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Playwright David Adjmi wants you to know that he’s not a bitter pessimist with a dour view of humanity, and his plays aren’t necessarily shocking. “Someone in the press called me a provocateur, but I’m not,” the writer recalls during a rehearsal break at the Duke on 42nd Street. “I’m not snarky. But my plays are like exorcisms. I’m looking at the thing in the corner. It’s like on Passover, when you have to dust in the corner, get rid of all the bread crumbs that might be there.” The Jewish holiday allusion is appropriate, given what’s in previews: Stunning, Adjmi’s alternately whimsical and tragic domestic drama set among a little-known New York demo—the Syrian Jews of Midwood, Brooklyn.
Adjmi, 36, grew up in that proud, insulated community both as a natural-born insider and one who felt out of place. “I felt Other within this Other,” he says. “Growing up I felt my sense of alterity very excruciatingly. I’m a gay, eccentric, arty person. In the world in general, I feel weird. But in this community—which has a very specific set of codes, values and structure—I felt suffocated.” Although Stunning is selectively broad and satirical, those values seem to include nouveau-riche materialism, casual racism and fanatical loyalty to the Tribe. Feeling alienated from his people, Adjmi says, led him to create an “experimental identity” for the larger world. But it also gave the writer a marvelously rich and provocative (sorry!) theme that runs through Stunning: the brutal mechanics of cultural and racial assimilation.
The play is the second production by LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater’s Off-Off Broadway initiative aimed at emerging, experimental work that subscribers might not support. Indeed, while Stunning offers sharp humor and a fairly conventional narrative, its form and content are bound to push buttons. The story follows a Streetcar Named Desire--type triangulation: Teenage bride Lily (Cristin Milioti) is married to thuggish, middle-aged Ike (Danny Mastrogiorgio), who may be involved in shady business. When Lily hires the African-American Blanche (Charlayne Woodard) as a live-in maid, household dynamics shift. Blanche starts to educate Lily in such diverse fields as wine-tasting and semiotics, and Lily finds her romantic needs fulfilled by this wise, enigmatic outsider. When Ike catches wind of the affair, the results are predictably vicious and disturbing. But even then, expect the plot to take some cruel and dislocating shifts: No one is what they really seem.
Adjmi began the play about six years ago in Berlin as a way of breaking through a severe case of writer’s block that gripped him after September 11. He actually worked simultaneously on it and about three others, including the political satire The Evildoers (produced last year at Yale Repertory Theatre). Initially, the author thought there was no chance of it seeing the light of day. “It was over 300 pages,” he wails with a laugh. “I had been blocked, and the only way to get over it was to be a graphomaniac—write down everything that came into my head.” Adjmi also didn’t believe anyone would be interested in this niche of New York’s Jewish population. “I thought, I can put this on at my mom’s house with flashlights,?” he says. “I did it as a capriccio, a joke.” The past few years he has worked rigorously to refine the work. (Ace director Anne Kauffman has been key in this journey. She staged a version of Stunning at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., last spring, and she’s directing it here.)
Although he studied at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and spent a year at Juilliard, Adjmi’s approach remains exploratory, marked by a love of intertextuality and encryption. He’s the sort of guy who drops Comp Lit buzzwords such as hermeneutics and orientalism, but leavens the academic spiel with self-deprecating asides. And he’s one of the rare dramatists who isn’t creating a well-made play indistinguishable from a Showtime series. “I feel like my generation is assimilating methods from performance companies of the 1970s and ’80s, like Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group,” he notes. Features of this aesthetic include broken dramatic arcs, juxtaposing genres and tone, calling attention to the frame, building inconsistency into characters and using a particular notational system for the script.
For all his formal and intellectual ambition, though, Adjmi still sounds like a nervous, curious kid at Passover. “My characters are all sort of naive, like me,” he admits. “I believe people can be experienced and still untouched. I’m looking at that contradiction: How can you live an adult life and still be lost to yourself?”
Stunning is playing at the Duke on 42nd Street through June 27.