Wait — one of the hottest playwrights this fall is Paula Vogel? The “How I Learned to Drive” and “The Baltimore Waltz” writer Paula Vogel? Paula Vogel from the 1990s?
It’s true: In the next few months, you can see at least four of Vogel’s plays in Washington, and dozens more around the country. Bethesda’s Round House Theatre is reviving “How I Learned to Drive” in October, and Arena Stage offers the regional premiere of last year’s Tony Award-nominated “Indecent” in November (Baltimore Center Stage presents its own version in the spring). Also in November, the Tysons Corner troupe 1st Stage produces “A Civil War Christmas,” and in January, Dupont Circle’s Keegan Theatre takes on “The Baltimore Waltz.”
Why? Because with last year’s “Indecent” — a sweeping history of Sholem Asch’s early 20th-century Yiddish play “God of Vengeance,” the long-lauded Vogel finally had her first play on Broadway. And since Broadway still shines the most influential light in American theater, even as it has become hostile turf for new plays, a fresh radiance illuminates the body of work by one of the country’s most formidable dramatic voices.
“What’s just now happening is theaters saying, ‘We’d like to commission you for a large production,’ ” Vogel says. “And I’m 66.”
Vogel nearly reached Broadway with “How I Learned to Drive,” the tightknit five-actor play set in Vogel’s native suburban Maryland (she was born in Washington) and dealing with a woman’s recollection of being sexually abused by her uncle. The hit drama, produced around the world in the past two decades, won a Pulitzer in 1998 and featured Mary-Louise Parker and then Molly Ringwald in the lead. But that original production stayed off-Broadway.
“Apparently the distance from the Vineyard Theatre on East 15th Street to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg or Croatia or Taiwan is not as far as the distance to Times Square,” Vogel writes in a new introduction to the published script.
#MeToo means the country is catching up all over again with “Drive.” “I never know what’s going to strike a vein,” Vogel says of her plays, “but I’m alarmed that one side of the conversation is that ‘Drive’ feels like it was written yesterday. Our awareness of gender now means the wind is at my back.”
Vogel’s earlier “The Baltimore Waltz” was widely staged, too — a deeply personal fantasia knifing through the anguish of the AIDS epidemic and written in memory of her brother Carl. Over the next decade or so, Vogel wrote a half-dozen plays — provocative, resistant works such as “Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief” (“a bawdy, thunderingly ironic take on ‘Othello,’” the New York Times wrote in 1993) and “Hot ’n’ Throbbing” (a 1994 comedy about a suburban mother writing women-focused porn; Variety described it as a “black farce”).
The output slowed as academic responsibilities accelerated; her outsize influence on the American dramatic landscape includes her long tenure teaching drama at Brown and Yale. Five Vogel students have won Pulitzer Prizes.
“I spent half my career finding development spaces,” Vogel says. “It took seven years to get ‘Indecent’ to Broadway. ‘A Civil War Christmas,’ I never completed it. I needed a couple more theaters, and time off from teaching. And I could not give up teaching, because I had to pay the rent.”
Now that she’s writing full time, projects include “Cressida on Top,” a riff on Don Juan, militarism and masculinity that’s in development at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. There’s also something Vogel calls “My ‘mother’ play — an autobiography set around Beltsville and every crappy apartment we got evicted from. I want it to be a barnburner of a role for an older woman.”
Having coached more than her share of the country’s young hotshot writers, Vogel knows who to watch for. She’s especially proud that her plays will be at theaters this year alongside former student Christina Anderson’s “How to Catch Creation,” which will be at Baltimore Center Stage, the Goodman and the Philadelphia Theatre Company.
“I want you to make it to Broadway before I do,” Vogel says her message has always been to students. As important, and apparently not altogether unrelated: “I want you to make a living from this.”