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Self-Definition at Playwrights Festival

Kathryn Gersten

 (Photo by Anya Wallach)

The sixth annual fall Playwrights Festival (September 6-9) offers a trio of comedies about defining oneself in contemporary America. Two are by current playwriting fellows: Kate Gersten’s Benefit of the Doubt, which is directed by Daniel Goldstein, and Mike Lew’s Bike America, which is directed by Hal Brooks. The third play, A Lifetime Burning, is by Cusi Cram (’01, playwrights) and directed by Evan Cabnet. Here are samplings from the three works. (Please note that the Playwrights Festival is not open to the public.)

Mike Lew

(Photo by RJ Tolan)

Cusi Cram

(Photo by Monique Carboni)

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Benefit of the Doubt 
Just-dumped Jane is hell-bent on winning her ambivalent ex-boyfriend back. Her two best friends, Nisa and Tashi, try to help, but Nisa’s own romantic foibles and Tashi’s unrelenting idealism make them ill-equipped to deal with Jane’s teetering sanity. Kate Gersten’s Match.com-age comedy probes misadventures in dating and the art of being a best friend.

Nisa: Look, my point is it’s weird, but guys are weird. Especially New York guys. I went out with a guy the other day—told me that he breaks up with any girl who eats soup. It’s like, a giant turn off for him because he thinks it looks like vomit. He’s like, look if you poured some soup on a sidewalk on a Saturday night, people would think it was barf, no question.
Tashi: If the right girl was eating the soup, that would be different I bet.
Nisa: The right girl doesn’t exist anymore. Not here. Not in New York. If Megan Fox ate soup, he wouldn’t date her. If Megan Fox said “I’ll sleep with you, but only after I eat this bowl of soup,” he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t sleep with Megan Fox. Just because of the soup. I mean, that’s weird. Guys are weird. Men think that because they live in New York, because they put it all on the line by leaving their Midwestern suburban mommies to make their dreams come true in New York City, that they should be able to have anyone they want because they really, really do deserve it for trying so hard and making such a sacrifice. That New York City is so full of beautiful women that if one woman is beautiful but eats soup, that he should be able to find a woman who’s beautiful who does not eat soup if that is what he wants. AND who’s exactly 32 percent quirky, AND who lives her life with waxed arms, AND who loves her job but wouldn’t mind uprooting her entire life if he decided to transfer offices to California or Japan. Like, with all these brilliant conveniences that technology has provided us, because everything is customized however we want it with our iPhones and our “i” whatevers and all of our “i” stuff, that we should expect to be able to customize a person to be everything and exactly what we could possibly want as well. Like that we should be able to put apps into people! … Anyway, this is my experience.

Bike America
In Bike America, Mike Lew captures the restlessness of a generation that will go to any length to find a place that always seems just out of reach. In it, twentysomething grad student Penny drops everything to go on a soul-searching bike trip from Boston to Santa Barbara. On the way to find herself, she joins a crew of adventurers including a lesbian couple who’ve decided to get a marriage license in every state. And here she talks with fellow rider Tim Billy, a decidedly more experienced cyclist.

Tim Billy: You know we’re biking another 60 miles tomorrow.
Penny: It’s a problem.
Tim Billy: And 60 the day after that.
Penny: It could happen.
Tim Billy: And then 60 and 60 and 60 every day for pretty much three months straight? Why punish yourself like this? Why take the trip in the first place?
Penny: Look, I’m three years in to this stupid-ass grad program.
Tim Billy: Oh really? What program?
Penny: Bullshit studies with a minor in jackoff. It doesn’t matter. What matters is I’ve never lived anywhere but at school or my parents’ place or my boyfriend’s place. So I’m shopping.
Tim Billy: For what?
Penny: Shopping the country. For—I don’t know. For where I should live and who I should be. I’m trying to see where I fit in to the American landscape.

A Lifetime Burning 
Wealthy Emma imagines how different her world would be if she had come from a mean-streets background, but trouble ensues when she chronicles her alternate life in a new tell-all “memoir” that was sold for a hefty advance. When she’s exposed by her cutthroat publisher, it puts her fractured relationship with her sister Tess to the test. Cusi Cram’s contemporary comedy brings up questions of legacy, loyalty, and what it means to belong in a privileged society that requires everyone to create a better story than the one with which they were born. (The slashes indicate overlapping dialog.)

Tess: I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. /I can’t.
Emma: /Since when do you have a stutter?
Tess: You’re off your meds.
Emma: Maybe you need a prescription.
Tess: I mean. What. What. What. WHAT?
Emma: /Again with the repeating of/words.
Tess: /This makes sense. More sense if you are.
Emma: What makes sense?
Tess: Don’t.
Emma: Ask questions?
Tess: It’s just. It’s just. It’s just.
Emma: I’m concerned about this speech impediment.
Tess: I would like an explanation. Detailed. Comprehensive. 
Emma: Comprehensive?
Tess: I am asking the questions, Emma. No tactics.
Emma: Tactics?
Tess: I want an EXPLANATION.

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