In late September, Jaclyn Villano collected her master of fine arts degree in playwriting from Boston University. On Saturday she celebrates her 34th birthday. And in a few weeks she’ll be getting married.
That would be enough for anyone, but this week marks the start of performances of her play “The Company We Keep” at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Her birthday is the same day as the press opening, so her presents will include a review or two.
“October will be a big month,” she says.
What’s startling is how quickly the play, written as part of her graduate work, has moved to the stage. It debuted as Villano’s thesis reading on May 2, part of BU’s Ground Floor New Play Series. A week later, Villano says, she met with Kate Snodgrass, who runs the master’s program. Snodgrass is also the artistic director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, and she offered to produce “The Company We Keep” there this fall.
THE COMPANY WE KEEP
“It’s so smart. The people are so funny in a very specific, mannered way,” Snodgrass says. “They’re all attorneys, and they have to win, and in order to win they’ll go very far out on a limb.”
Villano had begun writing “The Company We Keep” in March, when the thesis script she’d been working on for months “hit a wall” and she decided to start something new. Her fiance and grad-school classmate, Michael Parsons, suggested a typical exercise: Write a scene about two people arguing about a lamp. She started writing and just kept going. Soon she brought her pages into a workshop class run by playwright Melinda Lopez, where it developed into a first draft in a few weeks.
As the play opens, Harry has just accepted a Georgetown University law school professorship; his wife, Ellie, is a stay-at-home mom not currently practicing law. They’re preparing for the first guests in their new Washington home, two old friends: Greg, a Georgetown bigwig, and his wife, Katherine, a Department of Justice lawyer.
Harry and Ellie start off arguing about whether he’s missed a spot in dusting a lamp and move on to what they think about Greg. The other couple arrives, wine is offered, and soon the fireworks really begin.
Actually, artillery is a better metaphor. Children, careers, and Greg’s infidelity are just the opening salvos in an evening of caustic banter and explosive revelations.
“These characters have perfected certain veneers, and I think it’s enjoyable to watch as the veneers are stripped away,” Villano says. “My hope is that the tragedy of what these families have become will ring truer because we’ve been able to laugh with them and laugh at them the whole play.”
Villano grew up in New York and Texas and got her bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame. She also graduated from the law school there but has never practiced law. She says she made all four characters in the play lawyers “because I wanted them to be expert communicators who think and speak and act purposefully and at a fast pace. And I wanted them to belong to a profession in which they are held to high ethical standards.”
Pain and deception are inflicted by and on each of them. “I really wanted to take a look at what happens when moral codes collide, particularly among spouses and friends,” Villano says. “Everyone in the play has his or her own sense of right and wrong, and the boundaries are not the same, so what happens when the boundaries are tested?”
Some of what the characters divulge may or may not be true, and the playwright’s ambiguity about this is deliberate — though she says she has the facts settled in her own mind. “You are not intended to know,” she says. “I hope people will draw their own conclusions.”
If so, “The Company We Keep” may be much discussed in the car or on the train on the way home.
“It will be very interesting to hear the sort of varied response I expect about who people sympathize with and who they don’t,” Villano says. “What’s important to me is that all these people have faults and failures. It will be interesting to see who audience members choose to align with, if anybody.”
John Kooi, who plays Harry, has an idea.
“It depends on who’s watching it and what your values are and what you see. I think there is going to be a big difference between the ways men and women view this play,” he says. “The things that are important to women come across very differently than the things that are important to men. Women are very concerned about family, despite how absurd it is as [the play] goes along, to keep the family together after all this comes to light.”
Sharing the stage are Jessica Webb as Ellie, Bill Mootos as Greg, and Marianna Bassham as Katherine.
“You look at these people and go, who wins?” Kooi says. “Who is the person at the end who you end up rooting for? Can you pick one of these people, or is it all of them you wish somehow succeed? Or do you wish all four of them end up in jail and going to hell, as it were? I think that’s what’s interesting about this play.”
Hypocrites to end ART season
If you missed the Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance” at Oberon in June, when it was part of the Emerging America Festival, you have another chance. The Chicago troupe’s beach-party take on the 19th-century Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera will close the American Repertory Theater season May 10-June 2, 2013, at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge. The Hypocrites’ artistic director, Sean Graney, again directs.