Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

State-censored sex drives


Playwright John W. Lowell was inspired both by a Tchaikovsky biography and the Monica Lewinsky scandal to write The Letters, inaugurating Aurora Theatre's Harry's UpStage as a second performing space.
Photo: Michael Rhodes
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A biography of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the saga of Monica Samille Lewinsky collided in playwright John W. Lowell's mind to create The Letters, a play first heard at a San Francisco playwrights' workshop 15 years ago and that is now receiving its first professional Bay Area production thanks to Aurora Theatre. There have been productions in Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Tucson, but it was a 2012 Chicago production that caught Time magazine's eye that in turn caught director Mark Jackson's eye as he looked for a play to formally inaugurate Harry's UpStage as Aurora's second performing space. It runs there through June 1.

But back to Tchaikovsky and Lewinsky, bonded in Lowell's creative mind by governmental intrusions into private sex lives. "I had read a biography of Tchaikovsky by Alexander Poznansky, and it was the era of glasnost when suddenly a good deal of Russian archives were opened up to researchers," Lowell said recently from his home in New York. "He said that the early Soviet censors tried to clean up Tchaikovsky's image by going through his letters and diaries and blotting out anything that suggested he was queer. I wondered about the people who did the editing and what they were like."

And then came along Bill Clinton's indiscretions with the intern in a blue dress, which transmogrified into an impeachment. "I was deeply appalled, not because I would justify Clinton's behavior, but because it was a private matter that the state had no business in getting involved with," Lowell said. "Of all the plays I've written, it is the most disturbing to me because every time I turn around there's an ugly new resonance to it." The Manning-Snowden revelations of massive government surveillance are part of it, he said, "and once again we are revisiting the virulent homophobia of the Russians."

The play is set in a generic office in the 1930s Soviet Union where the director (Michael Ray Wisely) of an unspecified agency has beckoned a modest female functionary (Beth Wilmurt) for what starts as a cordial conversation. But Anna is leery of hidden agendas, which indeed do exist – it seems some uncensored letters by a famous composer that implied homosexuality have gone missing – but who is cat and who is mouse becomes increasingly unclear. It's reveal after reveal after reveal, none of which will be revealed here.

"There is a form I like called the locked-door play," Lowell said of The Letters. "Essentially what that means is that from the time the primary characters enter a space until the end of the play, they don't go anywhere. It's in real time, and they come in with all the ammunition they're going to have. It's watching people cope with each other when they can't get away from each other."

The Letters is one of three plays by Lowell developed in San Francisco at PlayBrokers, a playwriting incubator started by the late Marilyn Shaw, who had been a key administrative figure in the original Eureka Theatre. Lowell, 51, considers San Francisco his second home, and he easily rattles off names of many of the key players in the area's theater scene even though he laments that more of his plays have not been produced here. At least several of them sound like promising candidates for the city's gay theaters – "Ed's theater and John's theater," he said, preempting what turned out to be an unnecessary introduction of New Conservatory Theatre Center (Ed Decker, founding artistic director) and Theatre Rhinoceros (John Fisher, executive director).

These plays include Sheridan Square, a modern take on Henry James' Washington Square in which a homely gay man is forced to reject a handsome suitor suspected by his father of being a gold-digger; Autumn Canticle, the story of a gay marriage inspired by the relationship between composer Benjamin Britten and singer Peter Pears; The Great Purim Adventure of Chip Malibu, in which the prodigal son returns home as a gay porn star; and Taken In, the story of a hustler who finds that the non-sexual welcome he finds in the home of a gay man has unexpected ramifications for both of them.

Some of these plays have had multiple productions; some have yet to reach the stage. But he does have a play under option for Broadway. The Standby Lear takes place in the dressing room where an actor and his wife confront the breakdown he suffers when he is finally called upon to take on the role of King Lear. Lowell's first play, Leo Tolstoy Is in the Next Room Dying, was produced after he slipped a copy to actor David Ogden Stiers (M*A*S*H ), who was a regular customer when Lowell clerked at Tower Records.

"I think of my playwriting career as dragging a barge across mudflats," Lowell said. "It really is a stupid profession. The number of playwrights in America who are actually making a living at it is probably under 100. I am not among them, but I'm going to keep at it."


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