Playing With Provocation

David Adjmi has set his play
David Adjmi has set his play "Stunning" in the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn where he was raised. (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

He's "scared of confrontation," playwright David Adjmi admits, and rather dreads facing audiences in post-show discussions. Yet in his writing he also is driven to "examine things, uproot things really exhaustively."

With "Stunning," having its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through April 6, as with his "Evildoers," about corrosive relationships, which premiered at Yale Rep, that uprooting can show human beings, well, not at their best.

"I have no bad intentions. That's the thing with my work. I always provoke things, but it's always unintentional," says the congenial Adjmi a little plaintively.

"Stunning" is set in the insular, traditional Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn where Adjmi was raised. He first wrote the play as a "joke" while visiting his family home. "Then it became this enormous Wagnerian opera," he says. "I didn't think about the political implications of representing this very marginalized" community. He concedes that writing the play "stirred up a lot of feelings about the community and culture . . . what is my relationship to my own people. I have a lot of ambivalence about it."

His central character is Lily, who at 16 has dropped out of school and married a middle-aged man with a temper and ethically shaky business practices who expects her to have children right away. Her girlfriends are similar, all about babies, manicures, clothes and gossip. Their conversation is laced with Arabic sayings of whose derivation they're unaware. Lily's life takes a sharp turn after she hires a mysterious, erudite African American maid.

Adjmi worries that audiences might take his stereotypes as fact. "There are some fantastically ethical and good-hearted people in this community, broad-minded, not provincial at all," he says. But that wouldn't be dramatic.

Rather than have audiences jump into condemnatory mode, the playwright hopes "to encourage more empathy . . . so they're not judging the characters, but trying to understand why this is happening."

Adjmi continues, "It's so easy to distance ourselves from characters that we deem unlikable. . . . I don't like satire for that reason." His work "juxtaposes satire and tragedy. I take these different genres and I'm like a cubist and I ask you to look at different things from different perspectives."

You can hear Adjmi in discussions after tonight's and Saturday's 8 p.m. performances. Please don't yell at him.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2008

And now there are five. For most of its past 17 summers, the Contemporary American Theater Festival ( presented four new American plays, some of them world premieres, some having their second or third productions. For its 18th season, July 9-Aug. 3 in Shepherdstown, W.Va., it will graduate to five. Ranging from tragedy to farce, the plays will examine issues of race and, especially, class.

"I wish there were more happy stories" that playwrights are exploring, says producing director Ed Herendeen, "but right now, there's a lot of unrest about class and privilege."

Herendeen will direct "The Overwhelming," by J.T. Rogers, about an American family that visits Rwanda in 1994 just before the genocide begins. The "Hitchcockian thriller," as he describes it, premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2006 and was done in New York last fall. The play asks, "How can this continue to happen in . . . our world?" says Herendeen.

"Pig Farm," literally "a filthy play" and a "kick-butt comedy," Herendeen says, tackles solid waste in farcical ways, such as pig manure dumped into the Potomac. It was written by Greg Kotis, co-author of the satirical musical "Urinetown"; Herendeen will direct.

Lydia R. Diamond's drama "Stick Fly" visits a wealthy African American family on Martha's Vineyard. In this play, "class is the enemy," says Herendeen. "It's how money and power corrupt us, and greed. And that crosses the boundaries of race."

Richard Dresser completes his "Pursuit of Happiness" trilogy of comedies about class in America with "A View of the Harbor," about an upper-crust Maine couple and their wayward son. The first two plays, also done at CATF, were "Augusta," about two maids, and "The Pursuit of Happiness," about an implosive bourgeois family.

The fifth play, "Wrecks," is a solo piece by that glib misanthrope Neil LaBute, in which a widower recalls his late wife. It will be done in a rehearsal studio in a new arts building on the Shepherd University campus.

Follow Spots

¿ Venus Theatre is presenting an all-women version of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" tomorrow through April 6 at the company's Play Shack, 21 C St. in Laurel. Call 866-811-4111 or visit

¿ African Continuum Theatre Company will hold a fundraiser March 24 at 8 p.m. in the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The event will feature a reading of Oni Faida Lampley's "Mixed Babies" (1991 Helen Hayes winner as best new play). Celebrity readers will include WUSA's J.C. Hayward and Sweet Honey in the Rock vocalist Ysaye Barnwell. WRC-TV news anchor Jim Vance will host. From April 24 to May 18, the company, which has been working to get its financial house in order, will present a production of Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel," about an African American seamstress in early 20th-century New York. Jennifer Nelson will direct. Visit

¿ The League of Washington Theatres' discount program for young audiences, Stages for All Ages, is up and running through most of the spring. Some 20 companies will offer a free ticket for those 17 and younger with every regular-price adult ticket sold. Visit for details.

¿ Friends and colleagues of Robert Alexander, the artistic director for nearly 30 years of the Living Stage Theatre Company, are invited to a memorial celebration Monday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. That would have been Alexander's 79th birthday. He died Feb. 10.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company