questions about charged contemporary issues, which mainstream theaters often avoid during hard times. The company is best known for such original productions as the post-Sept. 11 play "The Guys," and for works by A.R. Gurney, who premiered "O Jerusalem," about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during the tense spring of 2003.

"The Guys," a two-person drama that drew packed houses and later became a movie, not only fulfilled people's need to understand their responses to what had happened a few blocks south of the Flea's White Street playhouse, its success also helped steady the company's finances, which were a disaster as a result of the disaster.

So was the Flea again aiming for a win-win scenario by asking playwrights it had been nurturing to explore the impact of the recent financial crisis as a way both to understand and survive it?

"Oh that we were that canny of businessmen," said Simpson, laughing and shaking his head in the Flea's lobby, decorated with framed posters from past plays. "No, here we are reaching for good theater, to see where it takes us."

With sweet-looking young actors and spare sets, the plays range from Rapp's starkly apocalyptic drama to Thomas Bradshaw's absurdly realistic "New York Living." Only "Unum," by Will Eno, who was once described as "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation," takes an encyclopedic stab at the issue -- in all of 20 minutes.

A play within a play, "New York Living" revolves around young theater types obsessed with the usual: sex, winning a Tony Award and real estate. It is, after all, set in New York.

"I'm a big fan of following real estate to understand everything," said Bradshaw, 29, whose mother was a real estate agent in New Jersey, where he grew up around the corner from a train that got him to Manhattan in half an hour.

One of his "New York Living" characters is a young actress who gets involved with her scene partner and agrees to move in with him for questionable reasons. (It's either that or live with her parents.)

Anna Greenfield, 23, who plays the compromised actress, said her character reflects the worst of what she sees herself becoming if she lost her part-time job in a Mexican restaurant. "It makes me nauseous, really uncomfortable, to think I would do what she does," Greenfield said. "You want to have some control over your life."

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