We all know that memoirs may be the hottest trend in book publishing. Now, it seems, they are also becoming prominent in the theatre world. Well, let me be clear: Broadway is still rife with musicals, and likely always will be. And playwrights have always borrowed material from their own lives. But off-Broadway (and off-off as in other cities) is where most of the original stuff happens, and that is where writers and performers are telling their own highly personal stories in record numbers. And audiences are eating them up.
This week, John Patrick Shanley, who won a Tony and Pultizer for Doubt, debuts his new play entitled Prodigal Son. (Amazingly, there has never been one with that name.) The four-character piece chronicles Shanley's years, from 1965-1968, at a New Hampshire prep school. Besides the lead character, (a star-making turn by young Timothee Chalamet) the others carry the names of the actual people being depicted. These include the head of the school, his wife, (who was Shanley's tutor) his roommate, and the teacher-mentor who was his supportive savior but finally went too far on a private level.
What is remarkable about Prodigal Son is how much it resonates, which, of course, is the key to these memory plays. As Shanley said in a discussion after one show, "Let's face it, we were all fifteen and for me, this period was the most momentous one of my life." We were not all troubled kids from the Bronx ("He's the most interesting mess we have this year," says one character), but we were probably all confused teens who at times felt unappreciated."("Someone finally saw me!") It is hard to imagine that this lyrical man of words was once thrown out of several public schools and used his fists more than his pen.
John Patrick Shanley is a gold plated name who has enjoyed a long relationship with the Manhattan Theatre Club where this play, and others, have debuted. But around New York, and the country, there are plays, many of them of the one-character only variety, in which other highly personal stories are unfolding. Not That Jewish -- written and performed by comedy writer Monica Piper -- just ended a long run in Los Angeles. This was a funny and poignant piece about growing up reigious, sort of. But it was also about just growing up, making bad partner choices, adopting a child, and dealing with a father suffering from Alzheimers. In other words, Piper managed to strike non-Jewish nerves as well.
Which is what Benjamin Scheuer also accomplished in The Lion, an intimate piece that had a nice run off-Broadway recently. It is simply Scheueur and a cast of various guitars, which he would pick up at random to sing about his rather eventful young life. It has already been filled with music, a life-threatening illness, and trying to come to terms with a disappointing father. This could hardly be more one man's story, but rarely have I seen so many men in an audience wiping their eyes.
Likewise, another recent off-Broadway show called Every Brilliant Thing featured co-writer/performer Jonny Donahoe interacting with the audience as he regaled them with stories of his suicidal mother. Depressing? You would think so, but he focused on his mom's own list of things that brought her pleasure and somehow turned it into an uplifting experience.
Yes, playwrights have always used what and who they know in their work, and with the constant revivaling of works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, (Miller has two on Broadway stages and O'Neill one, with another on the way) we can't seem to get enough of their tales of loneliness, angst and addiction. Tracy Letts, of course, told of his wildly erratic clan in August: Osage County. which surprised everyone by enjoying such audience appeal. We may not have had pill-popping or suicidal moms, fathers selling their wares door to door, lame sisters collecting glass figures, or life-changing years at a prep school -- but more and more, we are leaving theatres feeling we did.