The American Voice: Any Way, Shape, or Form

In the spring of 2008, Dan LeFranc sat staring at me in the offices of Playwrights Horizons, wild-eyed in disbelief that I had never read—or even heard of, to be honest—Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, the eye-opening analysis not just of comics, but of all art-making. Because reading this book was an insight to the evolution of Dan's consistently innovative work, and because he practically kicked me down the street to buy a copy, it seems wholly appropriate to start a look at Dan's playwriting by pointing to some of the key ideas that McCloud so eloquently presents in comic-strip form, such as:

Comics, of course, run a pretty sizeable gamut, from the absurdist (Bill Kupperman's Snake n' Bacon) to the penetrating (Art Spiegelman's Maus) to the bad-ass (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons'Watchmen) to the lame (Bil Keane's Family Circus); and it's the comic writer's job to find the perfect physical Form to convey the Content he has set out to communicate. Substitute the word "theater" for the word "comic" in that last sentence, and you'll be standing, it seems to me, at a good vantage point to understand the adventurous trajectory of Dan LeFranc's writing. Each play is an exploration into the possibilities of form, an experiment in the philosophy of storytelling, as he pushes the shape of his plays around in a variety of directions to best house the characters and stories he offers up.

But in a LeFranc play, playing with form is never the result unto itself; each structure he innovates seems to evolve from inside the kernel of a play's originating impulse, from the mind-set of his characters. It's particularly appropriate to consider McCloud's awesome book in light of LeFranc's play Origin Story. Set somewhere in the American Midwest, in a town called Nowheresville, a troubled, vengeful kid has created a mysterious comic book with supernatural powers to turn highways into rivers and ordinary citizens into bloodthirsty octopuses, and causing a bizarre double-murder that has the whole community bewildered. Taking his cue from our story's hero, a confused adolescent comic book artist, Dan employs the dramaturgy of a comic book. The play's reality is malleable and plastic, constantly changing shape and whisking us back and forth through the story's timeline as it gradually becomes clear that what we have been watching are the pages of the mysterious comic book itself.

In his play Bruise Easy, a smart-ass teen and his angry sister are reunited when their mother has gone missing. Framed by a chorus of precocious neighborhood kids, this play is built like Greek tragedy, in which the estranged siblings are forced to confront the wounds inflicted by family. But infusing the play with an Expressionistic gesture, Dan theatricalizes their awakening, bending the laws of physics to reveal a frightening new vision of the suburban landscape around them. And Night Surf, his hilarious and insane beach-blanket Babylon, is a psychedelic spin on the Euripidean bacchanal, telling the story of a gang of sex-hungry surfer girls who declare a ban on boys for the summer.

There are infinite perspectives; it follows that there are infinite ways to represent these perspectives on a stage. In the late 19th and early/mid-20th centuries, conventions of dramaturgy were exploded open by modernist pioneers like Strindberg, Brecht, Maeterlinck and Gertrude Stein, who examined the components of drama in the interest of expanding what it's capable of expressing. Into the 1980s, innovative play forms thrived as we embraced plays from writers like Len Jenkin, Constance Congdon, Neal Bell and Marlane Meyer. The past couple of decades have seen a narrowing of this range, as exploratory plays are often dismissed in favor of a recognizable onstage world, in which time behaves as we more or less perceive it, in which behavior is essentially logical, and in which mysteries are explained. Like many new writers today, Dan LeFranc's work reflects an uneasiness with the relative conservatism of contemporary tastes while looking for ways to operate within it. The landscape of each play is decidedly current, populated by extraordinarily vivid, pop-culture-savvy, smart-mouthed twenty-first century characters.

…But none of his play-worlds behave in expected ways. Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, his New York debut (co-produced by Page 73 and Soho Rep in 2009), is almost naturalistic on its surface, set entirely inside a car over the actual amount of time it takes a boy and his father to drive sixty miles home from the boy's soccer game. Rather than depicting one car ride, the play compresses literally hundreds of car rides to dad's house from more than a decade of the boy's childhood, into one length of time, composed of flashing fragments woven seamlessly together. Looking to draw a portrait of a boy's coming of age, LeFranc finds his structure by forcing two conflicting storytelling modes together, filling a naturalistic frame with a mosaic of broken shards.

Below: a sample from The Big Meal, which LeFranc wrote on horizontal legal paper with a column for each actor, in a format somewhat similar to sheet music.

Looking back at the preoccupations of Dan's writing, I'm sitting here in my office surrounded by copies of his plays, each one a wholly unique physical object unto itself (see a sample from The Big Meal above), struck once again by the accomplishment of The Big Meal. An American family sits around the dinner table, a setting reminiscent of so many seminal plays, over the course of about 90 minutes. But, though it assumes the shape of a dining room play, taking up about as much time as a typical family meal, in the hands of LeFranc it encompasses entire lifespans: a family tree blooms and then thins as generations pass to generations, affirming the enormity of the world and its great, beautiful sadness. Impossibly, it's a play that somehow manages to give us a fleeting and tenuous, glimpse of time itself, the most elusive, maddening, malleable, unknowable and yet ever-present mystery of all.

- Adam Greenfield, Director of New Play Development