We’re thrilled here at TCG to have recently published David Adjmi’s Stunning and Other Plays. This new collection includes Stunning, set in an insular Syrian-Jewish community, where Lily, a teenage bride’s world is disrupted by her intellectual gay African-American housekeeper, Blanche; The Evildoers, about the collapse of two privileged couples and Elective Affinities, a post-9/11 monologue. If you saw our TCG Playwrights in Conversation: New Voices in the American Theatre, you know David’s insights into his process are fascinating, and so we were grateful he took a moment to answer a few of our questions:
Julie Haverkate: At TCG’s New Voices in the American Theatre event on October 24, Time Out New York theater editor, David Cote, referenced your growing up in a niche Brooklyn Jewish community in which you “felt Other within the Other,” and you responded by saying that feeling informs all of your work. Could you expand on this by telling us how it informs these three plays specifically– both thematically and structurally?
David Adjmi: The play that most directly speaks to this Chinese box of identity politics you mention is Stunning, in which both protagonists are isolated inside a marginal community — or a group that is defined against what is perceived as the dominant culture. Blanche is not someone who necessarily feels part of the “black community” or the academic establishment or the “gay community” or anywhere. She’s an outsider, she’s a drifter, she’s deracinated. Where she’s learned to live is inside her incredibly fecund imagination. She’s smart, funny and idiosyncratic. But at bottom, her fantasies are all based on a kind of “success” that is ultimately very conventional; it’s a trap.
Lily is a member of the Syrian Sephardic community (heretofore referred to as SYs) in Brooklyn, which is pretty marginal, as far as communities go. But like Blanche, the SYs collectively perceive their marginality as a kind of exclusivity — and in fact they make it exclusive (no inter-marrying, limited contact with “outsiders”). Ironically, the notion of “success” among the SYs as a non-fungible, material, highly quantifiable, knowable and show-off-able thing — a huge factor in terms of what drives them — is prototypically American. In Stunning, the outsiders are consumed by the inside, and the insiders are forced into a crucible of horrible isolation. Identity is a Möbius strip; the categories are not that simple.
JH: How do your other plays – The Evildoers and Elective Affinities – deal with identity?
DA: In The Evildoers, as in Stunning, the quest for integrity and self-understanding leads to this same awful isolation, and — whoops — even insanity! This play and Elective Affinities aren’t really about Others — they are about the cultured privileged Elite, but the characters are still rather lost inside their roles. They’re still outsiders. They’re marginal in a way that can’t really articulate — they have their own idiosyncrasies, their own private heterodoxies, even minor heterodoxies. The dominant culture is a kind of giant, consuming monolith in these plays, and the protagonists all feel counterfeit in some marrow-deep soul level.
In The Evildoers, this sense of falseness is so deep-veined it cannot be shaken, and the more deeply [best friends, middle-aged WASPs] Jerry and Martin try to discover themselves in their quest for “authenticity,” the more lost they get. Alice in Elective Affinities is the high pontiff of a very pernicious ideological conformity. She’s acceded to a certain life of privilege — which comes with its attendant sacrifices, and she knows it. Now she’d like to be the enforcer of, not simply her own privilege, but of a system that defines itself via how much it can exclude. Love, for her, is tantamount to exclusion! In living this out, she’s had to numb certain vital parts of who she is, only those parts won’t die. She’s in her seventies now, and they will not die! All these plays deal with ghosts — the old specters and feelings surface, and characters are all twisted into knots trying feverishly to reconcile themselves with themselves. Which, as it turns out, is no easy feat.
David Adjmi’s Elective Affinities is currently receiving its U.S. premiere in an NYC production by Soho Rep, piece by piece productions and Rising Phoenix Repertory. For more information on this production, running through December 18th and starring Zoe Caldwell, visit Soho Rep’s website.
David Adjmi’s other plays include Marie Antoinette, 3C, Strange Attractors and Caligula. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award and a Steinberg Playwright Award, among others. His as-yet-untitled memoir is forthcoming from HarperCollins. David is a member of New Dramatists, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and the Juilliard School, and he has been awarded commissions from Lincoln Center Theater, Yale Rep, Berkeley Rep and the Royal Court.
Julie Haverkate is Marketing Associate at Theatre Communications Group. Previously, she has worked at Meadow Brook Theatre (Rochester, MI), as well as in the literary offices of Electric Pear Productions and the Summer Play Festival in NYC. Julie has lectured and presented at conferences internationally, and her book, PARADE Diverges, was published by VDM. In addition to dramaturging every now and again, she also writes the blog Critical Confabulations and is a proud alumna of Florida State University (M.A. Theatre Studies ’08).