Don’t just look at these three items of comfort food– Peter Pan, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Santaland Diaries –and wheeze, “What? Again?” The other four productions announced for Syracuse Stage’s 2015-2016 season are not only area premieres, but your snobby brother-in-law in Rochester has never heard of them.
One has a title playgoers will be reluctant to repeat, and two come from well-known playwrights, but all of them are a bit risky and new. Lucas Hnath’s The Christians might have been the most-talked-about play at Louisville’s Humana Festival last year, but it does not open at that citadel of off-Broadway, Playwrights Horizons, until this August.
Absent this year are recent Broadway hits. More originate in regional theaters like Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth for Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird and Princeton’s McCarter for Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville. Or they come from off-Broadway, like The Christians and Steve Martin’s The Underpants. David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries was first read in a Chicago coffeehouse before being broadcast on National Public Radio. Even To Kill a Mockingbird is America’s best-known stage play not to have opened on Broadway.
None of this means the more familiar works should be taken for granted. One of the hallmarks of the soon-to-end Timothy Bond era (the producing artistic director has announced his June 2016 departure) is to energize and respect plays that casual playgoers prefer. Bond will take on Mockingbird himself.
The Underpants (Oct. 21-Nov. 8). In Steve Martin’s adaptation of the 1910 German farce (not an oxymoron) Die Hose, a young woman’s drawers fall from beneath her skirts at a parade honoring the king. We never see them or him. It might be a trifle today, but among the repressed bourgeoisie before World War I it set off a tizzy of innuendo. Bill Fennelly (Hairspray, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) will direct 90 fast-paced minutes with no intermission.
Peter Pan (Nov. 28-Jan. 3). The inexhaustible musical version made its last appearance in the Archbold Theatre in 1999, which kicked off the boffo collaboration with the Syracuse University Drama Department. Music direction will be handled by Brian Cimmet (Parade, Violet), along with stage direction by Paul Barnes (White Christmas, The Miracle Worker) and choreography by local favorite Anthony Salatino.
The Santaland Diaries (Dec. 9-Jan. 3). The press release’s claim that Santaland has been “brought back by popular demand” is clearly justified. David Sedaris was cleaning houses in Chicago when he agreed to read his Diaries in a coffeehouse, and the world was smitten with his mordant take on consumerism and the sour underbelly of false holiday cheer. Wendy Knox will direct this off-subscription show in the Storch Theatre.
Stupid Fucking Bird (Jan. 20-Feb. 7). Playwright Aaron Posner, intensely popular in Washington, D.C., where he runs Woolly Mammoth Theatre, specializes in revamping works by established authors, from Mark Twain through Chaim Potok to Ken Kesey. Here he restages the themes and characters from Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, that pinnacle of theatrical modernism. Even art is disappointing. Howard Shalwitz directs.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Feb. 24-March 26). It’s the rare courtroom drama where we stay riveted when we all know the verdict going in. Lawyer Atticus Finch, the most compelling virtuous man in American literature, defends a wrongly accused black man in segregated Alabama. Christopher Sergel, here adapting Harper Lee’s literary classic, is not remembered for writing anything else, and Lee has revealed recently that her only novel is a prefiguration of Mockingbird. They put everything they had to say in this one.
The Christians (April 6-24). Lucas Hnath (pronounced “nayth”) blew away the competition at last year’s Humana Festival with this controversial drama set in a contemporary evangelical mega-church, where the baptismal font is the size of a swimming pool. Everything looks perfectly orderly, even bland, until much-loved Pastor Paul has to deliver a difficult sermon. At issue: the seemingly insurmountable distances between us. Timothy Bond directs.
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (May 11-29). Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor) transmogrifies one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels into a madcap farce, in which five actors play all roles, including the hounds. Peter Amster (A Christmas Carol, 2013) directs the show, which will share much the same spirit as the Alfred Hitchcock homage The 39 Steps (2010).