'Winter' Playwright, Back From the Dead

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 2009

Five years ago, the New York Times ran a story prominently featuring "The Bread of Winter," a play by Victor Lodato that had been much praised and picked apart but never produced outside of a seemingly endless cycle of workshops and staged readings. The title of the article? "Workshopped to Death."

Turns out the reports of the play's demise were greatly exaggerated. On Thursday, Theater Alliance will host the world premiere of that play, a drama about a housekeeper named Libby (played by Amy McWilliams) and the people she encounters during a particularly cold winter. According to Lodato, it's set "five minutes in the future," at a time when humans have "forgotten how to keep each other warm." There are sci-fi elements, but the show is really about what Lodato calls "our failure to connect."

Theater Alliance will follow it up next month with Lodato's "The Woman Who Amuses Herself," based on the true story of the man who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. And later this summer, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., will premiere the playwright's "Dear Sara Jane," about a woman waiting for her husband to return from war.

Lodato sees irony in the sudden explosion of love for his scripts. "It's sort of like you're not somebody until the Times says you're nobody," he says.

The premature death sentence was, in a way, also strangely liberating. Lodato, 40, gave up workshopping to focus on finishing a novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish "Mathilda Savitch" this fall).

"I really was giving no attention to the playwriting," he says, "and then suddenly three people wanted to do the plays. It happened as soon as I turned my back on all of it. You say, 'I think I'm done with this,' and then you ignore it. And then they come knocking on your door. That's going to be my new strategy. Not caring."

He is only half joking. The Tucson-based Lodato is, for the first time with "Bread," taking a much more hands-off approach. During the rehearsal process, his contact with director Dorothy Neumann has been mostly confined to her phone calls and e-mails, many of which Lodato says have had to do with whether a particular line of dialogue contains a typo. His stock response: "I say, 'No, there are no typos in the script.' I'm a maniac when it comes to typos."

That isn't hard to believe. "I have been a control freak in my life," he says. "I've had control issues." According to Lodato, there is no better therapy for that tendency than his chosen profession. "The theater will really help beat that out of you."

By way of explanation, Lodato tells a story about another of his plays, "The Eviction," which was produced in Prague several years ago. Attending a rehearsal a few weeks into the process, the playwright was shocked to discover that one of the show's characters, who is supposed to be dead at the end, was still sitting on the stage at the final curtain. "I turned to my translating assistant and said, 'Is this the end?' And they said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'He's supposed to be dead.' And then the artistic director saw me talking to the assistant, and so I basically said, 'What's going on? Why is he still alive?' And he said, 'Well, you know, we find that not so interesting, for him to be dead.' "

Eventually, Lodato says, he simply let go. "I was on the verge of calling the dramatists guild, and even calling off the production, because I was really [ticked]. But then I thought they were doing a great job. They really got the play in a way that when it was done in the U.S. they didn't get.

"At a certain point in the rehearsal process, I thought, 'People are going to do all sorts of things to my plays after I'm dead.' So I'm getting some practice for what that's going to be like."

The Bread of Winter H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. 866-811-4111. http://www.theateralliance.com. Thursday-May 9. $30.

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