When theater producers are presented with scripts they deem too twisted, experimental, gigantic or just plain crazy to ever be put on stage, “unproducible” is the rejection-letter shorthand that they use. For playwrights, the label is discouraging at best, infuriating at worst.
But on a recent Saturday night, “unproducible” content took center stage at the annual Unproducible Smackdown, a cathartic, hilarious and ketchup-drenched event put on by Studio 42, a tiny theater company that positions itself as a theater-world version of Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern. It embraces with gusto what to others seems unpalatable.
For 2013’s Smackdown, five playwrights each wrote a 10-minute play. They were given a director, three actors and a directive to incorporate three elements chosen at random by Studio 42 (this year: dancing, evolution and Yoko Ono). The audience texts its votes for the winner.
“The Smackdown was developed as a way to challenge playwrights to work without inhibition or filter,” said Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Studio 42’s artistic director, whose name makes him sound like he should be sporting a monocle, though he hails from Connecticut. He is in his early 30s, genial and baby-faced, with a glint of mischief in his eyes. (Full disclosure: Mr. von Stuelpnagel recently directed me in a production of Nick Jones’s play TREVOR.) “We try to act like an impish devil provoking their darker, crazier ideas.”
What’s more, the playwrights are (for once) explicitly competing with each other, which ups the ante.
Held before a packed house at the Lower East Side’s University Settlement, the Smackdown packed a wallop of high-adrenaline silliness, cynicism and a host of theater-world inside jokes about Adam Rapp, Charles Isherwood, Sloan Grants (commissions for plays about science and math), Matilda, Roundabout Underground and Ensemble Studio Theatre. The beer-and-wine-soaked crowd erupted in cheers as the hosts bragged, “These are the plays not being produced tomorrow, today!”
One of playwright Mike Lew’s characters fantasized about a Smackdown victory: “Then I’ll get a commission from Playwrights Horizons for five hundred dollars!” Also in his play: alien overlords, mutant rats, corncob shitting, “Eurotrash music” and a time-traveling Ms. Ono solemnly proclaiming, “I don’t kill people. I only kill art.”
Meghan Deans’s “poorly researched” Civil War play mocked her own sloppy process, identity politics and pandering to the audience. She was played by a man (skirt over skinny jeans). A Union soldier told a Confederate lady-spy, “I’m so charmed I’m hardly looking at these fake papers. On your way!”
Erica Saleh wrote about two actors (Adam Blodgett and Megan Hill) so desperate to win a role in a play “that lasts longer than 10 minutes” that they compete in a dance marathon to do so. The audience howled when Mr. Blodgett whipped out a kielbasa phallus. And when it fell on the floor shortly thereafter. And when he slowly stuck it back in his pants, hanging out of the zipper. And when Ms. Hill suddenly bit it off.
Yoko Ono’s underground lair was the setting of Charise Castro Smith’s play, in which a mysterious plant turns a man into an amoeba. His friend (Susan Louise O’Connor) uses Ms. Ono’s greatest invention, “Dance Dance Evolution,” to save him, but it works better than expected. He mutates into “the highest form of human evolution: Beyoncé.”
For Jason Holtham’s play, the last on the bill, the stage and front-row attendees were covered in plastic sheeting as two guys in Speedos “stabbed” each other and squirted streams of Heinz 57 into the air while Natalie Kim yelled, “THEATER ISN’T FUCKING COOL. EVER.”
After the votes were tallied, the winner was Ms. Deans’s Civil War play. The prize, according to one tipsy and ever-so-slightly
bitter runner-up: “A trophy and some medals that aren’t even real gold.” But actor Risa Sarachan was happy about her team’s victory, especially since her trash-talking boyfriend’s team was the runner-up: “I really rubbed it in his face. I wore my medal to breakfast the next day.”