A young, creative woman tries to find her place in the world while also coming up against moral and social issues affecting her generation. No, Girls doesn’t have the monopoly on this subject. In fact, writer Alena Smith, nearly a decade older than Lena Dunham, explores similar themes in her comedy The New Sincerity, premiering at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater this month.
In an interview with Pulse Smith said the plot concerns, “an idealistic journalist at a snooty literary magazine who gets excited about an Occupy-like movement. Her editor thinks it’s stupid at first, but then he has a change of heart and wants to get completely involved. But what are his motives? This leads to a clashing of values between a hierarchical, competitive social arrangement and the more horizontal cooperative arrangement that Occupy was based on. So the journalist is torn.”
Asked how she might resemble said journalist, Smith replied, “I lived in New York for six years and then moved to LA two-and-a-half years ago. It’s great. I love it out here. And it’s much easier to find a paying job. So there are lots of jokes in the play about internships and how you get paid in love and prestige and social currency, but not actual money. It’s a commentary about what life is like in New York in your twenties. Every cultural pursuit feels really competitive. It’s so difficult to break in and you feel that other people are holding the keys and not giving them to you.”
The key holder in this case is director Bob Balaban, the noted actor who has a long association with Bay Street and is best known for his recurring role as a TV exec on “Seinfeld” and his appearances in numerous Christopher Guest mockumentaries. (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman). Smith, who has written for such cable series as The Affair and The Newsroom, showed Balaban her play and said he was excited. “He and I found a great creative connection, we’re also working on a film together.”
Balaban elaborated, “Alena and I share an agent, who showed me the play because I’ve always asked him to show me plays by new writers that he thinks are interesting. Being an actor, I’m very attracted to characters. Alena’s are vivid, original, intelligent and funny; there’s a real point of view to the writing. As we did readings over the past two years, I was quite impressed with her ability to mold and shape the material. I’m looking forward to seeing it on its feet with a wonderful cast.”
A Hamptons resident for more than a decade, Balaban is no stranger to Bay Street, having done a benefit there last year, a stint in Celebrity Autobiography before that and a reading of Paddy Chayefsky’s little-known comedy, The Latent Heterosexual, with Alec Baldwin years earlier. “[Bay Street does] good theater in a wonderful space. When artistic director Scott Schwartz came in, he somewhat reorganized the agenda to do plays that were a little more original and challenging. He thought The New Sincerity would be a really good play to open the season with. It’s not hard to digest or difficult or abstract, but it’s smart and it’s about something very contemporary.”
Occupy may have been eclipsed by other headlines long ago, but author Smith hopes her comedy won’t feel like yesterday’s news. “I wrote the play in 2012-13, in the aftermath of the first uprising of Occupy in New York,” she explained. “It didn’t get produced and for about a year after that, I was frustrated, thinking, ‘if we wait too long to do this play, it’ll feel irrelevant.’ But since more time has passed, we’ve seen Ferguson and the great Climate March—and so much more talk about income inequality. Yes, Occupy was made fun of and called vague, but it has seeped into the culture and changed that conversation. As a comic playwright, I want to chart the sound of the conversation and see what resonances it has with people.”
Asked about the importance of political theater—which American playwrights don’t seem to create as much as their international counterparts—Balaban replied, “I have no belief that any playwright should write anything but what’s in their heart. I wouldn’t want to limit them. The great thing about a play is that a playwright is completely self-generating anything he or she wants.
“Put it on in a tiny, little theater. If somebody said to you, ‘This is a play about a Kleenex box,’ the movie would never get made, but if you produce the play in a twenty-seat theater and invite a couple of people—almost like YouTube is a feeder for movies and television—these little readings and off-off-off-Broadway events are feeders for bigger productions. It allows playwrights to follow their imagination, which is why plays are so un-uniform.”
As for his directing style, Balaban believes in exploration first, decision-making second. It’s a cue he absorbed from his first major acting gig in 1968: while still in college, he appeared alongside George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton in Plaza Suite, directed by Mike Nichols. “Neil Simon and Mike Nichols had worked together for years and everything they did—Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple—was more successful than the last. So what struck me on the first day of rehearsal was when Mike said to George and Maureen, ‘Let’s spend the day exploring the hotel room. What do people do when they check into a hotel and walk into a room? Let’s just explore that.’ And they would mumble their way through the different scenes, all of which have people wandering through hotel rooms…
“In the back of my mind, it’s always, ‘they’re in an office. Are they working now? They’re talking, but it doesn’t say anything else about what they’re doing. What could they be doing?’ There could be nine choices. Let’s try some of them because behavior informs everything that you’re saying and doing. Let’s see what comes out of that. It teaches you a lot about people’s instincts.”