Sex, Death, Marriage, Greed and Football
Texas Playwright Kirk Lynn in New York
The most prolifically produced living playwright in New York this season doesn’t live in New York. I saw five works of theater by Kirk Lynn in four different New York venues over the past three months (a statement that may mislead you in two ways), including Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons. Another, which played at LaMaMa, was an opera about football; a third, at Lincoln Center, an eclectic, chaotic semi-musical about greed by the Austin-based Rude Mechanicals.
Is there something that ties together all these seemingly disparate works? Is it Texas?
“I dunno; I am Texan,” answers Lynn, who grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and is one of Rude Mech’s six artistic directors. “But my first couple of plays I remember seeing were Les Mis and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom"—both in New York, one on Broadway, the other decidedly downtown—and “most recently I have been on a steady diet of Chekhov.” Still, he does get “fed a lot” by the Austin theater scene in general—“very friendly, very inviting; a lot of risk in the work because there isn't a lot of hate or a lack of forgiveness in the patrons”—and by Rude Mechs in particular.
“Rude mechanicals" is the description Puck gives in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the six laborers who perform the play within Shakespeare’s play, and there is something unmistakably puckish about the theater company, now almost twenty years old, that adopted the name, and makes a point of being a meticulously egalitarian theater collective.
And that’s the first way that the statement about my seeing five shows “by” Kirk Lynn may be misleading: To Lynn, theater is a collaboration. Stop Hitting Yourself, commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater’s experimental arm LTC3 for its new Clare Tow Theater, certainly did not feel authored by one person, although Lynn was credited as its writer. (“We all made that one together,” Lynn says.) It had a clear theme—greed—a set full of gold-colored objects, symbols of wealth, and cheese (including a queso fountain), and a plot of sorts: It followed seven eccentric characters who are competing to win the Queen’s Charity Ball, which each year selects a single worthy cause to benefit from its largesse. But it seemed marked by an anarchic spirit, and a daring, almost dangerous sense of spontaneity that enlisted the audience in the enterprise. There was a half-naked unconscious man on the stage as we entered the theater. The play began as he stood up, and suddenly plucked a twenty-dollar bill from his hair. “Does anybody want it?” He was serious, giving the money to the first member of the audience brave enough to raise his hand. Later, a different member of the ensemble gave out dollar bills to another volunteer from the audience in exchange for an escalating series of demands. At the performance I saw, the volunteer from the audience completely disrobed. (I asked him afterwards whether he was an actor with the company. He’s an actor, he replied, but not with the company; he was not a plant.)
To Lynn, theater is a collaboration. Stop Hitting Yourself, commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater certainly did not feel authored by one person, although Lynn was credited as its writer. (“We all made that one together,” Lynn says.)
Lynn seems most comfortable working collectively. He was the librettist for an opera directed by the Monk Parrots theater company’s Luke Leonard and composed by fellow Rude Mech Peter Stopschinski—the only one of his New York productions that has Texas written all over it: Bum Phillips All American. Phillips, who died last year at the age of 90, was a Texas football legend, coaching high school and college football teams in the state before eventually becoming head coach of the Houston Oilers. Lynn’s libretto captures Phillips’ plainspoken style. Gary Ramsey as Bum sings: “Two days before Christmas, I only want one thing./Peace on earth and a Superbowl ring”—something that Bum never achieved. The uninitiated might initially assume that the coach must have led a scandalous life —aren’t modern operas done about figures like Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith?—but Bum Phillips seems to have been a decent guy who experienced just the normal ups and downs of a person in the public eye. Bum Phillips All American told his biography straightforwardly in song.
Lynn is a professor of theater, the head of the playwriting and directing program at the University of Texas Department of Theater and Dance, but he warns us to beware of experts—a wariness he considers a particular trait of Texans. “I doubt all expertise and want to be in the presence of the mystery and the unknown. I hope a lot of my work points people toward this, helps people get lost in little ways. Those times when I really manage to place myself in pursuit of what I don’t know, what I don’t have, what I’ve failed to accomplish or understand…those are the times when I’ve really been true to the infinite possibilities of live performance.”
Dominic D’Andrea sees this as Lynn’s greatest strength. “All of his work begins with these wildly curious questions and investigations, and then evolves into theater. His work never stops being in active pursuit of big questions.” D’Andrea is the artistic director of the One-Minute Play Festival, and that’s the second way I may have been misleading when I said Lynn has had five plays produced in New York this season.
Two appeared in the most recent one-minute play festival in New York’s 59E59 Theater. Here is the entire text of Lynn’s Strangers on A Plane Marriage:
I didn’t wake you, did I?
We’re about to land.
How long was I asleep?
Nearly the whole flight.
My coffee’s still hot.
I asked her for another.
Every time it got cold.
There is a sweetness here that also ultimately underlies Lynn’s full-length play running through May 11 at Playwrights Horizons, entitled Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra. It’s hard to see at first. In the very first scene, Carla tells a blindfolded Reggie to take off his clothing; it’s a seduction scene—one that ends with Reggie proposing marriage. Carla agrees, with one condition—that, before the wedding, in order to truly learn about each other, Carla and Reggie reenact with one another their entire individual sexual histories before they met, from “seven minutes to heaven in middle school all the way up to my cab ride from the Sony party to the airport.”
If the premise sounds as if it will be an update of a 1960’s sex comedy, Lynn shifts it in unexpected ways, adding Reggie’s ex-girlfriend and confidante Tony into the mix, and advancing twenty years later, with Reggie and Carla’s daughter Bernie facing the start of her own sexual history, and Reggie, now a widower, forced to handle the consequences. Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra turns out to be what “Intimacy” by Thomas Bradshaw seemed to promise (before it wound up nothing much more than pornography)—an actual consideration of intimacy, and how sex figures in that mix.
It would be too pat to use Kirk Lynn’s successful season in New York as a weapon against those theater makers who seem to be arguing lately that regional theaters and theater artists don’t get enough respect and New York City’s get too much. But it certainly is tempting. To quote Taylor Mac’s comment on a previous HowlRound article which said that New York City “crushes” regional artists: “Something that always seems to get ignored in these conversations is how so many plays that are produced in NYC come from playwrights who don't actually live there."
Asked his take, Kirk Lynn says: “I feel like New York City and New York artists are generally very interested in what is going on in Austin. We have made natural and easy friends”—and cites nearly a dozen, from Clubbed Thumb to SITI Company, and including those that presented his work this season. “I bet in both directions that regional artists and New York City artists who assume the other has a bias haven't done the work of reaching out, seeing and sharing work with peers. I think New York City gets a lot of love throughout the United States and I think the regions have a lot to share with New York City. In general, disliking anything is another form of ignorance. Get to know what you dislike and you'll love it soon enough.”