Bathsheba Doran tells a love story by writing around the couple.
Mon Mar 14 2011
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Bathsheba Doran goes by the nickname Bash, but you could hardly think of a more unlikely moniker for the quiet, dryly funny English playwright. Enormously self-effacing, Doran has nonetheless become one of New York theater's louder voices with quick-witted, sensitive family dramas like Parents' Evening and the liberal-guilt-puncturing Living Room in Africa. For her latest, the elliptical love story Kin (opening Monday at Playwrights Horizons), newlywed Doran advances yet another domestic agenda; in a career full of personal plays, this one strikes her as the one that, she says, "sums up my life."
In broad strokes, Kin bears an obvious likeness to its expatriate maker. The central couple is an Irishman and a New York academic, and we're constantly made aware of the psychic and physical distance the couple needs to cross. Doran comes by that sense of an unanticipated journey honestly. "I was born to a Jewish academic family in North London—and now I live in Harlem with my wife," she says, clearly still a little stunned by her life's arc. In the past, her pieces have often dealt with a sense of dislocation. "I always felt on the outside in England," she says. "From a young age, I knew I was an American; when I was four, I talked in an American accent." She laughs. "I was a strange child, disliked by many!"
Yet the fish-out-of-water quality from earlier works has evaporated into something approaching optimism and joy. "There was this one moment when I was helping my wife's brother roof his house in Iowa," she recalls, "and I looked out over the cornfields and I thought, Good Lord, I've come a long way!" Doran wrote Kin during the year of her engagement. "A lot of 2008 had been spent thinking about the point of getting married when it's not, for us, legal. I realized that it's impossible to tell me that I can't get married: You can't legislate language, you can't legislate ritual. And I started to think about it as a more ancient and powerful thing than was being talked about politically. That thinking informs the play."
Dizzy with love or not, Doran's theatrical instincts did not desert her, and she knew she needed to keep well clear of Lifetime movie clichs. The answer was structural. "I began to think in terms of negative space," she explains. One of Eduardo Chillida's monumental public structures made for a surprise inspiration. "I had seen an art exhibition of conventional structures realized as negative space," the writer explains. "Instead of building the walls, they solidified the space in the rooms. So I mapped out the central stages of what a journey towards the altar are, but I represent those beats through the other characters in the play."
Doran's effortless dialogue and finely textured moods evoke the sweeter end of indie cinema, so there's little wonder she has a parallel career scripting HBO's Boardwalk Empire and adapting The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency for film. Kin, though, is stubbornly theatrical. Doran has written an intimate story by telling its nonintimate details, peripheral moments (like after-the-kiss debriefs with family members) that nonetheless coalesce into something penetratingly romantic. Much as she did in Parents' Evening, in which a fought-over child never appeared, Doran has actually written around her story. This forces audiences into becoming complicit in imagining the central relationship. Doran's diffidence has made its way into the weft of her written material.
Finding a theatrical solution to the play's challenge (21 scenes, a time span of seven years, lots of narrative negative space) helped hook director Sam Gold. Gold may speak as softly as Doran, but he has become young playwrights' biggest, most useful stick. Gold presided over two recent stunning Annie Baker productions (Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens) and Kim Rosenstock's Tigers Be Still. So far, it seems, wistful neorealism is Gold's sweet spot, and Doran waxes lyrical when she talks about the boldness of his production choices.
For his part, Gold says that he has been a fan of Doran's writing for years."Specifically, she's telling a very simple story in a very fragile way," he says, "And any time there's something that I feel I can really screw up, it makes me want to direct it." This sends the two of them into discussion about their most recent preview, conferring over possible cuts and line additions. As always, Doran is guided by a set of tough, provocative questions: "What sort of sentences can you say to everybody, what sentences can we say to one other person, and what are the sentences you can't say to anybody at all?"
Kin is at Playwrights Horizons through Apr 3.