Lesser America Takes On A Tragic Chimpby Ken Urban
Lesser America makes pop theater. While not yet downtown theater’s Taylor Swift, this scrappy young theater company possesses a strong populist streak. The company, led by trio of actors Laura Ramadei, Nate Miller, and Dan Abeles, wants to keep tickets cheap and audiences entertained, even as they choose work that mainstream theaters are too scared to program. Their upcoming production of Nick Jones’s Trevor is the company’s biggest show in their three-year history. The marriage of Jones and Lesser America makes perfect sense. Nick’s plays, on the surface, have a fratboy’s sense of humor, but underneath the jokes exists an unsettling sense of sadness.
The story of Lesser America’s founding is a familiar one. A group of artists come together for a project but find that they like working together and decide to form a company. Laura Ramadei explains, “We founding members did a show together, and found a bit of magic in our dynamic. We dug the same theater conventions and genres, and we generally just had a blast being around each other, so the seeds of the company were planted.” That first show was Keep Your Baggage With You by Jonathan Blitstein, produced as part of Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City, and that show laid the groundwork for the company in a number of ways.
Blitstein wrote a new play Squealer which was the company’s first official production as Lesser America. Daniel Talbott, who directed both Baggage and Squealer, served as a mentor during the company’s early days. Talbott is both the artistic director of Rising Phoenix Rep and co-literary manager at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and he shared his deep knowledge of the indie theater scene with the Lesser Americans. But most crucially, Crystal Field, who runs Theater for the New City, saw the potential in these artists and offered the nascent company a residency at her theater. As any New York theater maker knows, having a space to call home is huge. Ramadei characterizes the company’s relationship with TNC as “evolving and mutually beneficial.” She explained, “The theater wanted to engage with the younger audience that we bring to the theater, and Crystal and the staff have been generous enough to let us tap into the most vital roots of downtown theater.”
Since Squealer, the company has produced American River by Micheline Auger and Too Much Too Soon, an evening of short plays by six writers including Jones, Melissa Ross and myself. Along the way founder Blitstein left the company to focus on his graduate studies. And now they are getting ready to open Jones’s Trevor, a play that recasts Willy Loman as a 200-pound chimp. Jones explains:
I was really fascinated by the story of Travis, the chimp who attacked that woman in Connecticut a few years back. It’s a horrible story, but the details that came to light are incredible. Travis was a former show biz chimp living with a widow. Supposedly they had baths together, drank wine from long stemmed glasses, and Travis, on at least one occasion, was allowed to drive a car! It really excited my imagination. I felt like there was potential to tell a story that was absurd but ultimately tragic. It took me a while to figure out how exactly to do it, but eventually I had the idea that I’d use the structure of Death of a Salesman as a jumping off point.
Jones’s last play in New York was The Coward, produced by Lincoln Center in 2010. In the old theater economy, it would be surprising to see his follow-up produced downtown on a tiny budget. But if a playwright wants productions, waiting for uptown doesn’t always make sense. Jones sees it this way, “The people who come to see this play will be the ones who want to see it. We don’t have to cater to subscribers who complain because they find the chimpanzee un-relatable.”
The production is directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel and features the heavy hitting acting talents of Steve Boyer in the title role and Colleen Werthmann as the chimp’s caretaker. Von Stuelpnagel calls Trevor,“The most hysterical tragedy that I’ve ever worked on.” That is saying something given von Stuelpnagel’s other job as the Artistic Director of Studio 42, a company, now in its second decade, which prides itself on producing the unproducible. Choosing von Stuelpnagel as the director is also a reminder that a new theater company survives by working with those who know how it’s done.
KEN URBAN is a playwright and musician. For more info, www.kenurban.org