2009 SF Arts Monthly
Two World Premieres
By Jean Schiffman
The dire economy notwithstanding, healthy artistic risk-taking continues in the Bay Area: Two world premieres—one a long anticipated, high-profile rock opera, the other a satirical comedy—launch the 9-10 season for two popular theaters on opposite sides of the bay.
In downtown Berkeley, the city’s flagship theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, opens with great fanfare by premiering American Idiot, based on Green Day’s 2004 album of the same name . . .
Meanwhile, at downtown San Francisco’s SF Playhouse, Billy Aronson’s comedy First Day of School begins innocuously enough, as a couple, pausing outside the elementary school after registering their kids, wonders how to spend the rest of their day off from work: a movie? a bike ride? Or, says the wife casually, “Maybe we should try having sex with other people.”
And from there the play veers off on its own wacky trajectory, involving three other middle-aged P.T.A. parents with raging, if covert, libidos and a pair of randy teenagers.
Aronson calls it “boldly comic, stylized material that’s very serious.” After being in development for several years, the script arrived on the desk of Chris Smith when he was artistic director of the Magic Theatre. Smith, captivated by the offbeat premise, commissioned Aronson, a longtime colleague, to complete it. Now a freelance director, Smith got an enthusiastic go-ahead from SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English.
On the phone from New York, Aronson says he’s far too shy to do the outrageous things his characters do—at 52, he claims to lead an almost boringly lovely life with his wife and two children in Brooklyn. But, he adds, “There’s always got to be a big part of me in each of my characters, even teenagers. I know them imaginatively. I can relate to their different eccentricities . . . I have to be willing to write restlessness and nastiness and people doing all kinds of weird stuff for a noble reason: to get at something beautiful and strange about life.”
His characters, in their bland, suburban environment, call to mind the chattering middle-class characters of theater-of-the-absurdist Eugene Ionesco, whose works—along with those of an eclectic sampling that includes Shepard, Feydeau, Beckett, Brecht—have particularly influenced Aronson. “I’m fascinated by the things people say, the words we use to hide what we’re truly feeling,” he says. With an ear for contemporary dialogue that’s unerring, he cheerfully confesses to eavesdropping on subways, in parks: “I’m obsessed with the way people say things.”
Smith compares Aronson’s use of language to artists Seurat or Lichtenstein—“It’s incredibly sharp and pointed; then when you step back it takes on a dimension and depth of field that’s extraordinary. It creates a mosaic that’s beyond the sum of its parts.”
Smith says he cast actors who can play comedy with devastatingly high stakes—he was looking for the Buster Keatons, not the Jim Carreys: actors who, like Keaton, can be inches away from tragedy and yet hysterically funny. Aronson’s script, he says, is “funny, smart, subversive . . . up to something.” He describes Aronson himself as having a benign, Woody Allen persona, a charming and magical sense of humor. “He’s honed a way to tap into a kind of neurosis,” muses Smith.
For Aronson, known for writing one-acts (at New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre) and popular children’s shows—and for originating the concept, and additional lyrics, for the musical Rent—First Day has taken him in an entirely different direction. He feels confident that Smith and the cast—which includes such local favorites as Zehra Berkman, Stacy Ross, Jackson Davis and Marcia Pizzo—will walk the fine line between comedy and tragedy. “The comedy is in the small things, and in taking it seriously,” he says. “I think it can be moving if it’s funny in the right way.® Sept. 23-Nov. 7, 533 Sutter St., 677-9596. www.sfplayhouse.org