The Writer, Steep Theatre’s new play by English playwright Ella Hickson, is an assault on theater and on the patriarchy. It’s a much-deserved feminist assault. Whether it’s good theater or not is another question. The play, directed by Georgette Verdin, is in no way a well-made play, but if you care about theater, you will want to see it.
I dislike “talkbacks” because they generally end up as a series of rambling audience opinions and few questions for the theater makers to address. But after seeing The Writer, I would have liked to learn the general mood of the audience. (My plus-one, a regular theatergoer, was thoroughly confused.) This is the US premiere, but in its 2018 production in London, audiences were divided into those who hated the play and those who supported its themes. The Writer is oddly structured and you may have trouble figuring out how the pieces fit together.
The play begins with a contrived debate on an empty stage between a young woman (Krystal Ortiz) and a man (Nate Faust) who, we later learn, directed the play she just saw—and hated. She hated it for a number of reasons. including “a woman in a tight skirt leaning arse front over a desk for 20 minutes, for no fucking reason ….” Also “fucking women in completely unnecessary hot pants moving shit about” the stage. And a gratuitous rape that the director adds to the script.
The character is in a rage about the way theater is done: “It’s all part of the same way of seeing so, you know, it’s ‘sexy’ women and ‘smart’ men.” And guiding everything and everyone: old white guys. (To her, good ticket sales and the play moving to the West End prove nothing but that the theater world is stuck in the past while the world burns.)
“How did you know it was a male director?” he asks. She answers: “I watched the show.”
And later. He: “What else do you want?” She: “I want the world to change shape.”
The raging woman in the opening scene is a playwright and the rest of the play is her story (she’s played by Lucy Carapetyan); it’s made up of scenes that address her points but also disagree with each other. Male-female relationships. Female-female relationships. Rude and imperious white guy directors. (Peter Moore plays the director.) Men who talk over and interrupt women.
The final scene, while it may at first seem to display an idyllic relationship, turns out to be troubled too. And the closing moment is shocking, visually and verbally.
The Writer includes several simulated sex acts, all performed under blankets. The effect is silly and not erotic. The playwright’s stage direction does not describe the scene that way, so it was apparently a directorial decision to spare the audience a view of two people making love. Gaby Labotka is intimacy director.
Director Verdin, in her debut work for Steep Theatre, draws excellent performances by the four actors; Carapetyan’s portrayal is especially moving. Verdin’s direction (except for that blanket) makes for some sizzling exchanges. Scenic design is by Sotirios Livadius with lighting by Brandon Wardell and projection design by Erin Pleake. Sound design is by Thomas Dixon. Costumes are by Gregory A. Graham. Claire Bauman is movement director. Lauren Lassus is stage manager.
Given the early dialogue and other discussions of theater throughout the play, it’s clear that playwright Hickson did not intend to write a “Good Play.” The question is whether she makes her points clearly and convinces audience members to support her demands for feminist agency in theater. I fully support her arguments and have had plenty of personal experience working with rude and imperious white guys in corporate America. But The Writer needs some work to get a little closer to being, if not a “Good Play, then at least a story well told. As of its US premiere, it’s not there. But it addresses a critical topic and reminds us, again, that we must believe women.
Ella Hickson is an award-winning playwright whose work has been performed throughout the UK and abroad. Her credits include Adult Children (2021) for the Donmar, Swive (2019) at the Globe, Anna (2019) at the National Theatre, The Writer (2018) and Oil (2016) at the Almeida Theatre, and Wendy and Peter Pan (2015) at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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