Sam Forman Returns to Theater J
In theater, as elsewhere, everybody’s always looking for the next big thing. New plays and new playwrights, especially. They are looking for the next Miller, the next Mamet. Not that the theater world is lacking for fresh new talent: Sarah Rule, Craig Wright, the Pulitzer Prize winning Bruce Norris are all worthy of acclaim.
So is Sam Forman. A quintessential New York type in some ways, Forman is young, hip, very smart and a knowing young playwright and actor who has brought something to the theater that goes back to Chekhov, Neil Simon, even Woody Allen. Mostly, though, he’s brought himself.
This very site and psyche specific writer seems to have found a congenial home for his work at Theater J, where, for the second time, he has garnered a world-premiere production of one his plays.
You might remember Forman for his “The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall,” which received a world-premiere production at Theater J two seasons ago. “Hall,” flavored and textured with Woody Allen references and touches, got critical praise, terrific and mixed audiences, and a Helen Hayes award nomination. It featured a not-so-nice guy character—a young playwright no less—who would do just about anything to get his idea of a musical version of Woody Allen’s most famous film on the Broadway boards.
Now he’s back with “The Moscows of Nantucket,” getting a healthy May 11-June 12 run at Theater J.
“I really love coming here… It’s like a home for me,” Forman said in a phone interview here. “Ari Roth, the artistic director, has had great faith in my work. He’s created a legacy here, of very specific work for a specific community that’s universal.”
You could say that Forman is doing something of the same thing, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a kind of dervish dance, making culturally-specific work—Jewish background, Jewish characters—become something that catches the hearts and minds of a universal audience.
“Well, Neil Simon did it, and he did that very well,” Forman says. “Everybody has ambition like the lead in Annie Hall. Everyone has families, like the people in ‘Nantucket,’ and I think people, when they let themselves, recognize that.”
New plays, new playwrights aren’t always everyone’s cup of tea, and the scenario at Theater J is especially tricky because many of the season subscribers tend to be older and have been known to walk out on material that offends them.
But Forman’s plays—if my memories of “Hall” are on the money” and if his resume is any indication—are thought provoking, funny, entertaining and built on authentic characters. They may not always be likeable—how boring would that be—but they are recognizable. “That was the thing about Henry, the lead character in ‘Annie Hall.’ He’s got this show, this musical version of the movie, he’s in proximity to this successful producer, and he’s even willing to set up his girl friend. I played him in some productions… He’s based on my experience, but he’s not me. But I understand him, you know.”
“Nantucket” (which echoes some of Chekhov’s gatherings, albeit a little more frantically and loudly) concerns Benjamin Moscow, a 30-something, would-be novelist who is having trouble making a mark, having just moved back in with his parents partly because his girlfriend left him for another girl. The Moscows are gathering in Nantucket, a Wasp enclave not always hospitable to Jewish residents. Brother Michael has arrived with his new wife, a prominent television star, along with the nanny. Sibling rivalry, already a lifetime past time, heats with the matriarch and patriarchs caught in the middle.
“It’s a family play, a dysfunctional family play,” Forman said. “Sure, there’s some very Jewish family dynamics going on—the blonde Southern wife comes as a culture shock to the parents. There’s modern life struggling with tradition.”
Forman grew up in New York seeing plays like John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” and Albee and others, the new generations that found prominence in the 1960s. Ari Roth sees a lot of Neil Simon in him: “Sam’s got a lot in common with great playwrights like Neil Simon. He understands character, he understands human psychology, he understands story, and he understands audiences. That being said, he’s a writer from a whole new generation, and he’s not shy about his youth.”
Like a lot of new artists, Forman is a multitasker in the sense that he doesn’t stay with one gift, one genre or one thing. He recently co-created “Hickory Hill,” a television pilot for American Movie Classics, a station that has suddenly become a home for cutting edge series television. He’s the lyricist and co-author of the book for “I Sing!” And numerous other plays, and he remains an actor. “But I’m a writer first,” he says. “I think.”
"The Moscows of Nantucket" will be at Theater J from May 11 - June 12. For more information visit WashingtonDCJCC.org.