Play award finalists announced

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has named six finalists in its annual playwriting competition, supported by generous funding from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, which recognizes plays that premiered outside New York City.

The top honoree in the Steinberg /ATCA New Play Awards will receive $25,000 — the largest prize for a national playwriting award. Two additional playwrights will receive $7,500 each.

The winners will be announced at a March 29, 2008 ceremony at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Ky.

The six finalists:

The Crowd You’re in With, by Rebecca Gilman, debuted at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in November. The play examines three couples at a backyard barbecue who reveal vastly different attitudes toward having children in the 21st century.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone, by Sarah Ruhl, bowed at Washington D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in June. The quirky comedy examines the fallout when a lonely woman takes the cell phone from the body of dead man she discovers sitting next to her in a café and begins answering his calls.

End Days, by Deborah Zoe Laufer, premiered in October at Florida Stage in Manalapan. Sometimes comic, sometimes moving, the play studies the challenge of maintaining faith in a world dominated by science and fear. A Jewish family copes with the aftermath of 9/11 as the mother, now a born-again Christian, tries to convert the family before the rapture arrives — on Wednesday.

The English Channel, by Robert Brustein, debuted in September at Suffolk University and then the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha’s Vineyard. The noted critic and founder of the American Repertory Theatre penned a droll comedy centering on creativity, inspiration and plagiarism, in which the young Shakespeare, the ghost of Marlowe and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets collide in a tavern.

Strike-Slip, by Naomi Iizuka, opened last spring at the Humana Festival. The playwright presents a cinematic look at the interconnected nature of seemingly disconnected lives in the diverse, multi-cultural Los Angeles basin. One judge praised it as a 21st Century O. Henry story.

33 Variations, by Moises Kaufman, debuted in September at Washington’s Arena Stage. Kaufman offers a fictional imagining of Beethoven’s creation of 33 brilliant variations on a prosaic waltz. His obsessive pursuit of perfection parallels a modern tale of a terminally-ill musicologist struggling with her own obsession to unearth the source of Beethoven’s.

These finalists were selected from 28 eligible scripts submitted by ATCA
members. As the competition requires, none had productions in New York City in
2007. They were evaluated by a committee of 12 theater critics from around the
U.S. headed by chairman Wm. F. Hirschman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and vice-chair George Hatza of the Reading Eagle.

“The amazing range of work — dramas, fantasies, musicals, farces, melodramas —
was uplifting confirmation that theater remains a vital and evolving art form
that can speak to every generation,” Hirschman said.

Since the inception of ATCA’s New Play Award in 1977, honorees have included
Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Jane Martin, Arthur Miller, Mac
Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Lee Blessing, Lynn Nottage, Horton
and Craig Lucas. Last year’s winner was San Francisco’s own Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers.

The awards are supported by an annual grant of $40,000 from the Harold and Mimi
Steinberg Charitable Trust, created in 1986 by Harold Steinberg on behalf of
himself and his late wife. The primary mission of the Steinberg Charitable Trust
to support the American theater. The trust has provided grants totaling millions
of dollars to support new productions of American plays and educational programs
for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.

2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Review: `The Crowd You’re in With’

Opened Nov. 17, 2007 at the Magic Theatre

Gilman’s Crowd stands out
Four stars Pleasingly provocative

There aren’t many plays, especially new plays, that stick with you days after seeing them.

Rebecca Gilman’s The Crowd You’re in With, which had its world premiere last weekend at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, is, in many ways, an astonishing play.

It seems so simple and so casual at first. A Chicago couple, Jasper (T. Edward Webster) and his wife, Melinda (Makela Speilman) are hosting a Fourth of July barbecue in the backyard of their building.

Their friends — another married couple, Dan (Kevin Rolston) and Windsong (Allison Jean White), and a single dude, Dwight (Chris Yule) — are coming, as are their older, upstairs neighbors, Karen (Lorri Holt) and Tom (Charles Shaw Robinson), who also happen to be their landlords.

The set, by Erik Flatmo, is your basic backyard: backdoor, stairs, grass, table, chairs, barbecue, etc. The play Proof could take place on this set. It looks real, and that’s key: Gilman is giving us a slice of life, and the more realistic the better.

Jasper and Melinda have been trying for a few months to get pregnant with no luck. Windsong, on the other hand, is in the late stages of her first pregnancy. The child status of the couples is important, because when Tom and Karen arrive (and while Karen makes what appears to be a delicious, fruity sangria with blueberries), we learn that this older couple, both of whom came together after unsuccessful first marriages, decided not to have children.

When the younger couples balk at their choice and imply that their decision is a selfish one, Karen’s calm defense belies the fact that she’s had to go down this road more than a few times. “It’s not like we’re bad people because we don’t want to procreate,’’ she says.

The tone of the cheerful barbecue quickly changes to one of unease and discomfort, especially when the older couple dons the landlord mantle and basically says to Jasper and Melinda that if they have a baby, they have to find another place to live.

The arrival of Dwight (Yule, above) — complete with cheap beer and a slacker attitude — lightens the mood somewhat. His showpiece is a monologue about what it’s like to be a waiter in a fairly nice restaurant when families with young children come in. It’s a great moment, and the mere mention of the word “Cheerios’’ brings a knowing chuckle from the audience.

When the barbecue breaks up, Gilman, paired up for the fourth time with director Amy Glazer, doing some of her best, most detailed work here, gets down to the meat of her drama. Jasper has been well and truly thrown by the afternoon’s events, and as night falls (Kurt Landisman’s transitioning, dusky lighting is gorgeous), he finds himself pondering all of his life’s choices.

Jasper is a bright, somewhat quiet man, and he admits that the idea of living an unexamined life is repellent to him. So he begins examining. Why are Dan, Dwight and Windsong — intelligent enough people but not really astute — his friends? Does he really want to have a child with Melinda? Does he even love her?

The older couple, having left the party when they sensed that their childlessness (“And our bad personalities,’’ as Karen puts it) were ruining the party, return to apologize, and the play deepens into something completely captivating and heartfelt.

Holt (above, with Webster) and Robinson, two veteran local actors, are incredibly good at maneuvering their prickly characters and imbuing them with warmth and intelligence. And Webster rises to their level.

In fact, all of the performances under Glazer’s direction are superb, and the play’s brief 75 minutes fly by but never feel rushed.

In some of her previous plays, Gilman has been sort of a finger-wagger, stirring up issues and hectoring her audience. With The Crowd You’re in With, she gives her audience a jolt, but it’s more like she wants to knock us out of our big, fat American apathy and think — really think — about the choices we make in our lives and why we make them.

The Crowd You’re in With continues through Dec. 9 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Call 415-441-8822 or visit for information.

Magic announces new season

San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, is looking ahead to next season.

The lineup, announced last week, kicks off in September with a world premiere: Expedition 6, created and directed by Bill Pullman, best known as a film actor (While You Were Sleeping, Independence Day). This original docudrama explores the political and personal life of two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut stranded on the International Space Station after the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003.

Next up in November is the world premiere of Rebecca Gilman’s The Crowd You’re in With, a drama about modern families and friendships, followed by the world premiere of Betty Shamieh’s Territories, a historical thriller set during the Crusades, in January.

The new year also brings a world premiere from Irish writer Edna O’Brien. Tir Na nOg (Land of Youth) is an adaptation — with music — of O’Brien’s novel The Country Girls. The show opens in February.

In April comes another world premiere, Kevin Fisher’s Monkey Room, a comedy about the search for an HIV vaccine. And in May of 2008 comes Birnham Woods, yet another world premiere, by Wendy MacLeod, which deals with a dinner party turned into an Orwellian web of politics and deceit.

Visit for information.