When describing his plays, Lucas Hnath likes to use the word “agitate.” Sitting in a New Dramatists second-floor theatre one snowy Tuesday afternoon in New York City, he laughs almost gleefully when talking about how his play Death Tax, which premiered at the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2012, polarized audiences. “It is a play that sets out to frustrate,” he reasons. The main reason (spoiler warning) is that the last scene of Death Tax fast-forwards 20 years, to a time when its main character, Tina, has died, and its villain, Maxine, is still alive, despite being more than 100 years old.
The audience has been spending most of its time with Tina and is rooting for her, but Hnath provides her with no closure; instead, Maxine gets the last word. “People either really love that the play does that, or it just drives them out of their minds,” says Hnath, amused. To use a musical term he commonly employs, Hnath is partial to “unresolved chords,” because that’s a quality he himself is attracted to in plays he watches.
Avant-garde director/creator Richard Foreman, an aficionado of the unresolved, is one of Hnath’s inspirations. Hnath talks about the first time he saw Foreman’s Benita Canova (Gnostic Eroticism), which features sexually precocious, philosophizing schoolgirls. “I hated it. It was nothing that I wanted. But then the next day, I ran to the bookstore and read his play on the page, and then I saw it a second time. It stuck!” Not unlike Foreman, Hnath aims to disorient his audience so they are induced to think hard about the work they just saw, even after they’ve left the theatre: “I’m interested in unresolved chords because of what they do to the head afterward.”
Judging from what a busy year 2013 was for Hnath, agitation may be just what audiences are looking for. Last year saw the premiere of three of his plays—A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney at New York City’s Soho Rep; Isaac’s Eye at NYC’s Ensemble Studio Theatre; and Red Speedo at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. Death Tax also got a U.K. premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Hnath’s newest play, The Christians, opens this year’s Humana Festival, marking his fourth premiere at Actors Theatre (after The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith, Death Tax and nightnight), and he is also at work on commissions for Playwrights Horizons in New York City and South Coast Repertory in California.
Hnath tends to delve deeply into his characters, their motivations and their thought processes. Death Tax begins as a tale of intrigue, with Maxine, near death, believing that her daughter is trying to kill her. She enlists Tina to keep her alive. The play then diverges into Tina’s backstory and her motivations, as well as those of Todd—the doctor at Maxine’s nursing home—and Maxine’s daughter, upending audience expectations at every turn.
But Death Tax is not just about the interplay of characters—it takes on the fraught nature of parent-child relationships, the very human fear of death, the yearning for immortality. It’s these multiple perspectives and themes that attracted Actors Theatre artistic director Les Waters to Hnath’s work.
After seeing Death Tax in 2012, even before the festival concluded, Waters called Hnath into his office to discuss a commission. The product of that agreement is The Christians, which Waters is directing. “I love it that there are no heroes in his plays—that’s what makes the writing alive for me,” Waters allows. “You don’t identify wholly with the characters—there are arguments, thoughts and emotions in each of the characters that resonate with you.”
And when Hnath makes an argument or speculates about an idea, he is precise in his rationalization—not so much guarded in his manner as determined to make sure he’s conveying his ideas in the clearest way possible. At the same time, he is playful, making wry jokes about the writing process and the function of his plays (“Theatre is easy,” he says, not too seriously, at one point). He sports a long mane of shoulder-length brown hair which, in tandem with his tall and lanky figure, gives him a passing resemblance to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson director Alex Timbers. (The suggestion makes Hnath laugh loudly: “Alex’s hair has tighter curls!”)
When it comes to writing plays, Hnath is as methodical in his process as he is in speech, looking at the work with an almost scientific reserve, like numbers that can be placed into an equation. “I can quickly figure out 10 different ways I could reveal information about a character,” he claims. “I can come up with 15 different endings for a play and cite the different effects that ending would have. My brain works mathematically.”
That could be why his plays tend to sport multiple endings. Death Tax originally concluded with a settling-of-the-score between Tina and Maxine. “And it was fine,” Hnath says with a shrug. “It just felt…too trivial, in a way, too expected. The play wanted to be bigger than that.” Similarly, his penchant for agitation “just happens” in the process of writing. “I’ll write the version that doesn’t agitate and then think, ‘I can’t do it, it’s too small right now.’ And I’ll have to fray the ends of the string a little bit.”
Hnath grew up in Orlando, FLA., a mere seven minutes away from Disney World, in a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. He describes his parents as half-hippies. “I grew up around a fairly artificial environment—our backyard was Disney, and the brand was everywhere.”
It was when he moved to New York in 1997 to pursue a pre-med degree that Hnath saw Benita Canova, the works of the Wooster Group and the plays of Caryl Churchill. He switched from pre-med to dramatic writing and now teaches in NYU’s expository writing program. When it comes to influences, Hnath cites those avant-garde masters—and Disney, surprisingly, whom he credits for inspiring his love of the artificial and the fabricated, and for whom one of his recent plays is named. In fact, Hnath’s plays often begin with a metatheatrical device (as he puts it with a smile, “I love a good gimmick”).
The Christians, for instance, is set up as one long church service—with a podium, microphones and a gospel choir that functions as a Greek chorus—even though the events in the play take place over the course of several weeks. The stage directions for a draft of Christians read, “The whole play is a kind of sermon. Sometimes it’s a literal sermon. Sometimes it’s made up of scenes that use the formal elements of a sermon.”
The artifice and not-quite-naturalistic nature of Hnath’s plays extend to the way characters speak, which tends to be methodical and elliptical in nature, almost like water circling down a drain, closing in around a focal point with each go-round. Take this snippet from Walt Disney, when the kitsch-meister’s daughter explains why she doesn’t want to name her son after Walt:
Because when I say your name, I think all sorts of things I don’t want to think. When I say your name, I think of you, and when I think of you I get all angry, and when I think of you and the way you act, and the way you yell, and the way you threw a tantrum at my wedding and threw cake at people, and I think of the way you yell, and the way you fire people and the way you force people to do what you want them to do.
That monologue, as delivered by Amanda Quaid in the Soho Rep production, was spoken with very little emotion—a fully intentional tack for Hnath, who would rather the audience focus on his words. He commonly tells actors to “pull back—the sound of thinking should be louder than the sound of emotion. I want the audience to engage with the thinking, with the reasoning.”
And while this way of speaking can be seen as alienating, for Linsay Firman, who directed Isaac’s Eye at Ensemble Studio Theatre, it’s the complete opposite. “Lucas creates room for the audience to have their own reactions. In all of his plays, he tends to show you incredible pathos of human existence. Rather than watching the more emotionally presentational version of somebody else, this kind of delivery creates the experience within each individual viewer.” Firman, EST literary manager and associate director of the EST/Sloan Project, first came across Hnath’s plays 15 years ago and has been a fan of his ever since.
Hnath wants to actively involve the audience in his work, and withholding things, such as an emotionally satisfying ending or a tearful monologue, is one way he engages the audience—for some viewers, in the most frustrating way possible. “I’m interested in not giving the audience that breath at the end. If the play doesn’t do it, it’s making the audience contribute something.” He pauses. “Or they check out. It’s a risk. I do like to be withholding with the plays—if the audience has to work a little harder, there’s a greater likelihood that they’ll have some investment that extends their involvement in the thing.”
He likens a good play to going to the gym, which is appropriate, since he sometimes writes there. “A play’s got to be an ordeal! Foreman’s plays are an ordeal—they are hard to deal with! But I will never forget those shows for the rest of my life. There’s a fine line between involving your audience and being sadistic. And I’m trying not to be sadistic,” he concludes with a grin.
Because Hnath sees his plays as a math equation, with parts that can be moved around, truncated or changed, he doesn’t think of his words as scripture. He prefers collaboration, and even occasionally directs his plays in workshop. “I don’t know how the thing works until I get my own hand on it and I figure out the rules of how the plays work,” he explains. “Plays never feel like writing to me. They feel like creating a blueprint for something that will happen in space. I’ve never been crazy about the idea that all the playwright thinks about is the words. To me, that’s not a play.”
People who have money are preserved.
They get old, they have money, they are preserved.
People who do not have money, they are not preserved.
If one does not get preserved, things get messy.
Those are the first words uttered by Maxine in Death Tax. She is speaking about death and how to avoid it, and she believes money is the way to prolong life. Similarly, in Walt Disney, Walt believes technology (namely cryogenic freezing) is a way to triumph over death. And evading death goes hand in hand with the central struggle in Isaac’s Eye, which is the search for immortality in the form of fame and recognition. The play, which imagines Sir Isaac Newton sticking a needle in his eye to prove a theory about light, is not biographical—rather, like most of Hnath’s work, it’s a character study, where the focus isn’t so much on historical accuracy as it is on the big questions: What is the price of ambition? And what are we willing to sacrifice to reach our goals?
Hnath describes his fascination with death and what comes after as a kind of “intellectual curiosity—it’s grappling with the biggest human fear, really,” he says. “It seems impossible to tell stories about people if you’re not in some way telling a story about death. All stakes, ultimately, are that.”
With its themes of ambition at the expense of the personal, perhaps it’s no coincidence that Isaac’s Eye is the most autobiographical of Hnath’s plays. Isaac even speaks like Hnath and has some of his “tics”—and, he jokes, “if you substitute New Dramatists for the Royal Society, you’d have the story of a playwright.” Like Isaac with his scientific discoveries and Maxine with her money, Hnath is making a bid for immortality, for something that will outlive him.
“Does the play have any possibility of outliving me?” he muses. “There’s something weirdly viral about plays, the way they go out into the world and make people replicate actions that you’ve described. It’s nice to have that power. Making any kind of art involves a grab for immortality.”