Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski’s lineup of plays for her second season at the Pittsburgh Public Theater seems at first glance to ramble all over the theatrical landscape.
She ranges from warhorses like “Barefoot in the Park” to current social issues in “American Son,” from the cartoonish musical “Little Shop of Horrors” to the courtroom realism of “A Few Good Men.”
Add two comedy-dramas by upcoming playwrights Jocelyn Bioh (School Girls, Or the African Mean Girls Play) and Bekah Brunstetter (Cake) and the result must be called an “eclectic” 2019-2020 season at the very least.
But there’s method to Kaminski’s choices.
“I think the season’s more about balance than a central theme,” Kaminski explained. She’s balanced the plays between Broadway classics and contemporary works in a blend that can attract a mixture of audiences. But looking behind that mix can be found a common thread – debuts by playwrights established and upcoming.
Aaron Sorkin’s first play, A Few Good Men, opens the Public’s season Sept. 12. Opening on Broadway in 1989, it went on to be a major Hollywood film. Sorkin filled this military courtroom drama with the kind of strong, bantering dialog and quips that marked his long-running TV drama, The West Wing.
“Sorkin wrote it when he was 26 on cocktail napkins when he was a bartender in Manhattan,” said Kaminski who added she was inspired to do the play after seeing Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, still running on Broadway nearly a year after it opened.
A Few Good Men has a “muscular sense to it along with a big dose of realism,” said Kaminski. “Sorkin didn’t make theater in a bubble.”
With its military setting, the play lent itself to filling the 20-person cast with veterans including retired Pittsburgh Steeler runner Rocky Bleier who served in Vietnam.
“I’m honored and really inspired to have the chance to work with members of Pittsburgh’s veteran community alongside powerhouse regional performers to ignite the themes of this play,” Kaminski said in announcing the play earlier this year.
Accompanying the play will be the PPT-sponsored meeting of the Veterans’ Breakfast Club Sept. 29 where vets gather to talk about their experiences. Ticket-holders to the Sept. 29 matinee will be able to attend. The play closes Oct. 13.
It’s easy to forget, but Neil Simon was once a debut playwright with Barefoot in the Park in 1963. “Neil Simon’s plays are how I fell in love with the theater,” said Kaminski who followed the series of successful comedies while growing up in Rochester, N.Y.
“We’re doing it as a homage and a celebration of Simon,” she said of the writer who died a year ago.
“The director Timothy Piggee is staging it in the time period of the 1960s with the clothes, the sets, the whole ‘60s dynamic,” Kaminski added. The play runs April 24-May 24.
Christopher Demos-Brown is a new name to PPT audiences and Broadway. His debut effort, American Son, opened last year and starred Kerry Washington as the worried mother of her missing 18-year-old African-American son. The 85-minute drama unfolds in a Miami police station.
Demos-Brown “is a practicing attorney in Florida who knows what he’s dealing with,” said Kaminski. “He shows how a civilian like this mother can interact with police with courage. It leaves you gasping.” It runs March 5-April 5.
Written by Bioh, the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, this is “a classic comedy with all the relationship tropes.” Kaminski said. Set in Ghana, the play goes backstage of the Miss Ghana Pageant and the battles that ensued. Bioh’s play ran off-Broadway last year. It plays here Nov. 7-Dec. 8.
The Public Theater’s musical history includes such titans of Broadway as Camelot, My Fair Lady and 1776, but Kaminski lowers the brow a little when she directs Little Shop of Horrors without apology.
“It’s such a contagious, fun musical with great songs” is how she described the show written by Howard Ashman with music by Alan Menken that opened off-Broadway in 1982. From its modest beginnings as a low-budget Roger Corman horror film, it spawned an off-Broadway musical, a new Hollywood film and a regular Broadway run including national tours.
Versions include a show at the Pasadena Playhouse to an off-Broadway run in October. The Public’s production is Jan. 23-Feb. 23.
Closing the season is what Kaminski calls “the cherry on the cake,” and the play is called, simply The Cake. Playwright Brunstetter, a regular writer for the television series, This Is Us, sets her play in a bakery in North Carolina, setting up a cultural clash when Jen comes home from Brooklyn for her wedding. Let’s just say that the plastic figures on top of her wedding cake don’t include a groom.
“Cake is our way of welcoming in spring with this funny play that’s really more than a confection,” said Kaminski. It runs June 4-July 3.
For ticket information and other details about PPT’s forthcoming season, visit their homepage.
Bob Hoover retired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as its full-time book editor and drama editor in 2011 after 28 years with the newspaper. He continued to write part-time for the PG reviewing books, theater, and articles on literary, historical and local topics until 2014. Hoover has reviewed myriad entertainment productions from the circus to children’s theater in Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Canada. As a book editor, he reviewed an average of 50 books a year, wrote regular columns on the local and national literary scene and organized and edited the newspaper’s weekly book section. He provided extensive coverage of Pittsburgh’s literary community as well as reporting on events, readings, and festivals around the country. Hoover was a theater journalism fellow at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California and the winner of state and local writing awards.