In SpeakEasy premiere, the growing pains of adulthood
In the winter of 2011, playwright Ken Urban was playing keyboards in a band with some old college friends, and one night he invited them to his Kendall Square apartment. “One of their wives turned down a glass of wine,” Urban says. “She said, ‘No, thanks,’ and I blurted out, ‘Are you pregnant?’ And the look on her face was, ‘Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it.’ And the drummer’s wife perked up and said, ‘We’re pregnant too.’
“I was like, oh my God, my friends are having children, and that will be the end of this band,” Urban says, starting to laugh. “And sure enough, it was.”
So the Avon Barksdale (named for a character in “The Wire”) will not be playing its indie rock at a club near you any time soon, or ever. But that awkward conversation provided the seed of inspiration for Urban’s new play, “A Future Perfect,” a SpeakEasy Stage Company world premiere beginning performances Friday at the Calderwood Pavilion.
“I kept going back to that evening, and wondering why I couldn’t shake that look and that moment,” says Urban, 40. “That decision, to have a child or not have a child, you’re really asking what do I believe in, what are my values? And how do I see the future, the rest of my life?”
“A Future Perfect” takes place in the Brooklyn condo belonging to 30-somethings Claire and Max (Marianna Bassham and Brian Hastert). She’s a successful marketing executive; he works on a PBS puppet show. They don’t have any kids themselves. When their friends Alex and Elena (Nael Nacer and Chelsea Diehl) come over for takeout Thai, Elena, the youngest of the four, turns down a glass of wine. Claire asks without thinking, “Are you pregnant?”
The reluctant disclosure leads to awkward congratulations and predictable questions about effects on careers and friendships. Max whines that his former bandmate Alex won’t be coming to rock concerts with him anymore. But behind these familiar tropes are deeper, darker worries about love and sex and aging, dreams of one kind or another that seem to be dropping all around them.
“I think when you’re in an indie rock band in your 20s, it’s not just about making music, it’s also a sort of politics, do-it-yourself, anti-corporatism, a belief in gender equality. That was all part of the music I loved then,” Urban says. “And you grow up and watch that be co-opted, and you feel powerless against it. And I think that’s what underlies so much of the conversation the characters are having in this play.”
The start of the Occupy movement the same year he was writing the play became both an inconvenience and a goad to Urban, who had moved back to New York. One day the demonstrations caused a subway shutdown, requiring a long walk home.
“Claire has a speech about encountering Occupy near her office, and she says, ‘Everything I heard them talk about, we all believe in, but we don’t camp in a park, we don’t get arrested.’ That disconnect between what you believe in your 20s and what you carry on into your 30s and 40s.”
Priorities changing with age, becoming more or less urgent, are at the heart of the characters’ dilemmas. Claire is the protagonist, he said, because “the question of having children, for me as a gay man is much easier to answer, whereas for a woman like Claire who is successful at work but is feeling that question so strongly in her life, I felt that was a much more dramatically exciting way of exploring it.” (He decided in his 20s that he didn’t want kids, and is “not having any trouble sticking to” that call.)
He wrote the first draft of the play quickly in the fall of 2011. He had been a Huntington Playwriting Fellow from 2007-09, and in the summer of 2013 the Huntington gave the play a two-week workshop with a public reading at the end. M. Bevin O’Gara came on as director then, as did Bassham, and both have stayed with the play as it became a SpeakEasy production. (Also back from the workshop is Uatchet Jin Juch in a small role as a child actor.)
“It felt like it was talking about so many of the things I am wrestling with,” says O’Gara, 32. “Being a young woman but also where I am in my career, how you fit all the pieces together — family, career, friends, life, values — and it felt like it was approaching that in a really smart way.
“I really loved and respected a female character that could be as blunt as Claire is, and I hadn’t read a character like that in a while,” she says.
Diversity, race, and class have become major topics of theater-community discussion both on and off stage, but “A Future Perfect” is about yuppie liberals bemoaning their first-world problems over seltzer from Whole Foods. Urban acknowledges that but notes that the characters’ race is never specified in the script. And race does become a dramatic issue off stage.
“It’s really exciting for this play to happen right now, given what’s going on in our country, in terms of the Ferguson protests and what’s going on in New York City,” Urban says, referring to the uproar over the decisions not to prosecute police officers for the deaths of two black men in those cities. “We’re having another national moment where we’re asking what do we believe in, and how are we going to live up to our beliefs. To me, I think the play is in conversation with all those things.”
His next production, developed in part at the Huntington, opens in London in May. Called “Sense of an Ending,” it’s about an American reporter in Rwanda interviewing two Hutu nuns who may or may not have been involved in the genocide there.
Urban’s old band will get back together in a way, to see “A Future Perfect,” although not all of them can make it opening night. It’s really a love letter to their friendship, Urban says.
And what about the woman who turned down that glass of wine back then? Has he seen her lately? “It’s been a while,” he says and laughs.