Chicago playwright Jason Wells’ new play aims to offer plenty of laughs wrapped in political mindfulness. Told through the microcosm of a remote police station in the Ozarks, The North Plan combines what Wells describes as “a tightly structured comedy with just enough political commentary.” In fact, it was mostly the comedy that enticed the hard-hitting Elephant Theatre Company to mount the production’s Los Angeles premiere this week.
“Last year we tackled some serious plays,” says Elephant co-artistic director David Fofi, who is also helming the production of North. “We wanted to come back with something people would really enjoy…but we still wanted something with bite to it.”
According to Fofi, the selection of North was easy after culling through the numerous script submissions Elephant received for its latest season. “I need to get passionate about something,” says Fofi of the script. “And I get passionate when something stirs me up inside.”
Since 1995, the Elephant has built its reputation as a 99-seat theater doing thought-provoking plays with plenty of acclaim and awards. That reputation has helped grow connections with larger, more established theaters around the country such as Manhattan Theatre Club, Portland Center Stage and LA’s own Center Theatre Group — to name a few — and a cross-section of literary managers and agents who have fed new scripts to the company for consideration. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Little Flower of East Orange was one such project which the Elephant introduced to the West Coast in November 2010.
The Elephant invites its company members to get involved with the multitude of submissions that come in. The company of about 75 engages in reading submissions, whittling the pile down to about a dozen plays which are then presented as a reading series. Then, based on company input, Fofi and co-artistic director Lindsay Allbaugh make the final decisions about the season.
This will be Wells’ first production at the Elephant, but he’s no stranger to Los Angeles audiences. Furious Theatre Company presented the West Coast premiere of Wells’ Men of Tortuga in 2010. Tortuga, like North, combined another cautionary tale with a dark comedic spin on current events. But where Tortuga dissected corporate culture, North goes after politics and privacy.
“I was noticing the hyperbolic political climate we were having a few years back and still having now to a certain degree,” says Wells. “It reminds me of the old joke about the dog who chases cars. What’s he gonna do when he catches one?”
Inspired by the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Wells began imagining what a true revolution might look like for the sparring factions within American politics. His imagined “political coup” became the premise for North but with a decided twist — those finally in power would come to it not through violence but through eroding personal freedoms. And although his inspiration was decidedly Republican, the perpetrators in Wells’ play remain intentionally apolitical — making any political persuasion the potential perpetrator. This particularly caught the attention of Fofi.
“He’s done an amazing job of tackling the issue of our amazing government surveillance machine that seems to be running away from us,” says Fofi. “And I don’t even believe in any one political party…I think too often people care more about their political party than real people.”
“If Facebook and Google have taught us anything, it’s that our freedoms can be whittled away,” says Wells. “I think a lot of Americans wouldn’t know they are in the midst of a dystopia.”
Fofi says The North Plan will bring a desired lightness in tone while still carrying what audiences have come to expect from Elephant plays — particularly, the Elephant’s tendency to stage plays about distinctively American topics. “It’s important to be provocative and to challenge,” says Fofi. “How do we respond to things that are ‘dirty’ to us? Americans sometimes want everything to be TV-land…and I’ve found when you do this kind of [theater], people respond.”
Plays, much like political movements, take time to build momentum. And for Wells, the ability to develop work with other artists is an important step when constructing plays. The North Plan went through its paces before emerging in its final form three years ago.
“All my plays have gone through some kind of development and with this play in particular it was helpful,” says Wells. “There was a lot to pull apart…actors are great because they become experts on the character…[development] was always intended to be part of the process.”
North was primarily re-tooled as part of the Portland Center Stage’s Jaw Festival in 2010, where the play first premiered after an intensive development process. Wells then worked to further polish the script for Steppenwolf’s First Look series in that same year.
“That’s been my process all along, and I wouldn’t want to do it any other way,” says Wells. “I never want to be so famous as a playwright that people would just do whatever I write right away.”
There seems to be symmetry between the playwright Wells aspires to be and the theater company Elephant has become, in part, through Fofi’s leadership.
“I was not your typical theater person,” says Fofi. “I’m an ex-Navy, ex-football player who took his first theater class when he was 23, after four years in the Navy.”
Fofi’s brand of theater stems from an everyman’s rough-and-tumble viewpoint on life. He identifies some of his early theater gods as David Rabe, Sam Shepard and David Mamet, and he co-founded Elephant specifically to encourage new work alongside the occasional published play. Fofi describes the Elephant aesthetic as “real people with real problems” — alcoholism, crises of faith, family issues, unemployment. But he’s drawn to the tightly woven serio-comic where — just as in life — a tragedy can quickly turn to comedy.
“What I’m looking for is usually contemporary, pretty much American. Not for nationalism but because I want to do theater that I live in. I like it to be reflective of what’s happening around us,” says Fofi. “And the tensions caused by our country being split from the inside.”
As a playwright, Wells does not ascribe to any one method or theme for creating work, but he spends ample time mulling over a premise before committing words to the page.
“Sometimes I’ll just walk around thinking about something for months and months and then sit down and write the whole thing…and that’s it,” says Wells. “Then I won’t change anything until it gets to the development process. I don’t even want to work on it if I don’t know going into it that it’s already a play.”
In the end, Fofi and Wells agree that North is, at its core, an entertainment. But they also hope those who think more deeply about where we are as a country will mine some of the messages to be found beneath the humor.
The North Plan, Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood 90038. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm. Through June 1. Tickets: $25. www.ElephantTheatre.org. 855-NO-FORGET [663-6743].
**All The North Plan production photos by Joel Daavid.