Volume 77 / Number 33 Jan. 16 - 22, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

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Photo by Monique Carboni.

Director Mark Wing-Davey (left), and playwright Brett C. Leonard of “Unconditional,” the second play in the LAByrinth Theater Company’s five-play season at the Public Theatre.

Inside the playwright’s laboratory

By Jerry Tallmer

Four wordsmiths and one dog sat around a conference table the other day, trying to define what it is they do as members of LAByrinth, the theater company cum laboratory founded in 1992 by John Ortiz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Gould Rubin, and a number of other multitalented types.

The dog, who came in with Stephen Adly Guirgis, didn’t have much to say. Neither did tall, tart Bob Glaudini, whose “A View From 151st Street” had opened LAByrinth’s 2007-2008 season at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre last October.

Would he call himself a playwright?

“Unfortunately,” said Glaudini, who lists some of his other career experiences as “hod carrier, terrazzo grinder, truck driver,” and pourer of “a cement foundation for a basement theater in a hotel in downtown San Diego [who] stayed on to direct plays by Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, Brecht, and Pinter.” He’s been a member of LAByrinth since 2004.

Brett C. Leonard, who wrote the very tough play called “Unconditional” that enters previews in early February at the Public — the second work in LAB’s five-play season — was nearly as terse as Glaudini. “Unconditional” starts with a man on a chair, his hands tied, his neck in a noose, just to give you an idea. And yes, race has a lot to do with it.

The third entry, due in May, is “The Little Flower of East Orange,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, who has done his part to put LAByrinth on the map with such prizewinners as “Our Lady of 121st Street,” “Jesus Hopped the A Train,” “In Arabia We’d All Be Kings,” and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”

It was when he was an actor in Brett Leonard’s “Jailbait” that Guirgis invited Leonard to bring a new play to a LAByrinth “Summer Intensive” on the grounds of one college or another. That new play developed into “Guinea Pig Solo,” a transposition of Georg Buchner’s “Woyzek” to the war in Iraq. It was followed up at Bennington College this past August by ”Unconditional.”

“Stephen is the poster child as playwright/actor,” Leonard said now. “He’s LAByrinth’s most prominent home-grown member” — Guirgis, son of the man who managed Grand Central Station’s Oyster Bar, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — “and he defines the company.”

And what had Leonard himself learned in those Summer Intensives?

“Well, I found some actors, and confirmed they were the right people for those roles. I started working with a director: [Ian Belton for “Guinea Pig Solo,” Mark Wing Davey for “Unconditional.”] I found things in my mind that weren’t on stage, and vice versa. I learned about overwriting and underwriting.”

The fourth person at that conference table was Rebecca Cohen, who’d started as an actress with the company in 1997, and then — “when my beautiful daughter was born in 1999” — switched to playwriting. Ms. Cohen’s “Penalties & Interest” is to get a LAByrinth reading in June.

The fifth LAB playwright of the 2007-2008 season was not at the table because he was in Florida. His name is Scott Hudson and his “Sweet Storm” is to be done toward the end of June.

Brett Leonard, born 40 years ago in Santa Monica, California — his father, an aerospace engineer, was “in rockets” — wrote plays while at UC San Diego, and then there followed “10 lost years” when he wrote nothing. “I began again seriously when I moved to New York.” Moved and found and lives with LAByrinth actress Elizabeth Rodriguez. “A force of nature” is what poster-child Stephen Adly Guirgis calls her.

UNCONDITIONAL. By Brett C. Leonard. Directed by Mark Wing Davey. Enters previews February 5 as a Public Theater/LAByrinth Theater Company production at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, 475 Lafayette Street, (212) 967-7555, or labtheater.org.

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