Oh, the drama

As charmingly neurotic Pikesville-born playwright Cherie Vogelstein prepares a new play for Broadway, the pressure is on, and so is the procrastination.

November 24, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Two Weeks Before the Debut of Her New Play, Snakes: "Don't tell anyone," Cherie Vogelstein confides, "but I haven't written it yet."

That's dismaying, given the importance of the event. It's mid-fall, and Snakes is to premiere in New York City at the Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual festival of new one-act plays. Despite its Hell's Kitchen location, the theater is one of the top showcases for one-act plays in the United States. Without question, the clock is ticking.

But maybe Vogelstein works best under pressure; she's been up against tight deadlines before. At age 41, the Baltimore-born playwright has credentials that many scribes would envy.

Her work has won praise from The New York Times, and three of her one-acts have been anthologized in The Best American Short Plays. In 1997, her play, Cats and Dogs was one of a group of four plays (including works by David Auburn, who later won the Pulitzer Prize, and Michael Patrick King, a creator of Sex In The City) that won the theater Grand Jury award at the HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. In 1999, she won the inaugural Oscar Hammerstein fellowship for best emerging playwright. But Vogelstein brushes off any suggestion that she is doing well with her trademark blend of outrageousness and self-deprecation.

"I hate the theater," she says. "The movies are much more fun. Writing for the theater is stupid enough, but writing one-acts takes that stupidity to an extreme. I am achieving in the world's least practical art form."

Perhaps, but it is among the world's most loved art forms. Not every playwright working in New York is as successful as Edward Albee, and not every show that gets staged is a mega-hit on the order of The Producers. Like Vogelstein, most playwrights who carve out a life in the theater perform for perhaps 100 people on a good night. Yet, without them, the art form would be sadly diminished. So there's really very little chance that Vogelstein won't finish her play. Is there?

One Week Before the Debut of Her New Play, Snakes: "The rehearsal schedule is still kind of up in the air," Vogelstein explains. "Actually, we don't have a cast yet. Actually, I still haven't written the play."

Jamie Richards, who has directed Vogelstein's works for the past decade, sighs when she hears the news. "Cherie likes to change things and write up until the very end," she says. "But it'll get done. It's the miracle of theater."

If Richards seems unruffled, it's because she knows that once she pries Snakes out of the author's hands, the audience will laugh so hard that their mouths may get stretched out of shape. At least, that's the way it always has worked.

"Cherie is very unique in her world-view and completely unabashed in putting it out," says Richards, who likens Vogelstein's style to "the knife under the mattress."

In one Vogelstein play, a job interview turns obscene and surreal. (New York Times reviewer Bruce Weber described this work, Brown, as "an almost painfully dark and funny farce.") In a second, a man decides to leave his wife and manipulates her sister into breaking the news. In a third, a woman systematically separates her new beau from his family and friends.

Often, the humor comes from an absurd contrast between conversational cliches and a character's deepest feelings. In Cats And Dogs, a man tells a blind date that despite his traumatic divorce, he's ready to move on with his life: "The point is, instead of feeling dead, I feel open to potentially new, very upsetting new pain."

As Richards puts it: "Her work is very, very funny and a tiny bit mean-spirited in the best possible way. It's a wonderful critique of society. You're laughing, but you're horrified that you're laughing."

The material in Vogelstein's plays seems especially off-kilter because its author was raised as an Orthodox Jew and still scrupulously keeps kosher. "You might think that these plays were written by some truck driver, and not by a woman raised in this conservative tradition where girls wear skirts down to their ankles and some marriages still are arranged," says Cherie's brother, Bert Vogelstein, who thinks the plays are his sister's way of rebelling.

Some families might be embarrassed by the no-holds-barred quality of Vogelstein's humor. But neither her brothers nor her parents ever have wavered in their support. "My parents come to all my productions," Cherie Vogelstein says. "You know what my stuff is like. It's profane, it's filthy, and there's my father sitting in the audience in his big yarmulke."

Three Days Before the Debut of Her New Play, Snakes:

"So far, I've just written the first act," Vogelstein says. "If you do an article about me, you have to say how neurotic I am."

It's getting harder to argue against that point. But Vogelstein also is charming, funny, full of life, and exploding with personality.

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