"We need an audience!" says Tracy Brigden of this weekend's "MOMENTUM 04: new plays at different stages" at City Theatre."MOMENTUM 04: new plays at different stages" is a four-day immersion into the world of new theater with some of the country's finest playwrights. It's being held at South Side's City Theatre, whose artistic director, Tracy Brigden, is at lower left, and clockwise is Steven Dietz ("Last of the Boys"), Jilline Ringle ("Time Out! With Didi & Rose") and Eric Simonson ("Work Song")(Bill Wade, Post-Gazette).
It ought to get one, this big theatrical immersion, set in a party atmosphere, and cheap, too. It did last year for the first Momentum, and that had a lot to do with building, well, momentum for this year's repeat.
Momentum is all about some nationally known playwrights with whom City has worked and hopes to work some more. Along with the Pittsburgh acting pool, Brigden says, what turned on the playwrights is City's audience -- its variety and engagement, along with the number of young people included.
Brigden hopes the audience will grow in this second year, drawn by an increase in the festive atmosphere and more events, including a playwrights' panel and a public playwriting class led by Michele Lowe.
The big, climactic post-show Saturday night party in the Gordon Lounge is also back, this time with vocalist, keyboardist and composer Brendan Milburn of the band GrooveLily, a New York-based pop-jazz trio. Milburn has been commissioned to write a new musical for City.
The weekend kicks into high gear with a party tonight at 6, followed by the presentation of the annual Frankel Awards to arts patrons Nanette and Ira H. Gordon and to playwright Lowe, whose "String of Pearls" won many fans at City this past year.
The result of all this should be to make City Theatre the theatrical place to be in Pittsburgh this weekend. You could see Brigden's excitement Wednesday evening as she greeted two of the playwrights, Eric Simonson, who just flew in from Los Angeles, and Steven Dietz, from Seattle. "It's beginning!," she cheered.
Brigden says this year's Momentum features members of "our core of writers and good friends, our family." Only two of the seven playwrights are new to City: Suzanne O'Donnell and Lee Blessing. O'Donnell collaborates with Jilline Ringle to write and perform "Time Out! With Didi & Rose." And Blessing, bringing two one-act plays collectively called "Flag Day," is a leading American playwright.
In Pittsburgh, Blessing is best known for "Cobb," at the Public Theater and elsewhere, and "A Walk in the Woods," at the Pittsburgh Playhouse -- both, coincidentally, starring Tom Atkins. Among his other plays is "Chesapeake," a funny political parable which City will do next, April 22 to May 30.
Of the other four, Dietz leads the pack with three previous plays at City -- "Inventing Van Gogh," "Dracula" and "Painting It Red" -- as well as two at Playhouse Rep -- "Halcyon Days" and "Private Eyes." Unfortunately, the only reading of his new work, "Last of the Boys," was last night.
Another familiar playwriting presence will be Jeffrey Hatcher, who has had two premieres at City, "Mercy of a Storm" and "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," and who received a Frankel Award last year. Hatcher comes off a busy year writing the book for "Never Gonna Dance" on Broadway. He brings "Work Song," about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, written jointly with Simonson, who was at last year's Momentum to direct Lowe's "String of Pearls."
That was Lowe's introduction to City; then she and Simonson returned for the full version of "String of Pearls." Brigden says that when she told Lowe she was to receive this year's Frankel Award, she heard the phone drop with surprise, and Lowe said excitedly, "I never won anything in my life!"
And who could be more part of the City family than Ringle, creator-performer of "Mondo Mangia" and "The Sweet Life" and featured in "Cafe Puttanesca"?
All the Momentum plays "are really contenders to be produced here," Brigden says. "These were the plays I liked where the playwrights were eager to use this as a vehicle for work." Work they will. Simonson, for one, says he expects he and Hatcher will work hard revising between the first reading tonight and the second, Sunday.
The playwrights may be the stars and the audience the essential accompaniment, but Momentum is also a showcase for many local actors, as the cast lists below illustrate.
Assuming that Momentum does draw well and funding continues, Brigden hopes it will grow. She says that many theater people aren't good at imagining plays off the page, so they need to see them up on their feet, in readings, at least. She hopes gradually to get artistic directors and literary managers from other theaters to visit.
She speaks also of "a misconception with New York producers that playwrights don't really re-write." She knows that's not true, having seen plays improve hugely between drafts. "The difference between [versions of] 'Map of Heaven' in two years is vast." And "Work Song" is undergoing transformation from an epic into something smaller. These are "great examples of the journey a play can take."
About the plays
Steven Dietz, "Last of the Boys"
When Jeeter pays his annual visit to his best Vietnam buddy, he also brings along a young new girlfriend and the ghost of Robert McNamara. Cast: Larry John Meyers, Douglas Rees, Elena Passarello, Helena Ruoti and Joel Ripka, directed by Dietz.
Michele Lowe, "Map of Heaven."
The story of an artist and her oncologist husband, it deals with relationships, careers, and the treatment of women by the medical profession. Cast: Rebecca Harris, Darren Eliker, Andrew Paul, Kate Udall, Erika Cuenca, Sheila McKenna and Jayson Brooks, directed by Brigden.
Lee Blessing, "Flag Day": "Good Clean Fun" and "Down & Dirty."
Two one-acts which form a risky, surprising, comic examination of contemporary racism. Cast: Billy Porter, Michael Fuller, Wabei Siyolwe, Ray Anthony Thomas, John Gresh and Jarrod Fry, directed by Alice Jankell.
Jeffrey Hatcher and Eric Simonson, "Work Song."
An epic about Frank Lloyd Wright, first commissioned by Milwaukee Repertory Theater and Steppenwolf Theater. Cast: John Shepard, Laurie Klatscher, Robin Walsh, David Crawford, Mark Staley, Wali Abdullah, Jeff Howell and Patrick Jordan, directed by Simonson.
Suzanne O'Donnell and Jilline Ringle, "Time Out! With Didi & Rose."
Two North Jersey women host a talk show combining cultural debate, performance art and antipasta. Cast: O'Donnell and Ringle, directed by Kellee Van Aken.
Post-Gazette drama editor Christopher Rawson can be reached at 412-263-1666 or firstname.lastname@example.org .