Emerging playwright Evan Smith may be the only person in New York theatre he’s never heard of. That’s how unknown he is.
This will likely change, of course, both for Smith and for the theatregoing public, following the world premiere of his comedy, The Uneasy Chair , officially opening Off-Broadway Oct. 4 at Playwrights Horizons’ Anne G. Wilder Theatre.
In the week leading up to the opening, Smith was a little nervous about the future. The Playwrights Horizons commission and staging starring Dana Ivey and Roger Rees represents his most high-profile work yet. “Money from this will probably run out by the end of the year,” he admits, tentatively adding, “but, hopefully, there’ll be more [work] -- maybe.”
Splitting his time between his native Savannah, GA, and Brooklyn, Smith, who is 29, reads screenplays for money rather than working through a temporary employment agency, like so many of his young colleagues.
“I tried to temp,” he says, “but they fired me. I couldn’t type.” But he could write. Smith was offered the Uneasy Chair commission as a result of a relationship with Playwrights Horizons that began when he was 17 and his Remedial English was part of the (now-defunct) Young Playwrights Festival.
Over the years, Smith worked in the nonprofit’s literary department, got readings of his plays there and earned the Uneasy Chair commission in 1996. He was given no guidelines about content -- just dough.
Watching Ivey and Rees sparring in Smith’s Victorian-set comedy of marital ill-will, you would guess that Smith is a serious bookworm familiar with Wilde and Dickens and Shaw. In a separate interview, Dana Ivey said the richness of the language and wit is what attracted her to the “delicious” role of Amelia Pickles, a London landlady who sues her boarder for breach of contract when he doesn’t marry her, as expected.
“I started out wanting to write about the personality types, and it seemed to make sense to put it in this style,” says Smith, a 1994 Yale Drama School graduate whose MFA is in playwriting. “I was reading a huge amount of Victorian prose fiction. It all sort of fit together so perfectly. I started out reading Jane Austen, and I finished all of that and moved onto Dickens...then I moved onto Trollope.”
It was from a Trollope novel (he can’t remember which) that Smith read the phrase “uneasy chair” and it seemed to fit his play about people who stubbornly cling to social conventions -- like marriage --- no matter how destructive.
“There’s an incident in [Dickens’] ‘Pickwick Papers’ in which Pickwick is sued for breach of promise by his landlady, and I thought to myself, what would happen if he married her? What would that be like?” says Smith. “I thought Dickens had a great idea here, and he wasted it!”
Inspired by that seed from Dickens, Smith crafted an original group of characters and allowed them to speak directly to the audience as “a way of getting the voice of the 19th-century prose narrator into the play.” The accuracy in the depiction of petty games and the snarky dialogue between Miss Pickles and Rees’ Capt. Josiah Wickett suggests the playwright may have known characters like this. “Definitely, my parents are in this show,” he says. “They are married -- but no longer to each other. [The dialogue recalls] the way I personally bicker with them, and the way they used to bicker with each other. But, I don’t think anyone would say, ‘Oh, you put me in it!’ ”
Smith cautions, “I wouldn’t want people to assume I’m making generalizations about the institution of marriage based on these two freaks [Wickett and Pickles]. To me, the play is about the fear that one feels in having to deal in an intimate way with another person.”
Perhaps to counteract any possibility that his work is some bleak Shavian treatise, Smith includes absurdist flourishes, like a couple of drag turns and courtroom antics worthy of Monty Python. Actor Michael Arkin, for example, plays a lawyer who, by some quirk in the law, simultaneously represents plaintiff Pickles and defendant Wickett.
Audiences in previews howled at the intermittent sketch-comedy silliness of The Uneasy Chair , which has already been extended one week to Oct. 25, beyond its original Oct. 18 closing date. As a small-cast show of five performers, the play is likely to make its way into regional theatres by the 1999 season.
Smith says every play he writes isn’t stylish and Victorian. Servicemen , which was produced by New York Stage and Film at Vassar College (where he earned his undergrad degree in English), is set during World War II and is “a far more serious drama about moral decisions...and a lot of the people are dead by the end.”
“I’ve rewritten it, and I’ve been sort of waiting to see how (Uneasy Chair ) goes,” he says. “And then maybe I can start pushing it.” And maybe then Smith will stop being on the brink, and start being known.
-- By Kenneth Jones