Playwright Grote takes a turn at writing for ‘Smash’

“Smash,” which NBC hyped as heavily as the Super Bowl, premiered Monday night. The show is many things: a musical within a show, a heavy-on-the-glitter-but-light-on-the-grit look behind the scenes of Broadway and an ode to every musical theater trope you know and possibly love, from the wide-eyed Iowa girl aching for her big break to the slimy director who wouldn’t mind breaking her in. Perhaps you expected this.

But you probably didn’t expect that one of the writers of “Smash” would be Jason Grote, the man behind Woolly Mammoth’s “Civilization: All You Can Eat,” a play that features a character named Big Hog and ponders the question: “Does humanity have an expiration date?”

Gallery

(Brittany Diliberto/Courtesy of Forum Theatre) - Edward Christian, from left, Kerri Rambow, Mitchell Hebert, and Katie Atkinson in a rehearsal of Forum Theatre's “The Language Archive.”

Grote wrote his first draft of “Civilization” in 2008. He insists that “Smash” and “Civilization” aren’t quite as different as they appear.

“Fans of one or the other might be surprised,” said Grote, but, “I have to say, I’m equally proud of both.”

“Smash” is his first television job, and in some ways it actually resembles his gig writing “Civilization.” His early work on the play came out of the Joint Stock Method, in which a group of actors and the playwright do workshops, theater games and interviews, and the playwright crafts a script from the raw material. In “Smash,” Grote first works in the writers’ room, “banging ideas around” with the whole group, before heading off to write individual episodes.

It’s not as though he didn’t have these skills in his arsenal, he said. He’d just never used them before. “My plays are unusual not because I can’t write a family drama or a mainstream play. I’m just doing what interests me.” To get hired on “Smash,” he wrote a pilot based on the publishing world, featuring a menagerie of “colorful characters” and fictionalized accounts of episodes such as the James Frey scandal.

Grote said “Smash” has been a great experience. “I’m very lucky,” he said. “It’s a very smart writers’ room.” Although he can’t tell all the details, he revealed that he wrote a role for Bernadette Peters, who’ll appear in an upcoming episode.

Monday to March 11, 641 D St. NW. www.woollymammoth.net, 202-393-3939.

Lexicographer’s dream

Jessica Burgess, director of “The Language Archive” at Forum Theatre, hopes the experience of watching the play is “like eating a piece of 80 percent dark chocolate: that it’s deeply satisfying, that it is rich and tasty, but there’s a bitterness to it.”

“The Language Archive” focuses on George, whose mission is the archiving of languages and cultures on the verge of extinction. Yet, paradoxically, his eagerness to understand how strangers communicate doesn’t help him communicate with his wife, who leaves him at the beginning of the play.

George’s motives for keeping dying languages alive, said Mitchell Hebert, who plays the character, stem from his connection to his late grandmother. “She spoke a language he didn’t really care to learn,” Hebert said. “Some of that was the reaction of a young person to an old person, thinking her language was something he wouldn’t be interested in.”

Although the story has emotional heft, Burgess said, there’s plenty of humor in the writing. “The challenge is balancing the sadness and the funniness. One minute you’re laughing because the old couple [two speakers coming to the archives to be recorded] is beating each other up in a Three Stooges way, and then George pulls us back from chaos into his heartbreak. It’s a ricochet effect, back and forth.”

Ultimately, “it’s a play about how life goes on,” she said. She said she hopes that when the audience members go home, “they want to communicate more with their loved ones.”

Feb. 16-March 10, Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. www.forum-theatre.org, 240-644-1390.

Spooky Action auction

In December, Spooky Action Theater was the recipient of an anonymous donation valued at $1.6 million. The work for Richard Henrich, Spooky Action’s artistic director, has only just begun: Of the approximately 1,000 items gifted to the theater, ranging from designer clothing to an Aston Martin, only about 300 items have been sold so far.

Henrich took a break from preparing for Spooky Action’s upcoming production of David Mamet’s “The Water Engine” to share the latest news on how these valuables are selling.

Date of New York sale: Dec. 6

Hammer price (the total amount of money for which the auction items sold): $200,000

Net earnings: $161,000

Most pleasant surprise: “We had a pair of art deco earrings that included some platinum, some tiny diamonds, black onyx and coral,” Henrich said. “It had originally been appraised at something like $150, as a nice piece of costume jewelry. That sold for $7,000.”

Most pleasant surprise, Part 2: “We had another piece that was in this old jewelry box, mixed in with a lot of stuff that looked like costume jewelry. It was gold, with lots of little links like chain mail, with a pendant down in front. It turned out to be Tiffany! It wound up being sold for $45,000.”

Most successful in Europe: At Christie’s in Paris, Spooky Action sold a Ruhlmann tea table for 85,000 euros (more than $112,000).

Hold out for this one: Another Ruhlmann item, a chest valued at $400,000, didn’t sell and won’t be offered again until next fall.

Date of Washington sale: Feb. 3

Hammer price: $65,000. “These were not the high-end items,” Henrich said. But “the anticipated high for a Chinese export, little bowls and a tea caddy with a rose lotus pattern, was $600 and it sold for $1,900.”

Save the date: Spooky Action’s Gala, originally planned for March, is scheduled to take place in May. It will feature a runway show consisting of the many designer clothes left to Spooky Action by the anonymous donor.

“The Water Engine,” Feb. 16- March 11, 1810 16th St. NW, www.spookyaction.org, 301-920-1414

 
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