Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Screenplay: “Stunning”- Director David Adjmi

Once a Boyhood Outsider, Now Reflecting on His Tribe

Published: June 16, 2009
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.
“Stunning” 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.”
One 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.
“Stunning,” 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.”
The 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 aspect.”
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.”
He 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.”

1 comment:

  1. Props to a man that expressed his thoughts and ideas. Freedom from fear is liberating.



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