Playwright Aronson returns to Phila. roots
Author: Wendy Rosenfield FOR THE INQUIRER
Playwright Billy Aronson’s new comedy The First Day of School is receiving simultaneous world premieres by Philadelphia’s 1812 Productions and the San Francisco Playhouse. Which is fine.
But just as fine, says Bala Cynwyd native Aronson — whose many and various writing credits include the original concept for the musical Rent, a stint with Mike Judge’s MTV adolescents Beavis and Butt-head, and a string of short plays — is the fact that he’s returning to the place where it all began.
After all, he wrote his first play as a student at Lower Merion High School, from which he graduated in 1975. It was a 10-pager that, to the best of his recollection, “had a lot of themes, I’m sure, about Society.” That foray into serious matters might have been the last non-comedic work by Aronson, who just can’t seem to help being funny.
“Everything I do is comedy,” he says. “I’ve had problems with that.” In college (he attended Princeton as an undergraduate and got a master’s in playwriting from Yale in 1983), an acting professor tried to help him overcome his innate comic sensibility by casting him as the wretched Jamie in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Predictably, it didn’t work out so well.
“I did the scene where I’m telling my brother I hate him and that I’ve ruined his life, and I guess it came out sounding like Woody Allen, because people were laughing.”
However, Aronson isn’t afraid to tackle thorny issues; he just does it with a wink. Much of his work follows a similar theme: people - generally lovers, partners or spouses - trying, however fitfully, to connect with each other.
“I’m sort of obsessed with that idea,” he says. “We do make connections, it’s sort of miraculous that we do, but I never get over that fact. I never forget it or take it for granted.” This realization emerged from a failed high school love affair that he says proved “explosive” to the tightly controlled world of his youth. And the explosions never went away.
The First Day of School fits that pattern. A couple drop off their children at school and realize they’re suddenly alone together for the first time in years. So they try to find some company among their fellow parents — and by company, Aronson means, you know, nudge nudge, wink wink, “company.”
Though the play’s helicopter parents might have “smugness and self-confidence,” they also have terror and loneliness. Aronson believes that &ldthe fact that you’re not supposed to be lonely at my age and in my situation makes it more painful and strange and . . . harder to express.”
Jennifer Childs, 1812 Productions’ artistic director, and her husband, fellow actor Scott Grier, have a 6-year-old daughter, and Childs says that because of its subject matter, the show has been a bit of a tough sell to the other parents at school.
She laughs, “It’s like, ‘Hey, do you wanna hear about this show I’m doing where these parents have sex with each other?’ I even considered doing something with the PTA, and thought, ‘What, am I crazy? That’s the worst idea ever!”
And yet the nudges and winks covering its couples’ spiritual ennui make up most of the play’s humor. “It’s a really clean show,” says Childs. “There’s no language, you never see anything, it’s all innuendo. It’s as dirty as you want to make it.”
The First Day of School — labeled “a soccer-mom sex farce” — is a natural for 1812, which bills itself as “Philadelphia’s all-comedy theater company,” so naturally, it didn’t take long for the script to find its way to Childs, or for her company’s reputation to find its way to Aronson. Several colleagues mentioned to Aronson that his plays were very much in line with 1812’s aesthetic, but rather than sending something out cold, he waited for a proper introduction.
It came by way of InterAct Theatre Company artistic director Seth Rozin, who heard the script at a National New Play Network reading and passed it along to 1812. They held their own reading, everything clicked, they invited Aronson for another reading, and, Childs says, “I took him to my office, popped the question, he said yes, and now we’re doing it.” Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Aronson sees definite differences in the East Coast and West Coast approaches to his play. In addition to cuts in certain monologues that worked back East but didn’t out West, and the switch-out of a Nantucket vacation for a Yosemite getaway, the productions have more subtle contrasts.
“Here in Philadelphia,” he explains, “right away they got the comedy. It was hilarious from the first read-through. Then during rehearsals, they got to the depth and emotional intensity.”
At the San Francisco Playhouse, “they do a lot of new plays, but they don’t just do odd comedy.”
“In the beginning,” Aronson said, “they were sort of mystified by the comedy, and first approached the intensity and depth. Right off the bat they found some sadness and sweetness that surprised me.”
Childs says she likes work that has “a really solid structure filled with the messiness of being human,” so “as a piece of comic architecture,” she thinks The First Day of School is “flawless.”
But the messiness of his characters’ lives is also the key to the tears behind Aronson’s clowning. “Generally, with my plays, I try to write about things that really hurt, scare, and disorient me. And somehow,” he says, “if I get it right, people laugh.”