Do writers have the right — even the obligation — to be inscrutable? Surely the late J.D. Salinger thought so, what with his outsized fetish for litigiousness and withdrawal from the world, literary or otherwise. In the theater, was there ever a playwright more inscrutable than Samuel Beckett? Or a living playwright more elusive in terms of explaining his work than the great Edward Albee? No literary figure can be compelled to explain their choices — and if that should leave the reader or audience confused or provoked, so be it: this is the nature of literature. Indeed, we immerse in the output of the most inscrutable writers because the writing demands that we do so, even if we scoff because our societal need for instant gratification, a terrible trait we’re hooked on like a drug, remains unfed.
Could playwright-journalist Jonathan Reynolds be bucking for a place alongside these icons of the inscrutable? His new play, Girls in Trouble, takes on abortion from the 1960s point of view — from the period, in other words, before Roe v. Wade changed history, throwing down a red line that facilitated our currently intractable left-right divide.
Reynolds has had nine plays produced in New York; those with theatergoing memories longer than mine will recall his Geniuses, which was produced Off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons and ran for a year. The play satirized Hollywood, as good an idea now as then. In the Times (for which Reynolds later penned a Sunday Magazine biweekly food column), Mel Gussow called Geniuses an “apocalyptical laugh” that showed Tinseltown as “an ego-tripping shell game” where entertainment occurs by accident.
Hollywood is a star-centric solar system Reynolds knows: His screenwriting credits range from the 1988 film My Stepmother Is An Alien to, yipes, the infamous Leonard Part 6.
Yet Reynolds’ natural home must be the stage. His solo-memoir play Dinner With Demons, which ran in 2003 and 2004 at Second Stage Theatre, was one of a string of productions then involving food, including the deep-frying of a 14-pound turkey. It was a tremendously enjoyable night, though one was left to wonder whether food for Reynolds was a cover for his emotions more than a conduit to them. My first encounter with Reynolds’ work was 1997’s Stonewall Jackson’s House, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Without digressing unduly into the plot, it was a shockingly tart look at slavery, late-2oth-century-style, a pin in the balloon of political correctness that was at once screamingly funny yet a political statement that, in retrospect, may have pushed the envelope more than it needed to. With Girls in Trouble, in fact, a question arises: Just what, exactly, are Reynolds’ politics? Can one infer politics from a writer’s work? After all, the description of Girls in Trouble — crafted by the Flea Theater, Reynolds says below, not by him — comes in the form of an interrogative: “In 2010, has abortion become merely another form of birth control?”
Excellent question. We will soon find out if the play provides an answer. In the meantime, I wanted to ask Reynolds to take on the abortion question not simply from a dramaturgical angle but a sociopolitical one. I wanted to know if he agrees, as most people are beginning to, that when Chief Justice Roberts testified to Congress as part of his vetting for the Supreme Court, he either lied or did his best impression of a whirling dervish. Is a Court capable of dismissing more than a century of precedent with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — ruling that corporations are equal to people, thus freely able to contribute to political campaigns — not also a Court fully ready to revoke Roe? By making law with Citizens United, is this conservative Court not precisely the kind of activist Court the right derides? Does it not all stand in contradiction with, among other things, this statement from Roberts, responding to a question from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch?
I have told people, when pressed, that I prefer to be known as a modest judge. And, to me, that means some of the things that you talked about in those other labels. It means an appreciation that the role of the judge is limited; the judge is to decide the cases before them; they’re not to legislate; they’re not to execute the laws.
Another part of that humility has to do with respect for precedent that forms part of the rule of law that the judge is obligated to apply under principles of stare decisis.
Part of that modesty has to do with being open to the considered views of your colleagues on the bench. I would say that’s one of the things I’ve learned the most in the past two years on the Court of Appeals: how valuable it is to function in a collegial way with your colleagues on the bench; other judges being open to your views; you being open to theirs.
Perhaps this all seems like a tangent. I haven’t seen Reynolds’ play yet — and satirists generally are not in the vein of engaging in partisan insinuations but, rather, skewering everyone and everything. Still, in a hyper-partisan political moment, the premiere of a play that warns of the downside of abortion — as if there ever were no downside — makes one wonder to what degree Reynolds’ politics has infiltrated his dramaturgy.
Girls in Trouble previews at the Flea Theater (41 White St.) through its Feb. 28 opening, then runs through March 15. The play is staged by the group’s not-so-inscrutable artistic director, Jim Simpson, and features seven members of the Flea’s resident company, the Bats: Andy Gershenzon, Brett Aresco, Betsy Lippitt, Akyiaa Wilson, Eboni Booth, Laurel Holland and Marshall York. For tickets, visit www.theflea.org or call 212-352-3101.
And now, 5 questions Jonathan Reynolds has never been asked — and a bonus question:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Your plays are not only actor-proof, they’re actor-challenging; why do you write plays that are so tough to stage?
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Two spring to mind (though there are many, and feel free to choose just one): First, after a performance of Dinner with Demons, during which I deep-fried a turkey onstage, a member of a group of NPR listeners in the audience asked, “Don’t you feel guilty about killing a turkey for every performance?”
Second, in my early one-act, Rubbers, which took place on the floor of the New York State Assembly, all the characters except one were men, and I satirized them all — the men and the woman — because the Assembly was as lame-brained 30 years ago as it is now. During the talk-back after a performance at the American Place Theatre, a woman asked, “Why were you so mean to the woman?” It took the theater’s director, Wynn Handman, to say, “The woman? What about all the men?”
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Have you ever thought of writing a musical based on Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars?
4) The description of Girls in Trouble asks: “In 2010, has abortion become merely another form of birth control?” Isn’t that rather a 1980s question? Or do you believe that abortion is as much of a birth-control practice now, statistically, as it ever was? If Roe v. Wade was overturned, would those numbers really change?
This is the Flea Theater’s description of the play, not mine, and even if it is “an ’80s question,” that doesn’t necessarily make it irrelevant today an more than it does the question “Is there a God?” because it’s not exactly a new one. I don’t know the stats about abortion being a birth-control practice and consequently don’t have an opinion on whether they’d be reversed if Roe v. Wade were overturned.
5) If our activist-conservative Supreme Court overturned Roe, predict the reaction across American society. Would there be violence? Assassinations? Civil war? How do you feel about the argument that we’re witnessing a kind of left-right cold civil war right now?
Politically revealing framing of the questions. If we had an activist-conservative Supreme Court rather than the strict constructionist court we do have, and Roe were overturned, I believe there would be much explosive rhetoric, possibly some demonstrations and some violence, but no civil war or anything quite so melodramatic. People who wanted abortions would flock to those states which allowed them. A more salient question might be: What would happen if every state legislature outlawed abortion? As for a left-right cold civil war, well, there have always been strongly held opinions on both sides of the aisle, and so far neither has any nuclear weapons or inters its citizens in gulags.
6) Can you define the difference between a playwright who chooses themes in order to provoke and one who chooses themes in order to inflame? Which are you? Why?
It’s a matter of distinguishing between the meaning of provoke and inflame, which I can look up if you like, but I don’t think you want a dictionary definition. Off the top of my head, “inflame” sounds more extreme than “provoke.” I’m neither. I choose the subjects and characters of my plays because they interest me, and thus far haven’t known the outcome of any of them till I’m well into writing them. I write to entertain, and because I find certain things funny. Others may find them serious. Everyone loves satire except those being satirized. I find my plays entertaining, and I hope the audiences do, too.