By the time I saw my third Simon Stephens play, I had a question burning in my brain. “Why are Griffin and Steep apparently the only theaters in the U.S. producing Stephens’s outstanding work?” I asked in my January 2011 review of Griffin Theatre Company’s mounting of Port.
That’s since been remedied slightly; the Atlantic Theater Company gave the prolific English playwright his New York debut last summer with a production of his early work Bluebird. Still, Griffin and Steep Theatre have given Stephens four Chicago runs, including three U.S. premieres, since 2008. This week, Griffin adds another U.S. premiere: his 2009 play Punk Rock.
Even that tally is nothing compared to what’s going on back home. “I’ve got, I think, five productions in Britain this year. It’s just fucking stupid,” the charmingly self-deprecating author says on the phone from his London home. “It’ll be the end of me. Everybody’s gonna be sick of me by the end of the year. I’ll have to move to Chicago.”
While he’s had great success in Europe—two of this year’s five British outings are of plays that debuted in Amsterdam and Munich—here it’s only in Chicago that Stephens’s work has caught on. The playwright, who grew up in Stockport, a suburb of Manchester, demurs when asked why that might be: “I think I’m probably the last person to answer those questions, quite honestly. I don’t really understand why anybody other than my mum would be interested in my plays.”
But the 40-year-old father of three floated an answer to a similar question from a New York outlet upon Bluebird’s debut last year: “I think Chicago maybe has a taste for theater which is as interested in flint and toughness as it is in commercial success.”
His work has flint and toughness in spades, as seen in the bleak small-town blues of Port or in Pornography’s oblique view of the 2005 bombings in London’s Underground. Even something closer to a traditional family drama, such as Harper Regan, is spiky and sometimes bizarre in Stephens’s hands.
“Simon’s stories focus on characters that, on the surface, couldn’t be more ordinary—office workers, cabdrivers, carpenters,” says Steep’s artistic director, Peter Moore. “Yet they’re always filled with such extraordinary depth, humanity and perspective on the world. [They’re] equipped with this simple eloquence.”
Punk Rock, set at a British boarding school, is inspired by the 1999 Columbine shooting, which Stephens says felt like the start of the 21st century. It’s no coincidence the writing of that play came closely on the heels of Pornography, he adds. “Young men have been killing themselves for years, and it’s been a literary trope at least since The Sorrows of Young Werther. It struck me that what was happening in the 21st century in the West was the suicidal impulse of the late-adolescent male was becoming murderous. Boys weren’t just killing themselves, they were taking cultures down with them.”
Like many of Stephens’s plays, Punk Rock concerns young people’s attempts to find their way in the world, which the playwright attributes both to his care for his children and to the lingering influences of his own teenage years. He repeatedly cites American movies like Taxi Driver and Blue Velvet as “my main engagement with dramatic narrative” (and volunteers Punk Rock’s debt to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant). Stephens also names live shows by bands such as the Pixies, the Smiths and the Fall as an impetus toward writing for the stage.
“Fundamentally, I think that’s kind of sustained me for 20 years,” he adds cheekily. “What I’m always trying to do is synthesize the Fall with late David Lynch movies. [Laughs] I shouldn’t reveal all the tricks! I’ll be fucked now.”
Now in previews, Punk Rock opens Sunday 22 at Theater Wit.