Playwright Ken Urban communicates about The Correspondent
To hear Ken Urban tell it, there’s no reason why he should be sitting in a theatre that’s about to premiere his latest work as a playwright. “I studied to be a chemical engineer!” he explains. “I studied the sciences and math in high school.”
But life has a funny way of shifting gears for those living it – and it’s one of those sudden, tragic shifts that affects Philip, the protagonist of The Correspondent, which opens at the West Village’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on February 13. Correspondent stars Drama Desk Award-winner Thomas Jay Ryan as Philip, a grieving widower who employs an ill woman named Mirabel (Heather Alicia Simms) to deliver a message to his late wife in the afterlife following her sudden death in a freak car accident. But Mirabel isn’t exactly who she appears to be. And the show’s spook factor only increases further when a young man (Jordan Geiger) emerges with his own connection to Philip’s wife, Charlotte.
Scientist-cum-writer Urban, himself an atheist, doesn’t believe in an afterlife. But inspiration – either divine or perhaps of the more earthbound variety – hit him in 2007, when he encountered a real-life company called the Afterlife Telegram Service, in which someone hires a totally unknown source online and ask them to deliver a message to someone when they pass. “What frame of mind would you have to be in to think, ‘This is a good idea? This could actually work?’ What would that process be like?” Urban says.
This reaction makes sense to Urban, who has earned both a masters’ degree and a Ph.D. in Literature from Rutgers and shuttles back and forth to Boston where he currently teaches playwriting at Harvard University, because American culture lacks an appropriate dialogue with which to communicate about grief and loss. “We tend to plaster platitudes or look the other way so we don’t have to talk about it,” he says. “It’s such a life-altering experience to lose someone you love, and you look for something to latch onto,” and recalls an early memory following the sudden death of one of his grandmothers. “I was lashing out because I didn’t know what to do with my feelings.
“If you look at the people posing harsh things about Philip Seymour Hoffman on Facebook,” he continues, summoning a current relevant example, “it’s really because people are angry because they’ll never see another film of his or never see him on stage again, and they don’t know what else to do about it. It’s the same reason people believe in heaven. There is something so painful about the fact that you could lose someone and that’s forever. Philip and Charlotte [in Correspondent] have unresolved issues before she dies, and that can drive a person mad.”
Correspondent’s production at the Rattlestick, however, hasn’t driven Urban mad at all. “When the Stick makes a commitment to doing your play, they also make a commitment to doing your next play, so they make a real commitment to your career,” he says of the theater company that has championed the work of such writers as Adam Rapp and Lucy Thurber.
“I think very few theatres would take a risk on a play like The Correspondent” – the play features frontal nudity and frank simulations of sex in addition to challenging perceived norms of adult behavior – “and many asked me to make changes. For better or worse, I stuck to my guns. I think there are very few theatres, because of the economic downturn, that would support a playwright like that.” Urban also gets support from director Stephen Brackett, who last year directed Michael Urie in the smash Buyer and Cellar on the Stick stage. The two have worked together in the past, which has allowed the director and writer to build “an insane amount of trust.”
Urban hopes the result of this synergy is something that will resonate with his audience. “I’m interested in psychology and what you can do on the stage,” he says. “Theatricality is really important to me – I’m drawn to really big gestures and the excitement of when something spectacular happens. Correspondent is naturalistic but then it becomes something more.”
At this point, Urban recalls a text painting by word artist Christopher Wool. It reads: “The show is over the audience get up to leave their seats time to collect their coats they turn around no more coats and no more home.”
The playwright connects this work of art to his own – not just Correspondent, but the overall intentions for his entire oeuvre.
“When you leave the theatre, everything should feel changed, the world should look askew,” Urban maintains. “Something exciting that could only happen in this room has happened.
“It’s been really gratifying to watch it work.”
The Correspondent runs through March 16 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. For more information, go to http://www.rattlestick.org/correspondent/
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