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The American Voice: Uncertainty Principle

It seems worth noting that, separately from one another and without knowledge of what each other was writing for this newsletter, Tim Sanford, Gina Gionfriddo and I were all struck by memories from another Playwrights Horizons premiere: Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles (1988), which tracks through its indelible protagonist a woman's journey through feminism and yuppie-ism to find her individuality. With a sharp pencil, Wasserstein crafted a cultural portrait that spans twenty-three years from 1965 to its present day. In a tour-de-force monologue positioned deep into the play, Heidi addresses a gathering of her fellow high school alumnae with a lecture entitled, "Women, Where Are We Going." A milestone in the contemporary canon, this play managed to cast the uncertainty of the here and now into sudden focus, snapping present-day lives into context. Of course, more time has elapsed between the writing of The Heidi Chronicles and the year 2012 than elapsed between The Heidi Chronicles and 1965, when Heidi's narrative began. Gender politics remains a splintered conversation that pervades just about every profession, art form, and social stratum; but the last two-and-a-half decades haven't seen another play, to my knowledge, that has taken so panoramic a snapshot.

I shouldn't be surprised that it's Gina Gionfriddo who has taken the leap. Tack-sharp, unforgiving, and marked by a blistering wit, her body of work is consistently fearless as it plunges headlong into thorny psychological, social or cultural territories. "I really only want to write about subjects I have some ambivalence about," she wrote in a 2006 bulletin from Philadelphia Theater Company. With a satiric bent and searing psychological insight, each of her plays to date manages to find the deepest nuances of an ethical gray area and explode it open to reveal exponentially more shades of gray. Exacting and sharp-tongued, her characters seem more unknowable and less predictable the longer we spend time with them: a thrilling, unsettling theatrical experience that values discomfort and ambiguity over any sense of certainty.

Take, for instance, her scathing U.S. Drag, which garnered the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2002. A jet-black mockery of America's worship of celebrity culture, this scathing play follows Allison and Angela, two New York party girls who, desperate to sidestep the tedium of work-a-day life, seek their fortune as bounty-hunters for a serial killer-turned-media darling named Ed. These girls' identities seem to resemble a mosaic, comprised of urban, pop culture influences, as fluid and reversible as the ethical landscape they inhabit. When a community action group forms to stop Ed, who traps his victims by pretending to need their aid, they offer solutions like "Don't help. We can just not help each other." and "A Good Samaritan is a Dead One." It's an overturning of social values, leaving us less assured of their objectivity. Similarly, After Ashley (2005) scrutinizes the media's impact on America's moral landscape, sharply lampooning our love affair with violence and victimhood. After introducing us in its unforgettable opening scene to Ashley, a regretful, disaffected, pot-smoking housewife, the play neatly (and shockingly) makes her the victim of a brutal murder. This sets in motion a horrific comic odyssey, in which we see her complex and all-too-unromantic actual life transform into a unilateral symbol of purity and victimhood. As the play gradually reveals layers of hypocrisy, it forces us to question our very notions of sympathy, empowerment and good intentions.

Thing is, though, one can't describe plays like U.S. Drag and After Ashley solely in terms of their accomplishment as social provocation; finding fodder in our shortcomings is a theatrical pursuit as old as the art form itself. What makes Gionfriddo so idiosyncratic a writer, so unique a voice among American playwrights today, is the uncanny psychological insight, the meticulous character details she brings to her satire. Though her inspiration seems to come from the social and cultural ambiguities she takes as her subjects, her plays clearly reflect a writer who somewhere along the way has fallen headlong into the folds and shadows, the infinite nuances of her characters. So the light her plays cast upon us seems to come not from the ideas themselves but from, say, the dynamic, vicious desperation of Allison and Angela, or from the delicately rendered rage of Ashley's teenage son Justin. Her characters find themselves in the middle of gnarled scenarios precisely because they themselves contain the infinite hypocrisies, compulsive dysfunctional patterns, and fine-toned gray areas that they bring to the table. The tangled action emanates from inside them.

The title character of Becky Shaw (2008) is a case in point. Named after Thackeray's cunning anti-heroine Becky Sharp (from the novel Vanity Fair, first seen in 1847), Gionfriddo's Becky is a tightly-wound jumble of traits. A victim, an aggressor and a master manipulator all in the same breath, she's set up on a colossally misguided blind date with Max, a confident cynic who's as much baby as he is brute. It's a straightforward enough narrative which Gina deftly molds into an intricately knotted power game as the bad alchemy of these characters plays itself out. Constantly shifting our moral perspective as the action progresses, Becky Shaw renders the very notion of power relative and slippery, leaving us with the unresolved question of who is manipulating whom.

In Rapture, Blister, Burn, Gionfriddo brings her trademark wit and intricate character work to what may be her most ambitious play to date. It's summer in a small, New England college town, when students and faculty alike are shaking off the dust and reorienting themselves for a new year -- and when the five unmoored characters we meet find themselves acting out a half-century of gender theories (from Betty Friedan to Phyllis Schlafly to Dr. Phil) in search of finding the right fit. Though where they wind up is trickier than where they started -- true to form for Gionfriddo's twisty play-worlds -- the play manages to take a snapshot of a fast moving, ever-deepening cultural dialogue about gender: a moment in time in which we can see the culture's great, shifting tectonic plates.

- Adam Greenfield, Director of New Play Development