Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Theater feature: Laufer thrilled with response to 'Sirens'

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer.

By Hap Erstein

She has had three of her plays premiere at Florida Stage and one of them -- the apocalyptic comedy, End Days -- had an off-Broadway run last spring.

But with her latest work, Sirens, showcased at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., last month, Deborah Zoe Laufer landed on the radar of the nation’s regional non-profit theaters and commercial producers.

“There’s been a really thrilling response,” she says of the play’s monthlong run in rotating repertory. “The people who come up to you are extremely nice and positive and loving about it. I guess the ones that don’t like do not tell you.”

Sirens is about a New York empty-nester couple that has been married for 25 years, long enough for the passion in their relationship to ebb. Sam Abrams, a songwriter with one big hit to his credit, has lately been spending much of his time on Facebook and other Internet sites, seeking an old high school girl friend he never quite got over.

Brian Russell and Mimi Lieber in Sirens.
(Photo by Harlan Taylor)

And when Sam and his wife, Rose Adelle, take a Mediterranean cruise to rekindle their romance, he hears the call of a not-so-mythical siren and jumps overboard to find her. At least that is what the plays is about now, for Laufer often takes a circuitous route of discovery in her writing.

“Generally, none of my plays start where they wind up. This started with me reading Oliver Sacks’ book 'Musicophilia,'” she explains. The play “was going to be about a musicologist, about the creative impulse, and along the way it turned into a play about a middle-aged couple. But that’s typical for me. I’m usually surprised by where they end up going.”

Sirens first went before an audience at last year’s 1st Stage plays reading festival at Florida Stage, where it was embraced by the audience. Soon afterwards, producing director Lou Tyrrell announced that it would be the lead-off play of the current subscription season. But Laufer felt it was not ready for a full production world premiere then, so she withdrew it.

“Florida Stage is my home. I would have been tremendously happy to have it open there, but I am glad it didn’t. It was not ready,” she insists. “It still needed a ton of work. I knew that it couldn‘t be ready in time.”

“(Lou) was willing to get me support, he wanted to get me a dramaturg, to help on it and I crumble under that kind of pressure. It needed time. It needed the magic to happen before I’d be happy with it,” says Laufer. “I’ve been really unhappy with the play, up until probably the morning of opening (in Louisville). I rewrote up until that morning.”

Listening to Laufer talk about the development of her play, it does sound a bit mystical and quirky, just like Sirens. Initially, she was struck by the image of a siren, which is where the play began. “I fell in love with the idea of the siren. And this was still while it was a play about a musicologist,” she says.

“I love when I have an ultimate image of what my theme is. Like when I was writing 'End Days,' I had both Jesus and Stephen Hawking on the stage, representing two very different viewpoints on how the world works. So having a siren, that voice that calls you, often to your death, seemed like the ultimate idea of how music and passion and all that could be integrated.”

Back when Sam Abrams first met Rose Adelle, he wrote a song to her, which went on to become a huge hit that artists from Billy Joel to Willie Nelson recorded. But as his marriage dried up, so did his creative juices.

The notion of being a one-hit wonder is not one of Laufer’s fears. “No, because I’ve written like nine plays already, so I’m beyond that worry,” she says with a nervous laugh.

“No, we had very dear friends who are now gone, Gene Raskin and his wife Francesca. He wrote the song 'Those Were the Days,'” setting a lyric to a Russian popular tune that became a megahit here in the late 1960s. “Gene was a Renaissance man. He was a painter, he taught architecture. He would have been fine no matter what he did, but they lived off that song for 50 years of marriage. I was always intrigued by that.”

Lindsey Wochley and Brian Russell in Sirens.
(Photo by Harlan Taylor)


The Humana Festival production was physically impressive, with the siren entering on a hydraulic reef from below the stage. “This was the production where everything was realized,” Laufer notes. “I’ll be fascinated to see it in a little black box with none of the bells and whistles and see how the story still rings. Because I think there’s also a lot of deep pain and comedy and a real human story in it.

“It was a thrill of a life to see it all happen, to see everything you had in your head done, but better. But I would be interested to see the play is a tiny little theater with none of that. And I’ll also be interested in seeing it on a big Broadway stage with a thousand people laughing in the audience.

“So I hope it gets a New York production, and then I hope it’s done in every theater in the country.”

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