American novelist Dawn Powell will now be given what she never achieved in her lifetime—a career in the theatre—when NYC's 78th Street Theatre Lab and Sightlines Theatre Company present Permanent Visitor: A Festival Celebrating Dawn Powell in NY. The two-month-long event — running Jan. 18 to March 9 — will feature a new production of a 1934 Powell play, the world premiere of another Powell play, several dramatic adaptations of Powell short stories and one play featuring the writer as its central character.
Among the artists taking part in the festival are playwrights Kira Obolensky (Lobster Alice) and Laura Strausfeld (Snatches) and directors Will Pomerantz and Donna Linderman.
The first attraction in the 78th Street festival is a Jan. 18-Feb. 3 staging of Powell's Jig Saw. The play pits a Manhattan penthouse socialite and her daughter against each other as both vy for the affections of the mother's new beau. Cocktails feature prominently. Donna Linderman will direct.
Dawn Powell was born in Ohio in the late 19th century, but, soon after graduating from college, moved to the city which would become her hometown for the remainder of her life—as well as the subject of many of her novels—New York. From the 1920s to the 1960s, Powell produced a steady stream of sharply comic, satirical novels, half set in a bustling, unforgiving Manhattan, half in the mournful, narrow world of her native Ohio. While she always managed to make a living, she never truly thrived, none of her books making it past an initial printing. Her biggest success was "A Time to Be Born," a thinly disguised portrait of the rise of Clare Booth Luce. Other titles included "Turn, Magic Wheel," "Angels on Toast," "Dance Night" and "This Happy Island." Her various attempts at playwriting met with failure, the most notorious being a botched Group Theatre production of her Big Night, which was directed by Harold Clurman and starred Stella Adler.
Powell's reputation was resurrected in the '80s, after Gore Vidal wrote an adoring appreciation of her work, calling her "our best comic novelist." In the years following, all of her novels, as well as many short shorts, came back into print. Tim Page also published the first biography of Powell and an edited version of Powell's diaries. Both detailed Powell's loveless childhood, in which she bounced around from relative to relative; a marriage to an alcoholic fellow writer which deteriorated from happiness to an abject stalemate; her battles with her mentally challenged son, JoJo; her many friendships with the literary greats of her day; and her long struggles with money and alcohol.
The festival proceeds as follows:
• An Artist's Life and Other Cautionary Tales About the Theatre, Jan. 19-29
Kira Obolensky has adapted three Powell stories to make up this evening. Each tale casts a cold eye on the heartless world of show business. Will Pomerantz directs.
• As We Were Saying (or Were We?), Feb. 2-12
Playwright Laura Strausfeld bases this new play on Powell's voluminous diaries, as well as interviews she did and the novel This Happy Island. Powell, drinking and witty (as usual), tells of her life and career as she's profiled by a young reporter from the Herald-Tribune. Strausfeld's previous credits included Snatches, a play based on the tapes of dialogue between Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky. Eileen Phelan directs.
• Women at Four O'Clock, Feb. 14-March 3
This expressionistic play was never produced in Powell's time. The tale of a women's effort of alter her life during the Jazz Age here receives its world premiere, under the direction of Eric Nightengale. Nightengale is the artistic director of the 78th St. Lab.
• Straight Up...And With a Twist, Feb. 16-March 9
Another world premiere, this evening of eight one-acts by as many writers, all based on Powell stories, is the work of the theatre troupe, New Georges. The writers are: Sheila Callaghan, Cusi Cram, Carson Kreitzer, Ellen Melaver, Jenny Lyn Bade, Emily DeVoti, Stephanie Fleischmann, Lynn Rosen. Anne Kaufman will direct the Callaghan piece.
The festival is accompanied by several ancillary events, many of them free:
• A "Gala Kick-Off" will take place Jan. 28 at 6:30 at the Atlantic Theatre Company. $45 buys you entry, cocktails, a "Powell Cabaret" directed by Jo Bonney and a post-performance reception with author Tim Page. For information, call (212) 206-1515.
• Powell's play Big Night will receive a reading at the Union Square Barnes & Noble on Feb. 4 at 7 PM. Evan Yionoulis (Everett Beekin) will direct. For information, call (212) 253-0810.
• The Museum of the City of New York will host a Jan. 20 discussion between Page and LOA editor James Gibbons. The time is 2 PM.
• Michael Feingold, Fran Lebowitz and Marion Seldes will be among those reading selections from Powell's novels at The Algonquin Hotel on March 11 at 6:30 PM.
• And on March 4, a new musical adaptation by composer John Mercurio and lyricist Tajlei Levis of Powell's A Time to Be Born will get a staged reading at Musical Theatre Works at 440 Lafayette St. For information, call (212) 753-3732.
For information on the Powell Festival, call (212) 206-1515, or visit www.sightlinestheater.com.
—By Robert Simonson