First acts

Skip Broadway and find a bevy of brilliant young dramatists.


DREAMY TALENT Anne Washburn’s plays put her ahead of the city pack.

Photograph by Peter Bellamy

This past year has been hard on American playwrights. In April, the Pulitzer committee decided not to award a prize for drama. The New York Drama Critics’ Circle found no homegrown work worth lauding in May. And in June, The History Boys—a veddy English school dramedy written by a 72-year-old Yorkshireman—snagged the Tony for Best Play. All this in a season in which three Irish works (Faith Healer, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Shining City) dyed the Great White Way distinctly green. The noble calling of literary giants such as Miller, O’Neill and Williams is dead, right?

Don’t believe it. We’d like to introduce you to five fine young upstarts. And while none of these ink-stained scribes is the greatest living American writer—or even among those who’ve generated the most coverage—they’re producing the most stimulating work in town. And they’re why this is a great time to go and see a downtown show.

Anne Washburn, 38, poster child of both the Civilians and the DIY playwrights collective 13P (13p.org), can be a tough writer to pin down: One minute she’s confiding ghost stories (Apparition), and the next she’s introducing historical she-monsters to each other (The Ladies), only to follow it all up with a fish-out-of-water fable,half spoken in gibberish (The Internationalist). But what her pieces have in common is the way she captures her characters’ discombobulation, whether due to travel, the supernatural or some dizzying postmodern device. Her plays, steeped in the disorienting techniques of nonnarrative giants like the Wooster Group, nonetheless have strong stories at their core. The resulting juxtapositions are provoking, mysterious and rich with her sense that, as she puts it,“we are surrounded by things we can’t see, can’t control and can’t understand.” Her next work, The Internationalist, will pack its bags for a much-deserved Off Broadway run at the Vineyard this October.

Fans of Qui Nguyen’s company, the Vampire Cowboys, got quite a shock at his recent show, Trial by Water. Where they expected the Nguyen usual—a chop-socky snarkfest—they found a wrenching account of Vietnamese boat people in extremis. Nguyen’s background is in fight choreography, but even a flying split kick doesn’t take that kind of flexibility. Nguyen, 29, seems chill about the change in genre, juggling plans to finish a trilogy about the Vietnamese experience with fare like Living Dead in Denmark (a Joss Whedon--inspired saga of butt-kicking Shakespeare heroines). His comfort with cartoon violence actually serves his straight drama; there’s something unflinching and brisk about the way he makes his characters suffer. Critics have noticed, but the plaudits aren’t going to his head: Nguyen primarily gigs with Vampire Cowboys (vampirecowboys.com), making theater for nontheater types and dreaming of the day when he can afford a serious prop budget.

“Years ago, I wrote what I thought was a terribly sensitive and feeling play about a gay relationship,” David Johnston confesses. “But people found it hilarious. What can you do but pretend that is what you intended all along?” Today, Johnston, 39, is more comfortable identifying himself as a comic playwright—though his subversive humor often holds hands with pain, in a style that sometimes evokes the wild tragifarces of Christopher Durang. Raised in Virginia, Johnston began writing between gigs as an actor in regional theater. In 2003, to his surprise, Blue Coyote Theater Group (bluecoyote.org) staged his Busted Jesus Comix, about a young illustrator persecuted for his grotesque cartoons about infant rape.Blue Coyote remounted Busted Jesus Comix last year, and Johnston’s ascent continued early this year with Candy & Dorothy; his latest project, set to debut next winter, is an ambitious adaptation of The Oresteia, in which he unsheathes a modern comic edge to slice through Aeschylus’ ancient Greek tragedy.

Fifteen years ago, Adam Bock, 44, had just about given up on playwriting, committing his time instead to AIDS activism, when three friends decided they wanted to perform in a coming-out show. He dusted off his Brown dramatist credits, contacted his inner fashionista and wrote The House of Chanel Goes to ACT-UP! Suddenly, Bock says, “I discovered it was fun to write for myself.” That set him off on a series of drag shows, which eventually cascaded into sensitive, linguistically agile dramatic comedies—from the family frolic Five Flights to the adorable Swimming in the Shallows (which dares to ask, “Can a boy find lasting love with a shark?”). Bock’s plays are like Chopin tudes: disarmingly light, rigorously structured and built with a powerful underlying logic. His next piece, The Thugs, a horror story for temps (is there anyone more vulnerable?), premieres at Soho Rep (sohorep.org) in October.

Thomas Bradshaw, 26, is no stranger to controversy: He’s been censored since childhood. Strangely, his high school got pissy when he wrote a drama about a grade-school teacher molesting his students—so they banned the piece and, to add further insult to injury, wouldn’t let him try out for Godspell. Bradshaw didn’t quite learn his lesson. Last year’s lacerating Prophet involved a white man commanded by God to “reenslave” his black mistress, and Purity (opening in January at P.S. 122; ps122.org) stars not one, but two pedophiliac teachers. But Bradshaw claims he tries to shock us because he cares. “We all develop this comfortable worldview, and I want to shake people out of that,” he explains, adding, “When other people get shocked, I’m shocked. This is the world we live in.”