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  • New Downtown Now: An Anthology of New Theater from Downtown New York
  • Heather May
New Downtown Now: An Anthology of New Theater from Downtown New York. Edited by Mac Wellman, Young Jean Lee. Introduction by Jeffrey M. Jones. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006; pp. xv + 399. $75.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

“Those who insisted on psychological realism as the only framework for human existence would have inexplicable car crashes all through their lives” (96) states a character in Nine Come, one of the plays included in Mac Wellman and Young Jean Lee’s anthology of exciting new plays from New York City. The reader of New Downtown Now need not worry about car crashes, as the anthology explores a wide range of theatrical territory, none of which could be classified as psychological realism.

Staying abreast of developments in contemporary playwriting and practice is a challenge for theatre scholars and practitioners who are locked in offices studying well-documented traditions or are overwhelmed by immediate production concerns, often far from the theatrical pulse of American theatre. New Downtown Now makes this task a little easier by bringing together scripts that share what Lee describes as “a sense of play” (vii), a slightly misleading assessment given the pervasive feelings of alienation and meaninglessness that run through many of the plays selected for inclusion. Lee’s clarification that the authors are “playing with theatrical conventions, structure, and language in ways that excite,” however, is more precise, and it is this tampering with tradition that is most welcome in a contemporary theatre anthology.

The anthology begins with Barbara Cassidy’s Interim, a script sparse in setting and dialogue, leaving vast spaces that appear to be filled with loneliness, hurt, and an attempt to find an answer to Joya’s inquisition of her husband, “Do you know who you really are?” (6). Will Eno’s Tragedy: A Tragedy likewise feels eerily empty in its analysis of nightfall, darkness, and the potential end of the world, though Eno’s characters fill the space with long-winded speeches representative of the endless chattering about nothing that is performed in daily newscasts across the globe. Where Cassidy finds silence, Eno finds incessant sound, and Anne Washburn’s Apparition: An Uneasy Play of the Underknown alternates between the two. None fill the void so profoundly felt by their characters.

“The alone can never cease to be” is the phrase that opens Elana Greenfield’s Nine Come, as the protagonist opens a book that Greenfield describes as containing all that we see onstage (75). Greenfield’s play is filled with characters as diverse as those from Russian literature, a soldier, a boy, and a sushi chef, and they engage in an odd combination of violence and descriptive language, interrogation and storytelling. The world of Nine Come is perhaps best summarized when the character of Anna Karenina states that “things as they are are of very little interest to me” (80). Literary figures also frequent the world of Young Jean Lee’s The Appeal, though Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron are surprisingly inarticulate, afraid of rejection, and incapable of appreciating their own good fortunes. They might be famous writers, but as Wordsworth laments: “When people are beggars and sleeping on church lawns, why can’t you appreciate what you have and stop feeling so sorry for yourself and so horrible, like life is a nightmare?” (175).

Madelyn Kent’s Sachiko depicts an eerily nightmarish world revolving around an unlikely couple and an abandoned roller coaster. The language and action of this brief play, as well as Kent’s Enoshima Island (also included in the anthology), are short and stilted, a reflection of the awkwardness of the random interactions depicted among characters who seem both intimately acquainted and complete strangers at the same time. The poetic structure of the dialogue transforms what could be everyday conversations into poetic miscommunications and incomplete exchanges, leaving the reader uncertain of a world that she would otherwise recognize. Erin Courtney’s Demon Baby presents a sparse world in which characters suffer alienation and culture shock in profoundly moving (or perhaps more accurately, stultifying) ways.

Although the very human issue of finding love where...


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