Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Port playwright Boho in Soho

Gregory S. Moss has gone native. He’s Boho in Soho, hanging out, living the Bohemian lifestyle in the Big Apple. That is to say the Port-born, Providence-based playwright, who made a huge splash on the local scene in the ‘90s with the edgy, irreverent Independent Submarine, is writing and generally imposing on the good will and the hospitality of his friends, since, for the moment, he doesn’t have a “real” job or anything especially pressing to do. He’s doing okay with the playwriting thing, though — very well. He’s got three different plays premiering in three major cities this year: “Punkplay,” a piece that has its roots in Newburyport, in the Inn Street youth culture during the first- and second- wave punk movements of the 1980s and 1990s, just closed at Steppenwolf Garage in Chicago, and “House of Gold,” his creepy, in-your-face take on the Jon-Benet Ramsey case — and, more to the point, the disturbing culture that produced and tricked out the pre-pubescent beauty queen, and lovingly, endlessly nurtured the case of her brutal murder for our nightly amusement — will have its professional debut at Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, D. C., in October. And ”Orange Hat and Grace,” his latest play ... well, that, ironically, is the reason Moss is in the city with nothing on his dance card.

“Orange Hat and Grace” is a “little more hospitable” than his previous shows. (“Or housebroken,” says Moss. “Or something ... I don’t know, maybe mature?”) Soho Rep, which made a huge splash last year with its critically acclaimed production of Sarah Kane’s “Blasted,” was supposed to bring out the play for a three-week run beginning next month — with SR artistic director Sarah Benson in the driver’s seat. Then came the "creative team availability issue"
— long story, believe me and the “Orange Hat and Grace” debut got pushed back until the fall. And Moss, in town to be a part of the conversation about the production, suddenly had time on his hands — not a lot, but nearly two months before he’s due back home to lead “Elements of Playwriting,” a four-session intensive designed as a “gymnasium for the writing brain,” he says, in which students will enter with blank sheets of paper and leave with pages of notes, fragments and scenes unlike anything they would have written on their own. It will be the first time Moss has been back in town since the revival of the wildly popular Yankee City Theatre Project, a multimedia documentary theater piece looking at old, weird Newburyport, last year. It’s also a way to “touch base with the community,” he says.

In the meantime, Moss is hanging in New York (“It’s where I should be anyhow,” he says) and trying to keep busy. Because, strange as it sounds, having three of your shows debuting in a year still leaves a lot of time to fill, unless, of course, you’re putting up the productions yourself. He’s collaborating with Nikole Beckwith, another Port exile in the Big Apple and Moss’s go-to actress from the Independent Submarine days, on a stage play and screenplay. Which is great, says Beckwith, a three-time Manhattan Monologue Slam champion, member of the YoungBlood’s playwright group and the Striking Viking Story Pirates. “Writing with other people is hard,” she says, “but it helps if you’ve known each other fifteen years and done as much work together as we have. I love working with Greg and am excited that we found a way to do that again.”

Moss is also working on three projects of his own: A wife and two mistresses, he says — the wife requiring, demanding the most attention, the others “pleasant distractions.” The mistresses are a straight play and a children’s play. And the wife? A follow-up to “punkplay,” a prequel of sorts focusing on the rise and fall of the counterculture in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He says he would like to stage “punkplay” in Newburyport at some point — and is considering directing it himself. He was in Chicago last month for the production by the Pavement Group, a young, energetic Chicago-based company. Sort of. He was actually hiding in the basement of the venue, pacing back and forth the whole time — his usual showtime strategy. (“I can’t be in the same room,” he says. It’s a challenging play — “deceptively so,” says the playwright, seeing how, on the surface, it’s just two guys in a room telling dick jokes. It grows more complex as you unpack it. It’s about Newburyport, about real people, drawn without much literary camouflage. It’s blunt, not necessarily flattering, maybe a little bald, says Moss. Anyone hanging at the fountain would not need a program to keep the players straight.

It was written, indirectly, in reaction to audience responses to “House of Gold” at the Firehouse and Brown University. The subject matter — a murdered pre-pubescent “beauty queen,” with the rest of us as participants, passively or otherwise — is pretty tough stuff, the show itself fearless and aggressively staged. It drew strong, visceral reactions from audiences. Moss found this“surprising,” causing him to examine his approach to theater — why he seemed determined to take what some might see as a deliberately provocative approach. He found the answer in the dim historical reflection of the Inn Street fountain, where all the first- and second-generation punk-rockers hung. Moss and fellow-traveler Dylan Metrano were key figures in that scene— if a decentralized anti-movement can have key figures — forming Hamlet Idiot, a fierce, blistering punk band; publishing Buzzy, a fanzine for the local and larger scenes, and establishing Envy Productions, a multi-media clearing house for alt-culture. “I wanted to write plays that felt like this music sounded,” he says. That is to say brash, aggressive and to the point.

The new play, ”Orange Hat and Grace,” is something else entirely. It’s difficult to describe, except in generalities. It’s about an old woman dying, although you probably would not know it at first. It’s about coming to terms with the fate that awaits us all ... and dealing with the regrets and disappointments of life. Moss describes the play as funny and “one of the prettiest things I’ve ever written” — although, he says, “it’s pretty dirty, too.”

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