NEW YORK — Playwright Annie Baker, at 31 a sudden darling of the country’s new-play scene, is charmingly laid-back until you bring up a word that often characterizes her barbed, often comic dramas: “gentle.”
“I know – I know!” Baker says, her blue eyes flying open and her soft voice beginning to sound a little scandalized.
Understandably, Baker thinks her plays are meaner and odder than that. In “Body Awareness,” now playing at Theater J, a mother endures remarkably acidic insults and violent threats from her 21-year-old son, and the emotional dynamic between the mother and her lesbian partner is treacherous. And that’s before the relationship-rocking appearance of a stud photographer with his phallic symbol camera.
In Baker’s widely produced “Circle Mirror Transformation,” touchy-feely theater games backfire on six people taking a class in a community center.
“I am very interested in cruelty and suffering,” Baker says, mulling it over. “But you could say I’m interested in gently looking at cruelty.”
In November, Baker’s three-character “The Aliens” will appear at the Studio Theatre, which produced “Circle Mirror Transformation” two seasons ago. “The Aliens” — like “Circle Mirror” and “Body Awareness,” set in a fictional Vermont town named Shirley that Baker has imagined down to remarkable particulars — follows three adult male slackers.
Director Sam Gold, who has worked with Baker since before “Body Awareness” became her first professional production in 2008, suggests that perhaps “gentle” really means “subtle.” He remarks on Baker’s piercing insights “of the details of psychology and the way we relate, and communicate, and don’t communicate.”
Lila Neugebauer directed the West Coast premiere of “The Aliens,” and will direct the upcoming production at the Studio. The show unwinds with a lot of silences and an attention to nuance; Neugebauer says the phrase “new naturalism” has been broached, with Baker’s name attached.
“I don’t think the human beings in her plays are always gentle,” says Neugebauer, who has known Baker since 2007. “But the way the transformation goes on is gentle. That, to me, is her magic. You’re not aware of watching her at work.”
“‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ is weird,” Gold adds. “It’s not a play that if you read the book jacket you’re going to say, This is going to be the second-most produced play in America last year.”
While “Circle Mirror” currently pays Baker’s bills and has made her name, the playwright frets that it doesn’t always go over the way she meant.
“What I intended was a very strange, almost alienating, elliptical, confusing, not heartwarming theatrical experience,” Baker says over eggs and turkey sausage at a midtown Manhattan diner next to Playwrights Horizons. (After breakfast she and Gold hold auditions for Baker’s latest play, “The Flick”; the play, about the people connected to an old-fashioned Massachusetts movie house adapting to the digital age, will debut at Playwrights Horizons in January.) But going by the promotional materials she stumbles across, the out-of-town “Circle Mirror” sometimes “seems sort of like a heartwarming wackadoodle comedy. Which is not what it was in New York.”
Letting go of the plays has been part of Baker’s rapid growing process as the theater world has embraced her understated, actor-friendly work. Of selling the licensing rights to “Body Awareness,” Baker says, “I actually didn’t get that. I was really stupid, and I didn’t understand the way the business works because I was so new to it.” So one day when she Googled herself, Baker discovered a production of the play in Chicago. In a tizzy, she e-mailed her agent and asked why she hadn’t been consulted.
“I think there was a year or two when I was sort of really wigged out, because I’m a control freak,” Baker says calmly. “I really hate bad acting, and I have incredibly high standards for design, and it was very painful for me to see pictures online or watch video clips that I found frankly embarrassing and misrepresentative. But then I reached this turning point that that’s the beautiful thing about theater: you give your work away. And do I really want to be one of those crazy people who doesn’t let anybody do their plays?”
She doesn’t, even though Baker recalls being 8 years old and “saying that I wanted to be a little-known novelist when I grew up.” She never had the theater bug so much as the literary bug; other than reading Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” out loud with her father, Baker (who was born in Boston and grew up in Amherst, and whose parents divorced when she was young) does not cite any major drama influences growing up until she applied to the playwriting program at New York University.
During college she maintained a string of day jobs. In school, she quickly moved away from the core requirements.
“I noticed that the classes that gave me some of the biggest epiphanies for my plays were like my, you know, Islam class, more than my, like, undergraduate cabaret requirement. You know? I figured that out pretty early.”
Baker doesn’t come across quite as post-hippie or New Age-y as straight transcription of her speech indicates, despite her easy, open demeanor. She seems low-key and practical, perhaps because her success isn’t exactly as out-of-the-blue or as absolute as it seems.
After college Baker stopped writing plays while working still more day jobs, culminating with an enjoyable gig as a fact-checker for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (Baker considers herself an eternal student; she downloads free lectures from major scholars in religion and philosophy on iTunes University, saying, “I highly recommend it.”) Seeing two plays, Young Jean Lee’s “Pullman Washington” and then Caryl Churchill’s “A Number” prompted her to apply for a playwriting group with Ensemble Studio Theatre.
She got in, and support, from development to full productions, rapidly followed. Even Hollywood picked her up quickly, though Baker says in a diverting singsong voice, “I don’t like to talk about it.” (She wrote a couple screenplays and developed a half hour show for HBO; nothing has been filmed.)
For now, at least, the theater is her metier, with Baker’s fine-grained characterizations and fundamental compassion drawing sober comparisons to Chekhov. Not coincidentally, her adaptation of “Uncle Vanya,” directed by Gold, just closed off-Broadway.
Georgia Engel, perhaps best known as Georgette on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” was in that “Vanya,” and Baker is now writing something with Engel in mind. (“I think she’s a genius,” Baker rhapsodizes.)
Baker is now part of the inaugural Residency Five group at New York’s Signature Theatre. The program offers five playwrights cash awards and guarantees each dramatist three full productions of premieres over five years.
“I’ve been really lucky in that I have a couple theaters that have said, ‘We stand behind you,’ ” Baker says. “Signature, especially, is like, ‘Write your weird play. We’ll do it.’ It’s actually, like, daunting. But really awesome.”
Gold, who calls Baker “one of our great contemporary writers,” isn’t surprised at how widely and quickly she has caught on, even if the playwright herself says she’s catching up.
“I still am, like, Are you kidding me?” Baker says. “I still think it’s insane and wonderful.”
at Theater J’s Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW, through Sept. 23. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.theaterj.org.
at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, starting Nov. 14. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.