"I'm very interested in people whose compasses for their lives are a bit off," playwright David Adjmi says, "in the tension in how they navigate their lives when they don't quite understand themselves. They're struggling to understand both themselves and the role they're being asked to play in their lives and the lives of other people."
That concern is a source of Adjmi's Marie Antoinette. The tale of the queen ultimately beheaded in the French Revolution is onstage this month at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, in a co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre, where it will be seen beginning Oct. 26. Rebecca Taichman directs; Brooke Bloom portrays the queen.
A.R.T. describes it as a "barbed and brassy comedy."
Adjmi's Off-Broadway work, including the plays Stunning and Elective Affinities (starring Zoe Caldwell) were both hits. His 3C, a takeoff of the 1970s sitcom "Three's Company," which was performed earlier this summer at Manhattan's Rattlestick Theatre, landed the playwright in a sticky situation with the creators of the aforementioned sitcom, who claimed Adjmi infringed on their copyright. Theatre people and organizations, led by Jon Robin Baitz and including Stephen Sondheim, John Guare and the Dramatists Guild, have come to Adjmi's defense, saying the play is a parody and protected under the fair use portion of the copyright law. The matter is still pending but has no doubt elevated Adjmi's name in the theatre world — whether he wanted it to or not. Marie Antoinette, Adjmi says, "has political resonances with the historical moment I wrote it — 2007, during the Bush administration." But it also has strong resonances, he says, with more recent political events, like Occupy Wall Street — "weirdly similar to tensions brewing around the French Revolution" — and the current "bizarre discrepancy between the privileged one percent and everybody else."
He also felt that discrepancy during the Bush administration, he says. "And I was interested in exploring the subjectivity of someone who was elected or maybe not elected to be a leader and yet didn't seem quite equipped to be a leader and seemed to be more often than not, in my opinion, impersonating a political leader."
The play, though, is not really about Bush, or an allegory of the Bush administration, he says. It's Marie Antoinette. She's "in this position of privilege, but she doesn't quite know how she got there, and she doesn't quite know who she is. When the revolution is in full swing — it's a little bit like Richard II — she spends the last third of the play trying to understand what happened and trying to be the queen she couldn't be before. But it's too late."
He says he has "a lot of sympathy for Marie Antoinette. I actually love her. She's a very lost soul. Many of my characters are lost souls."
He is, he says, "always looking to identify with people who have hurt me, or whose actions seem so egregiously wrong that I don't even know how I fit in the world with them. Sometimes I write to try to understand why people do the things they do."
Adjmi, 39, has won a Helen Merrill playwriting award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers' Award, the Kesselring Fellowship for Drama and a Steinberg Playwrights Award. And his reaction to all that stage success? It "doesn't affect me at all," he says.
"It's funny. With good reviews, you get a sense of relief, like you're not being beaten. And with bad reviews, you just feel like you're being beaten. There's no sense of elation. I don't know any artist who feels their own success — if you can call this success. I don't think that way. I just keep working."
(This feature appears in the September 2012 subscription issue of Playbill magazine.)