Volume 76, Number 49 | May 2 -8, 2007

Photos by Alana Cundy

Playwright, author, cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his playwriting protégé, Molly Smith Metzler. Her play “Training Wisteria” will be at the Cherry Lane’s Studio Theater through May 12.

In training to train words and Wisteria

By Jerry Tallmer

The one most salient bit of advice Jules Feiffer gave to Molly Smith Metzler in a one-hour mentoring session last fall — an “intense hour,” say they both — was that “if you’ve got a bad guy in your play, the least interesting approach is to bring him on as a bad guy.”

It’s much more interesting, the 77-year-old mentor said to the (then) 28-year-old mentee, to “bring him on as Robert Redford or Jimmy Stewart, letting things then proceed to where the onlooker suddenly says: ‘Hey, wait a minute, this guy’s a prick.’ ”

Audiences, says the Jules Feiffer who has been turning out his own breed of extraordinary cartoons and plays and filmscripts and children’s books from 1956 to (and beyond) now — “audiences like to discover these things for themselves.”

Feiffer packed a lot of other good points into that session with new playwright Molly Meltzer — “emerging playwright,” she murmurs in mock-cliché as she and her mentor reconstruct the moment for the benefit of this journalistic dispatch.

“Basically what I was offering,” says Feiffer, “was theoretical critique based on the characters, not the story. What I’ve learned over the years is that things that are obvious turn out to be true.”

For Ms. Metzler it all added up to “a ton of rewriting based on Jules’s notes.” Today, six months later, it also adds up to the irreverent, enfolding, caustic, and often quite beautiful “Training Wisteria,” by the now 29-year-old Molly Smith Meltzer, that under the direction of Leah Gardiner is on stage through May 12 in the 2007 Mentor Project series at the Cherry Lane’s 60-seat Studio Theatre on Commerce Street in Greenwich Village.

It’s a play, a first play now seven years in the shaping and reshaping, about — guess what — a family. But what a family! Not in dispraise but in perverse delight did someone (you’re reading him) scrawl across his advance copy of the script: These people give dysfunctional a bad name. They are:

Lynn, the mother (actress Angela Ford), betrayed, disorganized, overwhelmed.

Stephen (Bruce McCarthy), the horse’s-ass husband (and father of their three children), who has ditched her for another life, another woman.

Dylan, 18 (Matthew Stadlemann), who swills down perpetual Heinekens and cracks wise and throws himself into his Gameboy as a barrier to conversation and burns himself with cigarettes to kill the pain.

Kacie Anne, 13 (Marissa O’Donnell), who worships Homie Dee (brother Dylan), is a tennis ace, can’t wait for menstruation, and — as daddy’s girl — is a lot smarter than daddy in a number of ways.

Rachel, 20 (Jessica diGiovanni), above the battle but not really, a cool 4.0 student who gives up a year of free college (and possible future career) to stay home throughout the crisis.

“I wanted to go beyond caricature, beyond just bratty boy, nerdy girl, and pontificating-sage older girl,” says Molly Metzler, and she has.
All art, of course, while born in autobiography, leaves autobiography far in its wake, but if you want to know, and I did, Ms. Meltzer was herself born December 20, 1977, in Berlin, Germany, where her parents “were hippies and teachers”; she grew up mostly in and around the Hudson Valley’s Kingston, N.Y.; has a BA in English from SUNY Geneseo; an MA from Boston University; an MFA from the Tisch School of the Arts; has a younger brother and sister, just like in the play; a mom somewhat as in the play; a father whom she, Molly, doesn’t speak to; and a fiancé, Colin McKenna, who, wonder of wonders, was the opening playwright last month in this very same year’s Cherry Lane Mentor Project, though she and he had in fact met at Tisch before all this. (His play, “The Secret Agenda of Trees,” was mentored by Lynn Nottage.)

Have I mentioned that Molly Meltzer is also quite lovely to look at and listen to?

The Cherry Lane Mentor Project — the “cornerstone,” as they call it, of the ongoing development program of the 80-year-old forever new playhouse planted at 38 Commerce Street by Edna St. Vincent Millay — was launched in 1998 by playwright Michael Weller, director Susann Brinkley, and Cherry Lane artistic director Angelina Fiordellisi. 

The playwriting mentors to date have been many and distinguished, with Edward Albee as Mentors’ Mentor. A complex (yet clearcut) nomination and selection process climaxes each spring with three plays that have been shepherded through first readings and then staged readings and then (as at this moment for Molly Metzler) a full 12-performance production with professional director, actors, and designers.

So how did Jules Feiffer get into the act with Molly Smith Meltzer?

Michael Weller asked him to be a mentor. “I never have time,” says Feiffer, who in addition to being a husband and an author and an old/new father is heavily involved at the moment in developing a Broadway musical for Disney from one of his own stories, “but I thought I really should.”

Weller sent him three or four plays. Feiffer picked one, met with the author, talked with her at some length, then never heard another word — “of thanks or anything else” — until he heard that her play was being mounted elsewhere. “I think she’s ready for the big time,” he says dryly.

It was Angelina Fiordellisi who then sent him Molly Metzler’s script. “As we say in the business” — no less dryly — “ ‘I read it, I love it, I think I know how to fix it.’  I began to have certain ideas as to what worked and what didn’t work. The reading with actors validated some of those ideas and gave me other ideas. But one thing was sure: It played like crazy.”

 “It’s a very fast project actually,” says Ms. Metzler. “Two weeks. So I’ve been working like crazy. I’ve never thought the play was done and solid, until now.”
Jules Feiffer broke upon the world in The Village Voice of 1956 with a brilliant truthtelling series of zeitgeist cartoons titled “Sick Sick

Sick.” He was then two years younger than playwright Meltzer is now. There is nothing sick-sick-sick about her, I do think.
TRAINING WISTERIA. By Molly Smith Metzler. Directed by Leah Gardiner. Mentored by Jules Feiffer. May 1-May 12 at the Cherry Lane’s Studio Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, (212) 239-6200.

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