If you look at theater in the U.S. today, you’ll notice that a lot of it is weird. Annie Baker’s John, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, Will Arbery’s Plano, Amina Henry’s The Great Novel: All of them contain eerie, restless, Lovecraftian energies. Before them came the influential playwright Mac Wellman, a fixture of downtown experimentalism since 1979 and the longtime head of the Brooklyn College playwriting program, where his students included Baker, Barron and Henry. (He retired this year.) Wellman’s linguistically complex comedies, pitch-black at their hearts, worked out how to put that uncanny throb of horror onstage, and a Wellmanian sense of unease pulses through American theater even now.
To celebrate Wellman’s contributions, the Flea Theater—which he cofounded in 1996—is throwing a festival called Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes. Cast with the Flea’s non-Equity company the Bats, the plays run the gamut from absurdist adventure to political satire and back, with detours into sheer, language-drunk, poetic nonsense. Which ones are right for you? Here is our easy-to-use guide to the series, with a Mac-derived ratings system to help you find your algorithmically determined match.
BAD PENNY (August 24–October 7)
Wellman scale: Desiccated Chicken Wing
Of all the offerings, this encounter play—It will forcibly remind some fans of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story—is the most accessible. Two people meet in a park; strangers kibitz; a soul is destroyed. Originally performed on a bridge in Central Park with a terrifying torch-wielding Charon figure rowing up out of the distance, Bad Penny will make you see every chance New York meeting as a possible contact with life’s capital-M Mystery.
Photograph: Sincerity Forever/Courtesy Allison Stock
SINCERITY FOREVER (August 24–October 7)
Wellman scale: Bodacious Flapdoodle
Since everything surreal is real again, you might think this bonkers parable about teens in KKK hoods chatting about their crushes while two alien voyeurs meddle from the sidelines was written yesterday. Fun fact: In 1990, this play annoyed the higher-ups so much that the National Endowment for the Arts insisted Wellman print a note in the original program that said he had not used their funds to write it. Politics was so petty back then!
THE INVENTION OF TRAGEDY (September 7–October 7)
Wellman scale: Wiggly Forks
Veteran Wellman director Meghan Finn takes on one of the writer’s trickiest choral works: It asks for 1,001 children, whom the Flea has not…yet…cast. This never-performed 2004 piece is for those who have a keen ear for the pun; Wellman’s text sounds like jabberwocky at first, but the careful and imaginative listener will hear how he is decrying the rise in groupthink during the run-up to the Iraq War.
Photograph: The Invention of Tragedy/Courtesy Haley Gordon
THE ART OF STACKING THE DECK: A MAC WELLMAN SYMPOSIUM (October 4–6)
Wellman scale: Bad Infinity
In this three-day symposium, someone named Helen Shaw (full transparency: me) will interview Wellman; a panel of artists including David Lang, Anne Washburn and Paul Lazar will discuss Mac’s comet-like impact on the theatrical scene; and playwrights who teach in the Mac mode (Young Jean Lee, Erin Courtney) will unpack his pedagogy. The big news, though, is that Stephen Mellor, Wellman’s truest muse and avatar, will do a reading of Terminal Hip, a pure language monologue that shouldn’t work—it’s just a torrent of nonsense—but is somehow excruciatingly funny.
THE SANDALWOOD BOX and THE FEZ (September 26–November 1)
Wellman scale: Abandoned Cigar Factory
These two plays nestle into a single night: The Sandalwood Box is a sparkling bauble about getting lost on the subway and other catastrophes; all 22 lines of The Fez fit on a T-shirt, which Wellman sometimes wears when lurking around Park Slope. This diptych is for lovers of mischief, a philosophical touchstone for Wellman. “Sensible silliness” is something Wellman thinks can defeat his and the theater’s great enemy: “geezer theater and PC geezer theater, two similar chunks of the same old wedge of stale American (corporate) cheese.”
Photograph: Bad Penny/Courtesy Allison Stock
Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes is at the Flea Theater through November 1. $17–$37.