Jeremy Beck, Ted Koch, Todd Lawson and K.K. Moggie populate a bleak landscape flecked with hope in the world premiere of Jeff Talbott’s new play The Gravedigger’s Lullaby directed by Jenn Thompson for Off-Broadway’s TACT. Performances began Feb. 28 at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row. Opening night is March 12 for a run to April 1.
Talbott, a TACT company member, won the Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Award and Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for his play The Submission, premiered by MCC Theater and seen in independent productions across the nation. Rehearsals for The Gravedigger’s Lullaby began Jan. 31, two days after Talbott returned from a weeklong reading of his new play, i, in Pioneer Theatre Company’s Play-by-Play reading series in Salt Lake City. It was subsequently announced that i would receive a full world-premiere production by Pioneer in winter 2018.
Koch, a TACT member known for Robert Falls’ Death of a Salesman on Broadway and TACT’s Abundance, reprises a title role he first tackled in TACT’s June 2015 NewTACTics New Play Festival. (My new play Hollywood, Nebraska was featured in the June 2016 NewTACTics New Play Festival, as was Talbott’s dawning work How to Build a City.)
Thompson (Goodspeed’s Bye Bye Birdie, TACT’s Abundance and Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Mint Theatre’s Women Without Men) directed the earlier reading of The Gravediggger’s Lullaby, set in a hardscrabble world of laborers and those who have power over them. Or, as TACT bills it: “The play tells the seemingly simple story of Baylen, an honest hardworking gravedigger fighting to feed his family in a world that threatens to bury him.”
“The very first thing that came to me was an image: a rich man and a poor man sitting side by side, feet dangling, looking out, eating apples,” Talbott told me in 2015. “I had been toying with writing something about the wealth gap, but had no desire — and have no desire — to write something overtly political, so any notes I had taken seemed like starting points for plays that had either been seen or that I did not want to see. Then, one day, that image came to me, and I knew it was a departure point for something.”
Check out my Q&A with Talbott below.
Beck (TACT’s recent She Stoops to Conquer and Widowers’ Houses) also returns to The Gravedigger’s Lullaby following his appearance in the 2015 reading. TACT company member Lawson appeared in the troupe’s Abundance and the NewTACTics reading of Talbott’s All the Stars in the Midnight Sky.
A native of Malaysia and New Zealand, guest artist K.K. Moggie, who plays Baylen’s wife, has worked in both Malaysia, New Zealand and now New York. Since graduating from Columbia University School of the Arts Theatre Program in 2007 with her MFA in acting, she has performed in Grace (MCC Theater), Richard III (CSC), A Peddler’s Tale (Women’s Project) and on a number of projects with Classic Stage Company.
The Gravedigger’s Lullaby design team includes Wilson Chin (scenic), Matthew Richards (lighting), Tracy Christensen (costume), Toby Algya (sound), Will Van Dyke (original music) and Andrew Diaz (props). Van Dyke is a frequent collaborator with Talbott on musicals. The production stage manager is Kelly Burns, ASM is Jason Richard, production manager is Larry Ash, tech director is Andre Sguerra.
The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row is at 410 W. 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Get tickets at Telecharge.com, (212) 239-6200, or visit the Theatre Row Box Office.
“The Gravedigger’s Lullaby is a hauntingly beautiful tale of survival that is as timeless as it is timely,” TACT executive artistic director Scott Alan Evans said in a statement. “Jeff has managed to create a modern day fable that, like many of the plays TACT presents, speaks across generations. This is a particularly exciting moment for us. For over six years, we have been developing many wonderful new works for the stage in our NewTACTics New Play Development program and we are especially proud that Jeff’s stunning play will be the first to have its world premiere Off-Broadway with TACT.”
Jeff Talbott’s Three Rules for the Dragon and A Public Education were both finalists for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference and the former received a workshop in June 2016 at Premiere Stages in New Jersey. His other plays (i, Elliot, All the Stars in the Midnight Sky and How to Build a City) have received workshops and readings at MCC Theater, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Pioneer Theatre Company, TACT, Crowded Outlet and Route 66. He is currently working on a commission from Montclair University. He writes musicals with composer Will Van Dyke. Their work includes Imagine Harry (2015 NAMT Festival of New Musicals), Wintersong (Goodspeed’s 2016 Johnny Mercer Writers Colony) and the just-completed Seven Broken Hearts. They have released an EP (“A View of the River”) and a single (“A New Year,” recorded by Annaleigh Ashford), both available on iTunes or wherever digital music is sold. As an actor, he graduated with honors from the Yale School of Drama.
Director Jenn Thompson’s recent production of Women Without Men for Mint Theatre earned 2016 Lortel and Off-Broadway Alliance Award nominations for Outstanding Revival as well as five Drama Desk Award nominations including Outstanding Director and Revival. A longtime member of TACT, she served as co-artistic director from 2011 to 2015. Her directing credits for the company include productions of Beth Henley’s Abundance (in its first New York City staging in 25 years, winning the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best Revival); William Inge’s Natural Affection (its first staging in 50 years); Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers (2012 Drama Desk Nomination for Best Revival of a Play), Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum; Sidney Howard’s The Late Christopher Bean; Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce; Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (The New York Times – Year in Theater: Top 10 of 2008). She has developed work at MCC, Primary Stages, Mint Theater, Hartford Stage, York Theatre, Abingdon Theatre, The Bridge Theatre, and Rattlestick, among others. She has also directed productions at Goodspeed Opera House, TheaterWorks Hartford, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Barrington Stage Company, Pioneer Theatre, Denver Center Theatre, City Theatre, Hartford Stage, Portland Stage Company and Dorset Theatre Festival, where she is a resident director. She worked 19 seasons with Connecticut’s award-winning River Rep at the Ivoryton Playhouse where she served as producing director working on over 50 productions.
TACT/The Actors Company Theatre “is a company of theatre artists that reveals, reclaims, and re-imagines great plays of literary merit, creating an intimate theatre experience for its audience by focusing on the text and the actor’s ability to bring it to life. From the beginning, TACT made its reputation with its Concert Performance productions: fully rehearsed presentations stripped down to their essence. Staged in an intimate studio space, these performances (currently known as the Salon Series) feature simple staging, costuming, and lighting, refocusing the emphasis of the drama away from spectacle and production and back to the words and the actor – creating theatre in its purest form. This style grew out of the belief that the true magic of theatre lies in the special connection between the artist, the work of art, and the fully engaged audience. TACT is a resident company of NYC’s famed Theatre Row and produces their Mainstage Off-Broadway productions there in the Beckett Theatre. In addition, TACT presents the Salon Series in their studio space at 900 Broadway. Both spaces allow audiences to enjoy an up-close and personal experience with the play and the artists.”
Here’s my earlier chat with Jeff Talbott, from the play’s 2015 developmental reading.
How is this play different than the world of, say, The Submission or your other plays that have been read at NewTACTics, How to Build a City, All the Stars in the Midnight Sky and A Public Education?
Jeff Talbott: Although I think this play is recognizable as a piece of writing from me because I shape dialogue in a fairly particular way (the way I encourage overlap, my sentence structure, etc.), this play has presented some very distinct challenges for me. It is not contemporary, yet I tried to create a way for these people to talk that would bridge a gap between the past and the present. It’s a contemporary play that is not set in the here-and-now. So I had to work very hard to get each sentence just right (and continue to do that in rehearsal). Whereas in plays like The Submission or A Public Education the dialogue can spill out of the characters, here I had to be very careful about when I let that happen. It has required a terrific kind of discipline for me, and it has certainly been influential on everything I’ve worked on since the first draft of this was finished. I’m building a body of work, and I definitely can look at each play and see how that body is growing and changing.
Your central character is a gravedigger. There are some important grave-digging references in theatre literature, from Antigone to Hamlet to A Skull in Connemara. Was this tradition part of your thinking?
Jeff Talbott: I guess. Although it wasn’t on my mind that much. I did read the gravedigger scene from Hamlet exactly once before I started working on this, and there is one particular character trait I carried over for my gravedigger. I haven’t read that scene in several years now (because I didn’t want to have it take over my process), but I was struck in reading it how strong that guy’s connection to his belief in God was, and that certainly became a touchstone for my gravedigger. It manifests in a very particular way in my play, but it was an influence. Other than that, this guy is very distinctly his own man — and he has told me every step of the way when I am stopping him from being just that.
There is a timeless quality to your setting. It’s “yesterday” before or after the advent of electricity. Why this period? What is the world of your play?
Jeff Talbott: I wanted to write something that was open to a wide-reaching kind of interpretation. I thought it would be an interesting challenge that could have fun dividends if I wrote something blank in terms of setting because if it got done a lot, every time I saw it or heard about it, each production would have the possibility of being very, very different from what had come before (at least in setting). The other big reason for that, though, is my central guy works a job that just doesn’t exist anymore. Not in the same way. There isn’t a guy with a shovel waiting to dig a hole for your loved one but there was a time when that guy definitely existed. A time when that job was a very important and final one. And I wanted to be true to my guy and make sure the world he lived in was the right one.
There is a Beckettian sensibility to the play — repeated rituals, difficult times, hard work. Is Samuel Beckett an influence?
Jeff Talbott: Not consciously. I recognize that the play certainly stands on the shoulders of writers I love but I think every play does (as does every playwright). I love Beckett. And if I were designing this set I would certainly put a tree somewhere. But I don’t know if a writer can ever truly see the influences in his/her own writing — and I wouldn’t want to. I write what I write, and hopefully, I carry the history of the theatre I have loved around with me.
The new play takes place in a particularly bleak landscape, with people living hardscrabble lives. What part do you think “hope” plays in your new work, and in your work in general? Do you think of these characters’ lives beyond the final curtain?
Jeff Talbott: Hope is key to me. My plays tend to work hard to break their central characters, but only so that they can build themselves back after the play is over. In this particular case, my goal in the final moments was to give not just a glimmer but a gentle and palpable glow of hope to the characters (and the audience). I do think of the next day at the end of all of my plays, but it’s up to the characters (and, again, the audience) to decide what that day might look like.