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Essay

The American Voice: Eight Things

By Adam Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director

In the first moment of Adam Bock’s early play Swimming in the Shallows (1999), Barb confronts an idea that ultimately uproots her life: 

“Did you know there’s Buddhist monks who only own eight things,” she asks. “I bet I have eight hundred probably eight thousand things just in my kitchen. …I read this and I got a very upset very unnerved feeling.”  

And over the course of this brisk, contemplative urban fairy tale — which for many of us was a thrilling, revelatory intro to an important new writer ­­— Barb becomes obsessively aware of how she’s a prisoner of what she’s accumulated over the course of her life, the weight of what she has inadvertently collected. So she gradually sheds her life of every item she realizes is inessential (a list that includes, ultimately, her husband). “I have so much stuff I feel heavy,” she says. “I have more and more stuff every day and every day more and more stuff has me. And all I want to do is stop and be quiet and see whether I want it.” At the end of the play, she reduces her load to 147 items. But from somewhere inside she still feels tied down, so she takes off her shoes. 145.

It wasn’t until I sat down to write about A Life, after almost two decades of reading Adam Bock’s plays, that my thoughts turned back to this first encounter with his work. I hadn’t realized how deeply Barb’s gently persistent spiritual journey has stuck with me, nor how these first moments with his writing have actually been organizing the way I’ve understood his anthology to date. Barb’s grasping pursuit of lightness and liberation is an inquiry that weaves its way, albeit in vastly different forms, throughout Adam’s collection of plays. His work runs the gamut, of course – he’s anything but predictable – but each of his characters seems stuck just on the other side of the life they wish they had, a thin but impermeable membrane keeping them from grace, and they’re pressed against it trying to will some sort of passage or epiphany into being, but coming up shy. 

Each of his characters seems stuck just on the other side of the life they wish they had, a thin but impermeable membrane keeping them from grace.

In Five Flights (2002), a man constructs an elaborate aviary to house the soul of his late wife; and years later, after his own death, his kids start a new church there, “the Church of the Fifth Day” (when god reportedly created birds). Olivia, upon whose batty, ecstatic visions this makeshift church is founded, preaches desperately to her tiny congregation with an intensity that betrays her: “In each of our hearts lives a bird called the soul. The nun imprisons the bird in a chaste marriage. The rabbi tries to sing and argue it to sleep. The Protestant builds it a cage of stone and gold. The Buddhist winks and hopes — boink — the bird won’t be there anymore. We want to let the bird fly free. …I’m telling you that I was in despair and then suddenly I had a sense of relief a sense that God would relieve me of this despair if I would only let him.” Olivia is all anxiety and mad hope, a walking struggle to keep hold of her faith, but gripping so hard that the ultimate dissolution of her church seems inevitable from the start. So in the end, the aviary is left to crumble slowly to the ground, the land pulling it back into itself. 

Like Nate in A Life, feverishly clutching his star charts and re-examining the past, Olivia and Barb strike me as sort of quintessentially Bock-ian characters, caught in a state of hopeful paralysis, unable to shed the weight of their own psyches, and they’re echoed all through Adam’s works: from the would-be activists in The Shaker Chair (2005) to the sloppy, lost bachelorettes of The Drunken City (2007), and the beautiful, doomed community theater troupe in The Flowers (2009). Perhaps even more poignantly, in The Thugs (2006), and The Receptionist (2007), his terrifying, dystopian “Office Plays,” we see hope in its absence, the cosmology of a world without the possibility of faith, stripped of a better version of life to believe in – a sort of man-made hell (written not coincidentally during the Bush/Cheney era). In A Small Fire (2010), our protagonist is stripped of her physical senses, one by one, until left with only the sense of touch; she has to shed what she holds onto, what she thinks makes her who she is, to find her essential self.

More than just the journey of the characters who populate Adam Bock’s plays, though, this pursuit of grace, and the friction created when it meets the necessities of life, is also a quality of the writing of these plays in itself. No other playwright seems so intent on finding lightness and space as a quality within the writing — like Barb shedding herself of the coffee mugs and tchotchkes that are cluttering up her life, to reduce each line to reveal the essence of what’s playing out onstage  yet somehow, without ever diluting the complexity and eccentricity of each moment. Consider this staggeringly great, incisive line from the end of Five Flights, in which we see a character find transcendent eloquence and lose his words in the same breath: “It’s like the rejection bounces us out of our bodies. It bounces us out of our bodies. Right... What I can hear, what I hear from you, you don’t want to be here. Something, or more than, and you. Right? You don’t. I hear that. But I also. I also. I just wanted to say to you, it’s not ok to just give up. Just.” To me, this isn’t just a well-observed, contemporary, “heard it on the street” writing style, as I’ve often heard Adam’s writing described. It’s character writing turned into haiku, essentialized to its idiosyncratic core; or, it’s Japanese landscape painting, finding profound depth in blank spaces and surprising epiphanies through careful understatement.  

But what I love about that line of dialogue, too – both as character writing and as writing in itself — is the tension there, the conflict between wanting to say as little as possible and needing to say more, between restraint and aspiration. It’s as if these characters’ journeys, as they struggle against themselves to slough off extraneous circumstance and meaning, are an echo of what the act of writing itself is like for Adam. Because, I mean, he writes plays, and he’s an excellent dramatist, but what makes for a liberated, weightless soul isn’t necessarily what makes for excellent drama. Buddha tells us that “desire is the root cause of all suffering,” but Stanislavsky tells us the rule of good acting is a juicy, high-stakes objective; and since Aristotle put ink to parchment way back in the day, we’ve seen the key elements of drama as motive and conflict. If anything, we’re always looking for how we might tease out as much tension onstage as possible, mining the story’s circumstances to see how we can make them more overwhelming, how we can sharpen the sense of dread and crisis. While religious practice, at least in the ethos of an Adam Bock play, provides calm and perspective, these are sort of antithetical to what we traditionally understand of great drama, and that’s something Adam clearly knows and puts to the test.

This is a tension, I think, at work in the dramaturgy of his plays, both in the story (content) and in its telling (form). The straining of his characters to break free from the trappings of their lives – sometimes stemming from outward circumstances, but more often than not from inside themselves – is mirrored by the actual writing of the plays, as the pursuit of grace butts up against theater’s demand for rising action and struggle, keeping all the wide-eyed, searching Barbs and Olivias at arm’s length from revelation. Anyway, this is something I think about sometimes when I think about A Life: about the way Adam Bock’s plays pull us continually toward lightness, like houseplants craning our necks toward the sun but stuck in some damn pot, and how this new play is a startling discovery, in the story of his writing. In which, unthinkably, both a character and a play dare to shed what most essentially makes them who and what they are, and in doing so pass into a new understanding.