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In Paola Lázaro’s new play, revenge isn’t so sweet

‘There’s Always the Hudson,’ a vengeance-themed play by the ‘Walking Dead’ actress, premieres at Woolly Mammoth

Justin Weaks, left, and Paola Lázaro in “There’s Always the Hudson” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (Teresa Castracane Photography)
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Paola Lázaro appreciates a good revenge fantasy as much as anyone. Who hasn’t been wronged, asks the playwright, or felt the catharsis when someone on the screen or stage exacts triumphant revenge? But that’s not what Lázaro wanted to do with her latest play, the revenge-themed “There’s Always the Hudson,” having its world premiere at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The show isn’t a revenge fantasy; it’s revenge reality.

The two protagonists, Lola and Toussaint (known as T), are friends from a sexual-abuse survivors’ support group, but they are so despairing that they agree to jump off the George Washington Bridge at 4:30 the next morning. Before they make the leap, though, they’re going to confront everyone who’s ever done them wrong. This sounds like the perfect setup for a revenge fantasy. What follows is anything but.

“That’s what I’m interested in: the harder thing to write,” says Lázaro, who also plays Lola. “It would be very easy to write a play where everything goes well for our heroes, but I was more interested in how it would really go if they tried it in real life. What would really happen, rather than what we in the audience would want to happen — something more in tune with life as it actually is. We think life is going to go one way, but when we’re hit with the reality of it, it goes another way.”

As the two would-be avengers roam New York City and New Jersey during the 11 hours of the story’s action, they are often surprised by the neighbors, employers, uncles, parents, predators and gossips they confront many years after their abusive actions. The abuse was monstrous, but the perpetrators don’t always conform to the monsters we see in the movies. They are too wounded, too ambiguous, too violent or too apologetic for a satisfying catharsis to take place. As unexpected as these developments are for the audience, they were just as unanticipated by the author.

“I was very surprised by the places the characters took me,” Lázaro says. “The dialogue begins with one thought, which leads to the next, and the next. And you never know where it’s going to end. It’s all about me sitting down at the computer with those two characters and living each moment with each one of them.”

“There’s Always the Hudson” was originally set to premiere at Woolly Mammoth in 2020. In fact, the cast was into its second week of rehearsal, already off script and really getting into the characters, as Lázaro recalls, when covid-19 hit, canceling the production.

“It was sad when we had to close,” she admits, “but I got more time to think about the script and make it quicker and more concise. The play takes place in one night, a kind of adrenaline rush from beginning to end, so I wanted it to be as streamlined as possible.”

During the intervening two years, Lázaro became known for the role of Juanita “Princess” Sanchez on the AMC series “The Walking Dead.” That show was about survivors of a different kind of trauma: a zombie apocalypse. Those survivors were trying to rebuild a community on a societal level, Lázaro says, while the protagonists in “There’s Always the Hudson” are doing it on an individual basis.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Lázaro had been a child actress, but when she attended the State University of New York at Purchase and then Columbia University, she was determined to focus on dramatic writing. Her mentor at Columbia, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, drew her into the LAByrinth Theater Company, an off-Broadway troupe where Lázaro got back onstage.

“I’d been acting in a lot of other people’s scripts,” she explains, “and it was time to step into my own writing. In some ways, that’s easier, because I know the intention of each line in each scene. On the other hand, I’ll be doing the scene and I’ll go, ‘Oh, this word or line shouldn’t go there,’ and I run to the computer to fix it, then rush back to the stage.”

If you go

There’s Always the Hudson

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. woollymammoth.net.

Dates: Through June 5.

Prices: $29-$64.

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