Contemporary Plays: Understanding Life Today

Contemporary PlaysContemporary plays tackle 21st century issues and present them on stage. From the uniqueness of ordinary lives to the wonder and horror of extraordinary events, modern playwrights seek to express what it means to be alive at this time. These different contemporary plays – as with all creative writing – spring forth from the different perspectives and voices of these authors. Whether read on the page or seen on the stage, you can learn more about life today and the craft of playwriting by experiencing these works.

Writing for the stage can unleash your own creative soul. It can explore imaginary worlds, or historical times. It can speak universal truths or heal your own life. But most of all playwriting speaks to the time in which it was written.

The following plays explore everything from the Iraq War to dysfunctional families. The Internet and technology function as a medium for the characters to interact, but so too do fantastical imaginings of the underworld. In short, there is no limit to the imaginations of stage worlds that explore our own time.

Peter Morris: Guardians

Peter Morris is an American playwright educated at Yale University in Connecticut and Oxford University in the United Kingdom. The author of other plays – such as “The Age of Consent,” which theatre critic John Peter said sends the viewer out “in a state of moral turbulence” – Morris is best known for his work “Guardians.” The play debuted in 2005, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. During its festival run, “Guardians” won a Fringe First Award from The Scotsman. The play then debuted in 2006 Off-Broadway at The Culture Project in New York City. It explores ideas surrounding guilt, class, and motivation surrounding the prisoner abuse scandals of the Iraq War.

The Culture Project production starred actor Lee Pace as “English Boy” and actress Kate Moennig as “American Girl.” (We never learn the characters’ names.) Pace was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for his work in this show.

Morris explores these two characters’ stories through interwoven monologues. They exist in separate spheres but their two stories touch on similar themes. Both characters – despite their wildly divergent backgrounds and experiences – are linked by the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.

The English Boy is a tabloid journalist who stages photographs of prisoner abuse to publish in the newspaper. His goal is to further his own career, regardless of the implications. On the other hand, the American Girl is in a military prison for her role in the actual abuse and photographing of prisoners in Iraq. As with many creative works, Morris used real life incidents as inspiration for this play. The Daily Mirror did indeed publish fabricated photographs of abuse in 2004. And the female character is based loosely on the real-life Army soldier Lynndie England. The New York Times review described “Guardians” as “a portrait of two personalities warped by the conspiring forces of circumstance and psychology.” Karen J. Greenberg, Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University’s School of Law, called the play a “truly profound” exploration of America’s role in and reaction to the prisoner abuse scandal of Abu Ghraib.

Morris’ unflinching gaze at the guilt and causes of these crimes, his deftly crafted verbiage, and his strangely sympathetic characters all blend seamlessly into an unforgettable piece of playwriting.

Stephen Karam: Speech & Debate

Stephen Karam hails from Scranton, Pennsylvania originally. He now lives in New York City and teaches at The New School. He is a graduate of Brown University in Rhode Island. His play “Speech & Debate” was first performed at a workshop in Providence for the Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theatre in 2006. It later ran Off-Broadway at the Roundabout. The play features three characters – gay Howie, nerdy Solomon, and frumpy Diwata – and is a dark comedy. These three students band together with the goal of exposing their drama teacher, who sexually preys on teen boys. The Los Angeles Times review said that “despite the sobering themes it touches on, [Speech & Debate] is an extremely playful, even uproarious comedy about high school nerd subcultures, sexual confusion and the social effect of the Internet.”

Annie Baker: Circle Mirror Transformation

Annie Baker is a Massachusetts native who graduated from Brooklyn College and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her play “Circle Mirror Transformation” first ran Off-Broadway in 2009 at Playwrights Horizons. It won the Obie Award for Best New American Play, and was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. The play follows the residents of a small Vermont town called Shirley. These wildly different individuals all sign up for an adult drama class. Through the process of theater games and actors’ exercises, the members of the class learn about themselves and each other. The play gently explores ideas of communication and connection – the essence of what it means to be human, in short.

Adam Rapp: Stone Cold Dead Serious

Adam Rapp was born and raised in Illinois. After graduating from Clarke College in Iowa, he spent two years as a playwriting fellow at the Juilliard School in New York City. His 2002 play “Stone Cold Dead Serious” follows the hilarious and heartbreaking adventures of Wynne Ledbetter. Wynne is a teenager with a waitress mom, a junkie sister, and a disabled dad. But he has a plan to help them all that involves winning a national video game contest. The prize is a million dollars – Wynne intends to win and change the lives of his family. Bruce Weber of The New York Times said of this play, “It’s depiction of a working-class America that is unable to dream of anything beyond enduring is as sincerely sad a commentary on our culture as I’ve seen in recent memory.”

Sarah Ruhl: Eurydice

Sarah Ruhl was born in Illinois and attended Brown University for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and was also awarded the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award. Her play “Eurydice” was first performed in 2003. It is a retelling of the Orpheus myth.

Orpheus the musician went to the underworld to retrieve his lost love, Eurydice. However, he had to do so on the one condition that he not look back to see if she was following him out. He cannot resist, and looks backwards. Eurydice must, as a result, return to death.

The writing of the play was inspired by the loss of Ruhl’s own father. The New York Times review described “Eurydice” as a “weird and wonderful new play,” describing it further as “an inexpressibly moving theatrical fable about love, loss and the pleasures and pains of memory.”

Gina Gionfriddo: Rapture, Blister, Burn

Gina Gionfriddo was born in New York City and graduated from Barnard College and Brown University. She has written for the stage and for television. She has won various prizes and honors including the Obie Award. She has taught playwriting at various colleges, as well.

Her play “Rapture, Blister, Burn” explores the lives of four different women and examines the feminist movement. The New York Times dubbed it “intensely smart” and “intensely funny,” as it “illuminates how hard it can be to forge both a satisfying career and a fulfilling personal life in an era that seems to demand superhuman achievement from everyone.” Gionfriddo herself summed up the essence of the play in the same newspaper by asking, “How do men and women figure out how to negotiate their equality better?” She acknowledged that it was in some ways an unintentional homage to Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles.”

Lynn Nottage: Ruined

Lynn Nottage was born and raised in New York City. She graduated from Brown University, and the Yale University School of Drama. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Grant. She also won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “Ruined.” The play details the situation of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country torn by civil war. Nottage previously worked at Amnesty International and based her work on interviews with survivors of rape and the Congolese war. As woman of color herself, she often writes about issues affecting black and African women. The play “Ruined” focuses on Mama Nadi and her café, where she keeps the peace between customers who fall on both sides of the war.

Quiara Alegria Hudes: Water by the Spoonful

Quiara Alegria Hudes was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is of Jewish and Puerto Rican descent. She graduated from Yale University, for her undergraduate degree, and Brown University, for her Master’s degree. She won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical for “In the Heights,” and won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Water by the Spoonful.” The Pulitzer committee describes this latter work as “an imaginative play about the search for meaning by a returning Iraq War veteran working in a sandwich shop in his hometown of Philadelphia.” He seeks solace in an online chat room with fellow recovering addicts. From the Main Line to Swarthmore College, the play takes place across the Philadelphia area. The play is the middle entry in Hudes’ “Elliott Cycle,” which starts with “Elliott, A Soldier’s Fugue” and ends with “The Happiest Song Plays Last.”

Tracy Letts: August: Osage County

Tracy Letts is a writer and actor from Oklahoma. He won both the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for his play “August: Osage County.” He more recently adapted into a screenplay for the film starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. He has also performed on stage, including playing George in a Broadway revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as George. He began his career in Dallas and later blossomed in Chicago where he worked at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The New York Times described “August: Osage County” as a “fraught, densely plotted saga of an Oklahoma clan in a state of near-apocalyptic meltdown.” It proclaimed the play as “probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.” The production transferred mostly unchanged from Chicago to New York City.

David Lindsay-Abaire: Rabbit Hole

David Lindsay-Abaire is from Boston. He attended Sarah Lawrence College. He is known for various works of stage and screen such as “Fuddy Meers.” He won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play “Rabbit Hole.” Cynthia Nixon, of “Sex and the City” fame, on the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for the role of Becca. The play follows a couple as they cope with the grief and trauma of losing their young child in an accident. Theatermania called the play one with “intelligence, sensitivity, and frequent insight.”