By Christopher Arnott
4:40 PM EDT, August 14, 2013
Carly Mensch has had plays done at Steppenwolf in Chicago, Ars Nova in New York City and the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky. She's also written for the TV shows "Weeds" and "Nurse Jackie." Often, when writers are sucked into screenwriting jobs, they forsake their theater roots. Not Mensch. Her modern family comedy/drama Oblivion premieres this month at Westport Country Playhouse, running August 20 through September 7.
"There's a healthy list," Mensch figures, of writers who juggle stage and screen gigs, and understand the needs of each medium. "It's less stigmatized now. It used to be 'Well, we lost another playwright to Hollywood.' Now, there's so much good writing on television." The person who got Mensch her job on "Weeds," Rolin Jones, is another good example of a writer who easily straddles that fence; Jones' Shakespeare adaptation These Paper Bullets will premiere at the Yale Rep next season.
While still writing for "Nurse Jackie," Mensch has made herself available for casting duties, rehearsals and other Oblivion obligations. The script, which she's reluctant to describe lest she give away any plot twists is basically about "family."
"When I was writing this play, David Foster Wallace, my favorite novelist, had just died. I found myself grieving, thinking about him and writing about him a lot. It was this uncomfortable connection to a mentor I'd never actually met."
Mensch wrote Oblivion "three years ago, -ish," and has nursed it through several workshops, including one in Chicago last year. The play's themes of family, cultural influence and teenagers striving to form their own identities are eternally topical. Mensch says this full production has been an opportunity to "see the lines anew, bring a fresh eye to them."
At Westport, Oblivion will be directed by Mark Brokaw, who is well-known for his deft touch with new works. He won major theater awards for directing the world premiere of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive off-Broadway in 1997, and recent successes include Nicky Silver's The Lyons. Brokaw runs the Yale Institute for Music Theatre, a summer program that workshops new music-theater pieces (and presents them in public readings to audiences at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas). He's also an associate artist of the Roundabout Theatre in New York.
Mensch says Brokaw was "on a list of directors I really wanted to work with." The Westport Country Playhouse gig came up, she says, because the theater had read her play and really wanted to do it. Getting Brokaw as its director was a bonus.
The play has four characters: Julie, a teenager; her friend Bernard; and her parents Dixon and Pam. Reg Rogers, who plays dad Dixon, has been involved with every workshop of Oblivion; he's well-known to Yale Rep audiences, having graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 1993 and appearing in Rep productions of The Beauty Part, Figaro/Figaro, Landscape of the Body and Rough Crossing. His wife in Oblivion is played by the accomplished New York actress Johanna Day, who was Tony-nominated for Proof and appeared at Yale Rep last season in the world premiere of Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses. The star of the play is young Katie Broad, a graduate of the Musical Theater program at New York's Circle in the Square Theatre School.
Oblivion is a play about "parenting," its author says, with larger themes concerning how we're affected by those around us. It's also funny and has its unexpected moments. "It's suspenseful, but not in a thriller movie way. I hope the audience is as surprised as some of the characters are."
By Carly Mensch. Directed by Mark Brokaw. August 20 through September 8 at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. (203) 227-4177, westportplayhouse.org
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