Anna Ziegler earned the privilege of two prominent off-Broadway theatre companies simultaneously staging a duo of her new plays this winter.
Though such an achievement immediately marks a career worth following, taken together, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of her Actually and Roundabout Theatre Company’s The Last Match provide a dual window into an undeniable talent still reckoning with the best ways to show off her theatrical prowess. Both plays feature her heavily leaning on direct address, a dramaturgical device that, though thematically relevant, ultimately acts as more of a crutch, oversimplifying her premises’ potential drama.
Actually utilizes this structure more effectively; it reflects the “he-said, she-said” concept that largely defines the play’s focus on a campus rape accusation between two students. The characters’ ability to free-flowingly portray their full side of the story unencumbered by the topical constraints of realistic conversations emphasizes the complexity of these types of direly complicated situations. Though some may critique the play for not conforming to today’s #BelieveWomen movement, Ziegler clearly wasn’t interested in blind trust, regarding neither her subjects nor the outcome of due process. In fact, even with the unrealistic clarity provided by her explicit dialogue, the persistent difficulty of adjudicating the morality of their unseen sexual interactions amplifies just how hard it can be to judge in real life when these direct windows into their psychologies aren’t available.
Yet fictional stakes always pale in comparison to those that inherently exist when dealing with these issues in reality offstage. Though this lecture approach parallels the primary mode of communication in the cases that determine how justice will be doled out, it’s not the most compelling of methods to dramatically tell a story to an audience. Whereas the attention of observers in a court-like setting would be rapt in the immediacy of the too-true trauma in front of their eyes, the eyes of people in a theatre may end up glazing over due to such a monotonous style of discourse. Plus, it robs the characters of a certain amount of everyday humanism, replacing it with the sort of artificiality that comes with the overbearing presence of a puppeteering playwright.
This is an even worse problem in The Last Match. Compounding the unavoidable superficial corniness of direct address in the wrong directorial hands — which is a fault of both productions — the actual content of the play does not possess the same level of thematic justification. Yes, considering sports are so under-represented on stage, it’s a somewhat novel concept to vocally excavate the thoughts of two tennis players in the midst of a duel, with their anthropomorphized consciousnesses often mingling in a fantastical fictional space. But since the play lacks the same “he-said, she-said” textual reference, this bald back-and-forth structure ends up looking like like a cheap vehicle that too conveniently allows Ziegler to explicitly and directly get across everything that she wants to the audience.
Similar to voiceovers in movies, direct address transparently removes the challenging bar of naturalistic believability inhibiting explicit communication between artist and audience that the former normally needs to clear. There’s of course many deft ways to layer monologues so that they don’t irk, in the same way there’s many ways to royally screw up the perceived naturalism of conversations. Ziegler’s still struggling to find the proper balance between the two. As such, her excessive reliance on direct address comes off as tacky, and this obvious departure from reality exponentially increases the artificiality of her writing. Even the cognitive depth that she reveals in her characters ultimately feels shallow since it’s uncovered by such a forcibly noticeable hand.
Though Ziegler may have just chosen to explore two different fictional worlds that both equally called for this dramaturgical device, the fact that she decided to rely on it TWICE IN TWO PLAYS indicates that, instead of being a structure that organically stems from the desirably distinct nature of her separate works, it may just be a crutch for a relative neophyte. Even though it’s more justified in Actually, its repetition in conjunction with The Last Match casts doubt on any defense regarding its artistic legitimacy in the former on thematic or textual terms.
Herein lies how a playwright receiving such acclaim relatively early in their career can be a double-edged sword. Though both of Ziegler’s plays bear qualities that explain her lofted status this season, they also speak to the problems that she still needs to work out before running away with the big-time success that she will mostly likely achieve one day thanks to these hopefully enriching lessons. The biggest stages that draw the most attention tend to bring to the fore what artists need to improve upon. If Ziegler listens, her next appearance in the spotlight — which she deserves — will foster superior results.
No matter the respective flaws of each’s productions, kudos to the Manhattan Theatre Club and Roundabout for taking a chance on a largely unestablished name. Granting Ziegler the opportunity to fascinatingly fail now will hopefully return dividends in the years to come. And for us audiences, it’s always fascinating to witness a fresh talent develop into something far greater.