Who knows why a certain play, many years later, may resonate in new ways?
And who knows what creative ideas may emerge in a year when most of us have been locked in?
One thing we know is that while book clubs have flourished, so have reading-out-loud groups. Helen Nicholson, a professor at the University of London, who researches amateur theater, recently said, “Reading plays in a group setting provides entertainment, community and perhaps a respite from lockdown life. “You get the opportunity to be someone else for a while, and follow a different kind of script.”
Among others, Tricia Parks’ Creative Women New York company spent all of 2020 reading every one of Shakespeare’s works, sonnets included. And then there is Rachel Bennett, an actress and yoga/dance teacher, who missed performing, and asked a group of six actor-friends to join her in weekly virtual play readings. This continued, until one particular play jolted them in every way. It was “Hurlyburly” by David Rabe.
“I had never read or seen it before,” says Bennett, “but it was disturbing and beautiful and something magical happened when we did it. It is about loneliness and shame and the need to look inside ourselves. It just feels utterly relevant.” She made the decision to somehow somewhere produce and direct a production of the play.
While her company, called Ohm Productions Foundation, negotiates for a space — with safety and health protocols attached — they have started a GofundMe campaign. The goal is $40,000 and they are moving along. Bennett smartly registered as a nonprofit which means supporters get the tax write-off.
“It’s a Scorcher”
“Hurlyburly” first played in Chicago in the early 80s, then hit Broadway in 1984 with a star-studded cast (William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Sigourney Weaver, Judith Ivey and Cynthia Nixon). Ethan Hawke performed in a New Group production off-Broadway in 2005. “It is a brutal, and brutally funny take on Hollywood’s cult of machismo,” says theater critic Jeremy Gerard. “‘Hurlyburly’ may be even more timely today than it was when it opened off-Broadway in 1984. Some will nod in agreement with the blood-letting exposé of a misogynist world of creeps and wannabes, while others may see it as its own kind of porn. Either way, it’s a scorcher.”
Interestingly, the new biography of Mike Nichols — who directed the Broadway version — also spends a lot of pages on the work. The play was a big success, got mostly positive reviews, though director Nichols and playwright Rabe stopped speaking, and started shouting, pretty much from beginning to end (due to the director’s choice of edits). According to biographer Mark Harris, Nichols eventually made light about the soured relationship. “Well, I have so few enemies, and there’s something very exciting about being hated,” Nichols said.
One of the actors in Ohm, Rich Orlow, had actually performed in the play in Philadelphia. Even he was surprised by how it touched a nerve now. “Once we read the play as a group, it became apparent that there was so much that resonated with our current predicament,” he says. “COVID alienated us from one another, and this disconnection had a number of consequences. Mainly a kind of depression fueled by our lack of human connection. There has been a spike in breakups, substance abuse, spousal abuse, suicides and a general mistrust of our fellow citizens - all of which these characters are experiencing.”
So the dream continues. Co-produced with Third Wheel Productions, the cast and Ohm Productions Foundation, Inc is putting together a short “sizzle reel” to show potential investors, and they dare to hope that the playwright himself might somehow show support. The road ahead may be a challenge, but Bennett is convinced this is the perfect time for a play that takes place on one set — “adding to the claustrophobia so many of us have felt, features a lot of anxiety, and hits home with MeToo repercussions. But if you look deeply, it somehow feels hopeful.”
As is this talented group of actors, eager to get back to doing what they love.
GoFundMe link: gf.me/u/zmdnyw