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Essay

The American Voice: Social Distortion

The picturesque New England coastal town of Newburyport, Massachusetts has plenty to brag about. Dotted with charming shops, snug cafes, and historic lighthouses, Newburyport (“Birthplace of the U.S. Coast Guard”) was home to the first Tea Party rebellion, and today it boasts the second oldest Homecoming Festival in America as well as one of the country’s oldest choral societies. And as noted on page 106 of the publication Legendary Locals of Newburyport — it cultivated the deviant, insubordinate, ecstatic, darkly weird, and totally singular writing brain of Gregory S. Moss.

“I was an outsider from an early age, but an outsider without any real social definition or categorization,” he said in a recent interview with Capital T Theatre in Austin. Considering Greg’s collection of plays to date, and their loving focus on the bewildered freaks of society, the clash between his hometown’s veneer of traditional Americana and his teenage isolation within it strikes me as a way of locating the common threads. “I’m drawn to writing adolescents a lot,” he continues. “I really empathize with them. It’s a period of deep skepticism, as well as naivety and innocence. …At that age you are being told, ok, this is the way the world works, these are the laws of the land, these are the rules, and because it’s new to you, you’re like, ‘What?? You expect me to get on board with this insanity?’” The characters who populate Greg’s plays are as diverse as his anthology itself, but at heart they all seem to share an inability to live in the world, a struggle to reconcile its realities and institutions with their idiosyncratic and instinctual urges, with their ids. “People who are caught between identities or caught between conventional modes of functioning, those are my people,” Greg said in a Brooklyn Rail interview. Unable to fit neatly into the available choice of roles, they fall into the margins: the estranged, depraved, bewildered underbelly of American society.

Each one is a distinct, vividly imagined play-world that operates on its own system of logic, like a poem.

It’s hard to draw all of Greg’s plays onto the same map. Each one is a distinct, vividly imagined play-world that operates on its own system of logic, like a poem. But when you zoom in, the crisis of growing up, the romance of youth in collision with the more complicated realities of adulthood emerges as the driving force of each story. His earlier plays focus somewhat directly on the traumatic state of adolescence. The audacious, nightmarish comedy House of Gold (2008) considers childhood trauma and white American privilege as it tells the story of JonBenét Ramsey in the afterworld, reenacting her story over and over in hopes of finally getting it right. Billy Witch (2012) is a whirlwind romp through a day in the life at “Blue Triangle Nature Fun Time Summer Camp,” where ghost stories mix with confused teenage hormones to create a profoundly demented tale of sexual awakening. 

punkplay (2009), Greg’s brilliant reflection on growing up and feeling like an outsider, follows Mickey and Duck, two suburban teenage misfits in the '80s who cling to the unbridled, defiant energy of punk (and to each other) to survive. At the end of the play, their friendship inevitably declines, and Duck’s dad sends him off to “that army school.” Before he goes, he gives Mickey an album: “Guy at the record store said it’s the best fucking record he’s ever heard, but I can’t hear it… Just sounds like noise to me.” But through the noise, Mickey’s able to hear a voice, and it calmly prepares him for the life ahead: If you hear my voice right now, then you have been chosen to receive certain information. …There is a secret America under the skin of America; there is a secret history running counter to history; there is a secret language hidden inside language. There is a secret country underground of which you are a patriot. It’s exactly like the one above, only everything is weirder. Blink twice if you understand. And as the play ends, Mickey “steps outside into the static of a bright and hot and unmade world.” Duck is able to fold into the dominant culture, but Mickey will always be aberrant, an outsider.

Because disaffected kids grow up. They become the disaffected adults who populate many of Greg’s more recent plays. His astonishing, dark fable Orange, Hat & Grace (2010) centers on Orange, an “almost old” woman who lives isolated in a cabin in the midst of a dying forest. Abandoned decades ago by her first love, she shuns the world outside and stubbornly obeys the strict rules of proper society that her mother taught her — that is, until a new man, wild and untamed, arrives at her doorstep. In Reunion (2014), Greg imagines what became of his high school cronies, crafting a hellacious 25-year reunion in which three friends obsessively recreate a graduation party (in the same hotel room, even) in order to make sense of the distorted routes their lives have taken. And in his weird and hilarious La Brea (2013), Leah, a 40-ish kleptomaniac who breaks into strangers’ houses in the dark of night, is on a mission to rescue her long-lost brother, an out of work actor in L.A. who’s on the cusp of becoming a Scientologist. In each of these plays, we meet adults who are still children in a sense, living in the shadow of a romantic worldview they lost in their youth, in the hole that was left there — a condition of loss and disaffection that has hardened into fact, keeping them in the murky edges and in-between zones of the culture. 

...what I really want to do is jump up and down and point your attention toward his writing — by which I mean — just — the breathtaking, painfully ecstatic combination of words he’s capable of laying down.

…Hmm. I’m suddenly overwhelmed, though, by the inadequacy of what I’ve written so far. Because while, yes, all of the above notes about the themes and similarities of his plays are, I think, true and relevant to Indian Summer, what I really want to do is jump up and down and point your attention toward his writing — by which I mean — just — the breathtaking, painfully ecstatic combination of words he’s capable of laying down. Before Greg was a playwright, he was an actor, and before he was an actor, he was a poet; and his writing seems to borrow from each of these modes to make a killer cocktail from all three : his plays are pulsing with theatricality, written in the most exacting, razor-sharp language, informed by a deeply intimate familiarity with his characters. And I can continue to wrack my brain for the right words to describe his writing, but anything I can say pales next to the stuff itself…  

From Orange, Hat & Grace, here’s Orange remembering the love who abandoned her 20 years ago: He reads to me from the bible. His voice is the voice of an angel. The words released like fireflies, the curves of vowels and horns of consonants lit bright. His mouth a hidden cave. 

From House of Gold, here’s JonBenét’s father, about to send her onstage for the Tiny Miss Pageant: I want you to be apocalyptically beautiful – a beauty that sheds a killing light on the world. A beauty that strips the skin off of every other little girl. Your face will make them gnaw their own hands off, sinking their tiny lipstick caked baby teeth into their own tiny wrists, tiny veins tearing, tiny drops of sugary blood. Blood like butter cream frosting. ...They will die dry hags, wither to dust under you gaze — Oh, but you — You will never die.

From La Brea, here’s Leah, having broken into a stranger’s house: I pull your door open wide. It’s beautiful in there. I knew it would be. So clear, with moonlight coming in from two windows to my right, laying two bright rectangles against the white of the duvet, flat and clean and perfect, troubled only by the dual extrusion of two bodies turned away from each other in sleep. Like pharoahs in sarcophagi. That's what a mom looks like. That one's a dad.

And then there’s Indian Summer in which Izzy and Daniel, two alienated teenagers, sit on the New England shore, not far from where Greg was raised, and dream of another life somewhere else. I’m dying to quote everything that’s racing through my head from this, his latest play. But I wouldn’t dream of taking that away from you.

Adam Greenfield
Associate Artistic Director