By FELICIA R. LEE
David Adjmi, whose play “Stunning” at the Duke on 42nd Street
will be his professional New York theater debut on Thursday, bit into a
slice at the Di Fara Pizza parlor. Great food and bad history met in
that recent moment of triumphant homecoming.
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
David Adjmi outside the high school division of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Cross-cultural girl talk: Cristin Milioti as a teenage Syrian-Jewish wife, and Charlayne Woodard as her live-in housekeeper.
When Mr. Adjmi, now 36, was a student years ago at the nearby
Yeshivah of Flatbush in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, he was
suspended for eating at Di Fara because it was nonkosher. “I was always
getting into trouble for something,” he said gamely, recalling the many
reasons he was an outsider at the school.
Mr. Adjmi (pronounced
ADGE-me) said that he was more invested in finding an artistic voice
than in achieving financial success; he questioned his Jewish faith; he
struggled academically; and he was gay. “I felt an extraordinary
anguish,” he said. “I don’t feel it so much anymore. The fonts of pain
were opened up in writing this play.”
His handful of friends from
Midwood, he said, “have all reconfigured their lives substantially” to
break away from the tightknit Syrian-Jewish community. These days, Mr.
Adjmi said, he even has his own cobbled-together brand of spirituality.
is a three-act play about the relationship between a Syrian-Jewish
couple in present-day Midwood and their black housekeeper. Lily and Ike
Schwecky (Cristin Milioti and Danny Mastrogiorgio) are married, though
Lily is 16, and Ike is much older and coarser. They have a complicated
relationship with Blanche Nesbitt (Charlayne Woodard), their seemingly
overqualified live-in housekeeper.
“Stunning” veers from satire
to tragedy. Blanche makes Lily ask painful questions about being a
teenage wife and what she wants in life. Ike is also forced to look at
himself. Blanche’s identity is more complex than it at first seems. All
the characters inhabit a world in which they use prefabricated
identities to ward off the pain and fear of not belonging and the hard
work of real self-discovery.
“I think it’s about a lot of
things,” Mr. Adjmi said of the play, which he began writing five years
ago. “On one level, it’s about people who rely on this bulwark of
appearance. They try to create this hard wall of surface to suffice for
their wounds — personal wounds, cultural wounds, historical wounds. It’s
like an Edith Wharton
novel about the repressive forces of culture and how we internalize that stuff and how it erases us from ourselves.”
While Mr. Adjmi confronts provocative themes of race and contamination,
he does not want to be misconstrued as mocking his characters. (There
are six in all.) “The play is asking for empathy for people who are
wounded,” Mr. Adjmi said. “In this play, power supplants love,” he
added, but the characters “can’t make themselves vulnerable for various
reasons: family, politics, race, sex.”
Standing outside the high
school division of the yeshiva, at Avenue J and East 16th Street,
looking at the girls in their ankle-length skirts and the boys in their
yarmulkes, Mr. Adjmi thought things looked pretty much the same as it
did in his day. But, he said, “I feel like I’ve come a long way.”
of four children of a father who dabbled in various businesses (linens,
electronics) and a homemaker mother, Mr. Adjmi began to come into his
own as a student at Sarah Lawrence College
, where he studied philosophy and literary theater, and graduated in 1995. He spent three years at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa
and also studied playwriting at Juilliard. Most recently, his play “The
Evildoers,” about a pair of troubled marriages, was produced by the Yale Repertory Theater
set in the Syrian-Jewish enclave where Mr. Adjmi grew up, has been
rewritten many times during previews this month. At one point he
escorted the director, Anne Kauffman, and the entire cast to the
neighborhood to have a look.
“Some people understand it’s
satire; others take it literally,” Mr. Adjmi said of the play’s
audiences. “It’s meant to be broad. I’m always crosshatching the satire
and the tragedy.”
Mr. Adjmi, who has Syrian and Sephardic roots, said family had been “fairly understated and supportive.”
reaction in larger circles has been more mixed. Syrian Jews in
Brooklyn, who number about 75,000, can be insular, Mr. Adjmi said. One
method of keeping outsiders at bay is a 1935 edict by rabbis in the
Syrian-Jewish community that not only bans intermarriage with non-Jews,
but also adds that “this law covers conversion, which we consider to be
fictitious and valueless.”
“Stunning” is the second production of the Lincoln Center Theater
’s LCT3 programming initiative, which is intended to bring new artists and new audiences to Lincoln Center
Paige Evans, director of LCT3, said she was struck by the intensity and
ambition of Mr. Adjmi’s voice, and said Lincoln Center hoped to have
“an ongoing relationship” with Mr. Adjmi.
“He writes with both
style and substance, and it’s unusual to find both,” Ms. Evans said of
Mr. Adjmi. “The play is literal, and there’s also a heightened, abstract
Howard Shalwitz, artistic director and co-founder of the
Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, where “Stunning” had its
world premiere last year, called Mr. Adjmi “brilliant.”
added, “I personally see him in the Albee tradition, in the sense that
Albee tries to get at big, deep themes, the psyche inside the soul.”
Peter Marks of The Washington Post gave “Stunning” a mostly positive
review last year, although he thought Mr. Adjmi stumbled toward the end.
Mr. Marks wrote, in part, “The play migrates intriguingly from the path
of comedy to a realm more plaintive and tragic.”
On a lighter note, there is pizza to be had.
Mr. Adjmi, who jokes that 36 is “100 in playwright years,” said he
would be content to have pizza from Di Fara as his last meal. He is
planning to stick around, though, maybe making films and writing essays
as well as plays. He has a lot to say about his life and the lives of so
many people who are haunted by the past, who numb themselves and play
by the rules to feel safe.
“I’ve been in dark places,” Mr. Adjmi
said, “because I’ve pushed myself to look at things that can’t easily
be repaired or healed.”