Courting the Lower East Side with Andy Bragen
Andy Bragen’s new play, Don’t You F**king Say a Word, is a love letter to one of those funny little subcultures that exists in pockets around the city—in this case, the public tennis courts on the Lower East Side, and the eclectic community that has arisen on these battlegrounds of amateur tennis competition. The play’s production, running for the month of November at 59E59 Theaters, is also the first foray of the newly inaugurated Andy Bragen Theatre Projects, a company born of and for the New York theater community that the playwright has long been part of.
The play’s title is a direct quote from Bragen himself, uttered on those crumbling tennis courts in the heated third set tiebreak of a match, before both he and his friend/opponent stormed off the court (only to sheepishly call each other twenty-five minutes later, after consulting with their respective girlfriend and wife). Inspired by the “inner eight-year-old” that emerged in that moment—“some part of me that I don’t see very often, and is not very pretty”—Bragen has crafted a play that simultaneously takes place during a single legendary (in their minds) tennis match, and over the course of a two-year competition/friendship between two guys, Brian and Russ.
The story is told from the perspective of their two girlfriends, who are trying to make sense of, as the character Kate explains, “The deep wells that drive men forward—to the office, to the track, to the fields of war, to the fields of sport.” Though she admits, “There may well be less there than meets the eye. Less profundity, less imagination.” Her co-narrator Leslie agrees: “We’re talking about a tennis match. That’s all.”
While Bragen describes the piece as a platonic male love story between these two tennis obsessives—whose competition builds to that epic match—it’s also about the tentative friendship between the two women, acquaintances from college who bump into each other years later on the street. “I was interested in the notion of what it is to make friends in your 30s, and the complications of that in the city where we’re all absorbed in our lives and work,” says Bragen. With the women, there’s a lot of noncommittal talk about doing yoga together, which ultimately culminates in the play’s final gorgeous image.
For all its testosterone-driven sport, the play’s production is directed by a woman, and features the rare all-female design team. Lee Sunday Evans, who earned an OBIE two years ago for her athletic staging of Kate Benson’s Thanksgiving-dinner-turned-sporting-event play, helms the production, which promises to be both theatrically experimental and fun, appealing to the entire Venn diagram of adventurous theatergoers and obsessive tennis players—who, according to Bragen, say it cuts very close to the bone.
From Don’t You F**king Say a Word:
Based on physical ability, and skill, it was hard to separate them. And so it came down, as it so often does, to the space between the ears. Tennis being primarily a mental game. A game of focus.
To put everything else outside.
To not hate yourself after a mistake.
To not get too high, too low...
Everyone likes to win. Men in particular.
And when they don’t?
It can become a much bigger deal than it should.
Goddamnit! (He breathes then manages a forced smile.) Nice shot.
I caught up with Andy a week before the start of rehearsals.
Kate Walat (Rail): Tell me about these tennis courts.
Andy Bragen: This is a place that I probably know better than I should—I spent a lot of time there in my late 20s and early 30s. They’re just north of the Williamsburg Bridge, and between the East River and the FDR Drive. They’re very noisy. Sometimes you have to use hand signals to communicate what the score is. And they’re not in the greatest shape. But there’s a real community there.
People think of tennis as more of a patrician sport, but at these public courts there’s a diverse crowd—ethnicity-wise, age-wise, class-wise—it’s this great mix of people who share this passion for the sport, and choose to play on these crazy courts. I’ve had so much pleasure and suffering there. The people I mention in the play are certainly loosely based but people I’ve known there. Maybe they’ll recognize themselves, who knows.
From Don’t You F**king Say a Word:
There’s Phil the retired sanitation worker who feeds the squirrels.
Up against Hans, the pot-bellied German chef. Employed at a private club, he claims to have cooked for Henry Kissinger.
On court two, Mitch and Ted, the lawyer and the judge, as Brian calls them. Grey haired, distinguished, slow-moving. They play doubles with Kong and Sung.
Kong’s a retired postman.
Sung owns the beef jerky shop on Bayard Street. One day Brian and I happened in there. When Brian spotted him behind the counter, his jaw dropped. He said:
“You never see these guys out of shorts.”
Which got me wondering: who are these people, really?
Rail: It’s exciting that this is your theater company’s first show (mounted together with producer Rachel Sussman). Was there something about this script, in particular, that made you want to bring it to audiences? Or were you led by a larger belief in artists producing their own work?
Bragen: I came to the company through the play. While I was doing a workshop of it at New Dramatists with Lee Sunday Evans, I recognized that she was the perfect director for the play. And I realized that I had the community—the artists—to put together a really terrific production. And so on an initial level, I felt like: Why am I waiting for someone to do this for me, when I have the tools and the ability to do it?
I believe very strongly in artist- and playwright-led companies, and playwright-centered work. We can really put forth our vision in a three-dimensional way and reach an audience more directly than in the past, thanks to the ease of communication via the internet and to venues such as 59E59 [a “curated rental” on 59th Street in Manhattan that hosts artists and companies].
I think it’s a great moment to take the next step after 13P to build a company by playwrights, for the theater community and the larger New York audience.
Rail: 13P was an inspiration to a lot of us writers—to see that really exciting work on its feet, and to realize that it was a group of playwrights that was producing it.
Bragen: Absolutely. But where do we go with that? One thing about 13P is that a lot of it had to do with putting on a play and launching a writer into the institution. I’m not sure that’s actually my goal. I want to work in and out of institutions, but I take inspiration from a lot of avant-garde artists as well. Young Jean Lee, Daniel Fish, Richard Maxwell—writers and directors who really build their own institutions and collaborate through that. I feel like there’s space for that right now.
When you and I first came up, it was very different. We would write our play, and we would mail it as a hard copy to a theater, and wait and wait, and eventually someone might get back to us. Now there are ways to reach audiences directly—building shows, and following up on 13P’s idea of not developing plays, but doing them.
I’m not just writing a script and entering a system where they produce plays, I’m building a way to do it for myself. I feel so empowered artistically by that. I’d also like to possibly work with other writers to produce their plays, and to co-produce with other institutions, but coming to the table as a partner, instead of a supplicant.
Rail: You’re a week away from starting rehearsal. What have been some of the biggest obstacles for you, on the producing front?
Bragen: The funding still remains challenging. We’re working under [an Actors Equity] contract, which means we’re paying actors’ health insurance, we’re paying pension. We’re not producing a showcase, which might be more typical, because I’m part of this community and I believe that we need to pay the actors what we can. Also, more practically speaking, the contract we’re using allows for a longer run and for higher ticket prices. So it’s a model that carries greater risk, with greater reward.
Rail: And it elevates the work.
Bragen: I think it does. The idea of a showcase is hoping that someone’s going to see this, and put me somewhere else. And I’m saying, this is where I want to be: working with these actors, in this community, at 59E59.
Rail: And what an amazing cast of New York-regulars you have: Jeanine Serralles, Jennifer Lim, Michael Braun, and Bhavesh Patel. You have a footnote in your script about how the casting of the play’s roles should reflect the diversity of New York City, which you’ve accomplished as well.
Bragen: I’m really thrilled to be working with these four.
Rail: How is this piece a trademark Andy Bragen play, and how is it distinct?
Bragen: I think it’s similar in that I start with the personal, and move outward from there. I’m interested in plays that push the form. And this play moves back and forth in time, with great fluidity, and has great plasticity of time and place. I’m a native of the Lower East Side, and I write a great deal about that place that I love and grew up in.
In terms of how it might be different, I feel like every play is different, and the joy and frustration of, every time you’re looking at a blank page, there’s no formula for it, at least not for me.
Rail: Is that something that attracts you to playwriting versus other forms of dramatic writing: the freedom that we have to discover or create a form for each new project?
Bragen: I love that formal aspect of it. And I love that there’s a kind of fellowship in space, in that little room where the lights go out. It feels very local to me: I’m here in New York City, writing about New York City. I don’t want theater to be the farm team for television. I’m not interested in that. So my inclination is to really push further from that, and to see what really this form can be.
Don’t You F**king Say a Word, written by Andy Bragen, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, presented by Andy Bragen Theatre Projects & Rachel Sussman, will run November 4 – December 4 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th Street, Manhattan). Sound Design by Amy Altadonna; Costume Design by Ásta Bennie Hostetter; Set Design by Amy Rubin; Lighting Design by Masha Tsimring. Featuring Jeanine Serralles, Jennifer Lim, Michael Braun, and Bhavesh Patel. For tickets, visit 59e59.org. For further information about Andy Bragen Theatre Projects, visit andybragen.com/andy-bragen-theatre-projects/.
KATHRYN WALAT is a playwright whose latest work is Small Town Values, inspired by Wilder's Our Town.