What playwright is the voice of this generation?
Hey, there's Lena Dunham on the cover of the new Rolling Stone. And there she is filling backpacks with awards for creating and starring in "Girls," the habit-forming HBO series about 20-somethings enjoying/enduring rootless jobs and unglamorous sex in the city next door to the city, Brooklyn. And, look, there are the articles with a cyberspaceful of arguments about whether Dunham, 26, is, or is not, or just might be the voice of her generation.
It's a claim her character, the imperfect and outlandishly confident Hannah, tossed out in the pilot while high on opium. But it's a claim that has stuck, no doubt helping to catapult the very bright and surprising Dunham into a $3.2 million deal for a collection of voice-of-her-generation essays and a contract for a second HBO series.
And now, save me, it's a claim that has set me off on a peculiar, vaguely embarrassing and dangerously simplistic quest.
That is, where is the theater's Lena Dunham?
Is there a playwright, or a group of playwrights, out there capturing the sensibility of a young new era for which even demographers can't quite agree on a catchy label?
Taking the long, over-generalizing view, we can say that Arthur Miller was the voice of Depression-era sensibility. Tennessee Williams was the voice of sensuality pushing against '50s sexual conformity. A whole bunch of East Village writers, including Sam
Wendy Wasserstein turned out to be the voice of Baby Boom women, bless her, a voice deeply missed since she died in 2006. David Mamet eviscerated '80s greed with a scalpel and street-wise poetic dirty talk. Although more than a few wrote about gays in the '80s and AIDS in the '90s, Tony Kushner and Larry Kramer, with their wildly contrasting sensibilities, are the voices in our head. And though August Wilson's 10 plays were set in 10 African-American decades in the 20th century, the voice, silenced by his death in 2005, was always his own.
So it is possible to look back at how certain playwrights shaped our memories of their time. But isn't it awfully soon -- even stiflingly soon -- to be expected to know who should be linked as emblematic of life today?
Andre Bishop, artistic director of all three distinguished and adventurous Lincoln Center theaters, suspects we may never again be able to make easy labels stick. This pleases him. "Theater has diversified artistically so much, with so many voices representing so many cultures," he told me in a recent phone interview. "The spectrum of playwrights is so much broader than it was 50 or even 25 years ago. Anyone can write about anything today."
As he sees it, something equally striking has happened to the audience. "Audiences seem more and more willing to see plays about anything. Some may secretly really want to see families like their own, as people always have. Butmore are interested in realms beyond their own," he said with an appreciative pause. "We really have come a long way."
We agree that the one identifiable area of creative foment comes from the new Americans -- that is, writers of East Asian and Middle Eastern descent. Ayad Akhtar's dazzling and harrowing "Disgraced" ran late last year at Bishop's new-play series, LCT3. Stephen Karam's "Sons of the Prophet," nurtured by the Roundabout Theatre's new-play series, was a Pulitzer finalist last year. Rajiv Joseph, whose "The North Pool" opens next month at the Vineyard Theatre, made his Broadway debut, and became a 2010 Pulitzer finalist, with "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo." Any of those men could turn out to be the voice of their second-generation immigrant experience. But that's not the same as a Lena Dunham.
I checked in with Tim Sanford, artistic director of the influential Playwrights Horizons, a major cauldron for production of new playwrights, especially, in these good days, women.
He, too, resists -- OK, he balks at -- the idea that the theater needs its Lena Dunham or its generational voice. "What rings truest about 'Girls' is the angst over careers," he told me in a phone interview. "Definitely, this generation has every right to feel that."
He mentioned two of the most celebrated, visible young playwrights who have been produced at his theater -- Annie Baker ("The Flick" opens there March 12) and Amy Herzog ("The Great God Pan" closed its extended run last month there and "Bellevue" opens March 3 at New York Theatre Workshop).
To Sanford, who reads 1,000 plays a year, the goal is "a play where people gather in a room, where the characters are depicted with nuance and complexity and where their lives change." With Baker, "people who aren't usually looked at -- everyday Joes -- are living lives that matter. He adds that Baker "would probably bristle, kicking and screaming" at his description. "I think she thinks her plays are weirder than that."
As for Herzog, Sanford says, "Amy believes that psychology still exists, still matters." That matters to him, too.
I see a lot of new plays that basically celebrate the specialness of grandma or explore the bonds between outcast men and their troubled nieces/nephews. This may indicate that conventional-family plays are as confused as conventional families.
Apropos of "Girls" and family, Zosia Mamet -- Shoshanna on the TV show and daughter of David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse (long divorced) -- opened at MCC Theater Tuesday in a grating and implausible my-generation play called "Really Really."
Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo, 27, told me in a recent phone interview that, indeed, he wrote this "for people my age." It's not just the unspoken significance of certain cellphones. (Zosia, playing a poor girl in a rich college, is stuck with an old flip-top.) Colaizzo, whose play was admired in a production in Washington, D.C., explains that he uses specific language that speaks to his target audience.
He also uses rape as a plot device. This is a subject that, if my informal survey of graduate students is true, may be far too sensitive these days to be used this lightly.
"Really Really," which he began to write six years ago, is the first in a trilogy he calls "Want, Give, Get." First, what will these people do to get what they want? Next, how do young people deal with things they give up? Finally, how do they deal with things they get?
In the Rolling Stone article, Dunham says, "It's funny to me that I'm writing a show that people consider to be the voice of 20-something people. Because I don't feel that connected to it all the time."
That sounds universal enough to be a voice of us all.