The FringeNYC world premiere of Roger Weisman‘s dark comedy How Do You Say Mother in Esperanto?, featuring contentious lovers known as He and She, addresses the emotional fallout of an alien abduction and sexual encounter. It seems fair to think of the play as the love child of Edward Albee and Steven Spielberg. “Extremely fair,” the playwright told me in an interview.
Lauren Miller (producer of NewTACTics New Play Festival) directs the 80-minute two-character play produced by Other Productions as part of the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival in Manhattan. Five performances play the new Sheen Center – The Black Box (18 Bleecker Street at Elizabeth): Friday, Aug. 8 at 5 PM; Sunday, Aug. 10 at noon; Wednesday, Aug. 13 at 9:45 PM; Saturday, Aug. 16 at 4:45 PM; and Thursday, Aug. 21 at 9 PM.
Here’s how Other Productions bills the play: “A young couple dealing with the aftermath of an alien abduction is forced to reexamine their notions of intimacy, fidelity and family when secrets from the past reveal that some encounters are closer than others. Human emotions and otherworldly phenomena create a volatile mix in this comic drama.” (Learn more about the international language Esperanto.)
The FringeNYC production features Zac Hoogendyk (Cleveland Play House’s In the Next Room) and Leigh Williams (TheatreWorks USA’s Great Expectations and Cleveland Play House’s Inherit the Wind). The creative team also includes lighting and scenic designer Nic Christopher and costume designer Veronica Sip. Chrislie Francois is production stage manager.
How Do You Say Mother in Esperanto? was first seen in a developmental reading in The Glass Eye’s Red Eye Reading Series in New York City.
Weisman’s play The Jaime Thing was produced by Theatreflective, of which he was a founding member. As a music and culture writer, he has contributed to The Huffington Post and The Waster while maintaining his own blog, Otherweis.
Here’s my chat with the playwright.
I’m always curious about the seeds a play. Where did How Do You Say Mother in Esperanto? come from? What prompted it?
Roger Weisman: I remember that the idea occurred to me while on a train home from a family gathering. Probably a Passover Seder or something. Apparently family and alienation were on my mind.
Did you see the situation first? The couple?
Roger Weisman: The situation came first. The idea of it originally, I think, was to be a bit more of a broad comedy. I thought that I could emphasize the ironic juxtaposition of the relationship drama with the alien abduction story while adding some crass humor about anal probes. It was as I began writing it that the couple came into sharper focus. As I started treating them with more respect, the idea of ironic juxtaposition fell away in favor of an approach that used the abduction story as a way of upping the stakes, of placing a couple in a situation that was so foreign that they are unsure of what emotions they could allow themselves to feel.
It’s a dark relationship comedy with a sci-fi edge. What’s your relationship with science fiction? Were you a kid who grew with a passion for Spielberg movies like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”?
Roger Weisman: I dug “Close Encounters.” I was more of a “Star Wars” kid, though. But yeah, all those George Lucas, Steven Spielberg movies, I used to love them as a kid. But I wasn’t your typical sci-fi enthusiast. All my friends would plow through books by Asimov and Bradbury, and I just didn’t. I don’t know why. I was into “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I read that book and the first two sequels (“2010” and “2061”). I was fascinated by the idea of alien intervention in human evolution. I still find it an interesting idea. I won’t go on record as saying I believe in it, though.
You know what really got me into the alien abduction thing? There was this old Time/Life book series called “Mysteries of the Unknown.” I got really into those books. They went beyond abductions and stuff and into ancient mysteries, ESP and stuff. Unfortunately, those books did make me start to have irrational fears of spontaneous combustion.
The play is sort of like the love child of Edward Albee and Steven Spielberg. Fair? What playwrights are you passionate about? Who influenced you?
Roger Weisman: Extremely fair. When we were doing auditions, some people said that they thought the play was Pinter-esque, but it was Albee that was more of a conscious influence. As for early influences? A lot of the usual suspects. Mamet was a huge influence early on when I was a teenager and I thought it was so cool to use rugged and coarse language — and of course there’s the musicality of it. O’Neill was an influence, and I was very pleased to be able to study the script of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in a class with Jose Quintero when I was 17. Sam Shepard and Michael Weller are a couple of other playwrights that inspired me early on. I’m sure I could go on and on.
Parenthood is very much at the core of the play. Are you a parent? Did personal stories of parenthood or parental dynamics inform the play?
Roger Weisman: I am not a parent. My own parents divorced and, in retrospect, I think that the experience of watching my own parents remarry people with children of their own certainly informed the story, even if it wasn’t necessarily conscious at the time.
The notion of a partner fearing they will be loved less, somehow, when a child arrives, is a big idea in the play. “She” reminds “He” that he loved her first. The ownership and rights to love are at play here. Did you know at the start of writing the play that this was an idea that would surface, or did you arrive at it?
Roger Weisman: It was one of the many themes that came out as I started focusing more on verisimilitude than irony.
Do you meticulously map out your plays, or do write more spontaneously?
Roger Weisman: I don’t map my plays out. I would hardly call what I do spontaneous, but I find I can be freer with my writing when I don’t have to worry about getting from point A to point B. I tend to have a series of beats in my head and I try to hammer those out. Those lead to other moments, and so on and so on. The meticulousness comes from the subsequent constructing of a coherent narrative out of those beats, tweaking them, extending them, sacrificing the ones that don’t help the through-line.
Where did you grow up? Where do you live now? As a kid, what exposure did you have to theatre?
Roger Weisman: I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. I went to school in Boston, getting my B.F.A. in acting from Emerson College. I currently live in Long Island City. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but artistically, Amherst was not a bad place to grow up. It was a smallish college town, but it had a pretty good arts scene. There was a good amount of local theatre and, with UMass being there, a lot of national touring productions of big shows would come through. When I was really young, my parents would take me to musicals like The Wiz and Annie, but eventually, I ended up seeing things that were less conventional and more jarring. When I was 11 or 12, somebody took me to see Angel City by Sam Shepard. It was the first time that a theatrical production inspired discomfort in me. It was a pivotal moment.
What else are you working on, play-wise?
Roger Weisman: I have a couple of things sort of in various degrees of completion. One is about four people who have moved to a secluded cabin in the woods believing that a coming cataclysm will destroy civilization. Wackiness ensues. That one was on the back burner for a while and, to my dismay, those kind of plays or movies are becoming quite common now. The one I really want to see on its feet next is Talking Dirty. It’s a shorter piece based on actual events surrounding one of the arrests of Lenny Bruce. I don’t want to give too much away about this one, because I love the conceit of it, but obviously it deals with the concepts of satire, social mores and censorship.