'Sunken Living Room' rises again at Southern Rep

Saturday January 13, 07
by David Cuthbert, Times-Picayune

 'Sunken Living Room' rises again at Southern Rep
Saturday, January 13, 2007

David Caudle's "The Sunken Living Room" is set in Miami in 1978 and the title refers to the once-popular suburban home split-level floor plan. Of course, it means another thing entirely to New Orleanians.

The play itself, however, has proved unsinkable. Its premiere in fall 2005 was canceled by Katrina, but director Ryan Rilette, who has championed it since its first reading at the 2004 Southern New Plays Festival, was determined to get it on somewhere. Rafael de Acha, then-director of the New Theatre in Miami -- who knew something about theater schedules ruined by hurricanes -- invited him to stage it there, as a co-production of the two theaters. It was a natural, given its setting and that the playwright is from Miami.

Produced last April and May, the play about two antagonistic teenage brothers in a dysfunctional '70s family, received favorable-to-rave reviews and was named "Best Drama" by the Miami Sun Post. The Miami staging and a New York fund-raising reading have helped put its playwright on the map and John Magaro, who plays the 16-year-old Wade, trying to hold his family together, has since made three films.

"What initially attracted me to this script," Rilette said, "was the vibrancy of its characters. In lots of new plays, the characters all sound like the author. With 'The Sunken Living Room,' Caudle's four characters are so fully formed, you feel like you've known them for years. At its first reading, we found that it was incredibly funny. But when we started working on it, we began to dig into some of the really dark, dangerous and gritty moments of the play that I knew were there."

In "The Sunken Living Room," Dad is absent (although tellingly described), as is older sister Allison, who has long since flown the coop. Oblivious Mom is off to a bridge game, leaving brothers Wade, 16, and Chip, 17, home alone. But not for long. Chip's girlfriend Tammy ("a visiting dignitary -- the ambassador from Slutland") shows up, tries seducing Wade and then joins Chip ("a freak-jock") for drugs-and-sex partying that gets out of hand. (The play contains nudity and strong language. )

The seeds for "The Sunken Living Room" were planted when Caudle took an acting class at the Naked Angels Theater Company in New York. "I was playing Warren in Kenneth Lonergan's 'This is Our Youth,' " Caudle said, "and though I was older than the character, I found myself transported back to that time when I was a teenager and trying to figure it all out. But at that age, you have no one to turn to and it's the blind leading the blind."

Caudle says the play this prompted him to write "opened up in front of me and I wrote the first draft in a week and a half."

Caudle based the character of Wade on himself.

"I was not rebellious," he said, "I made good grades, worked after school. To the outside world, I was the perfect kid. Like Wade, I was not ready to admit that I was gay. To be gay in the '70s was a very scary thing. And even though everyone in this family is messed up, in Wade's mind, to admit this, even to himself, makes him the worst one."

"The first thing I learned about this play when it got before an audience," Rilette said, "was that people in their 40s felt as if it completely captured what it was like to grow up in the '70s. David gets the feeling of the 'me' decade and also its particulars, right down to the shag carpeting and music.

"In Miami, I learned that gay men really identify with the play. What's great about David's writing is that when he writes a gay character, he doesn't make their sexuality what the play is about. What makes this play really soar is the fact that his lead character, the hero of the play, is a young gay man, but we don't spend the whole play exploring his budding sexuality. He's just a kid who happens to be gay on a very eventful night in his life as he tries to keep his family from spiraling out of control."

"Wade is an amazing character," says John Magaro, who plays him. "He just jumps off the page at you. He's unique, in that he's so vulnerable, yet he's the strongest character in the play. But he doesn't realize that, either. He's too busy dealing with everyone else's problems that he pushes his own aside. Life is telling him that you can't depend on anybody, that he has only himself.

"But everybody is human here. When Chip, the older brother, lets his guard down, we see what life is like from his perspective. There are moments in the play that are particularly good, I think: the make-out scenes with Tammy; Wade's final moments with his brother where they're just so raw, tearing their hearts out, and the beautifully written story about the older daughter Allison, which just pours out.

"In Miami, we had talk-backs after the show and it's surprising how personal this play is to the people who see it. I know it's very close to David (Caudle)."

Magaro had just graduated from Point Park University in Pittsburgh, where he'd worked at the school's Pittsburgh Playhouse, when he auditioned for "The Sunken Living Room" in New York.

"David and I hadn't seen the Wade we'd envisioned," Rilette said "and were very scared we wouldn't find the right person. Then John walked in. He was literally the last person we read in New York and had just moved there. He started reading and we knew we had found just what we needed."

Magaro is from Stow, Ohio, "near Cleveland where I first got my love for the theater, at the Cleveland Playhouse," he said. At 23 he looks much younger, "so I tend to get cast as high school kids, which at this point, I don't mind" he said.

He plays a boy from another dysfunctional family in "Bomb," a short film to be shown this month at the Sundance Film Festival. "Then I have a part in 'The Brave One,' " he said, directed by Neil Jordan and starring Jodie Foster. I'm the witness to a murder and Jodie's a vigilante."

"In Bloom," directed by Griffin Dunne, finds him cast as the shooter at a Columbine-type school tragedy. "The film works on parallel levels," he said. "Evan Rachel Wood plays the survivor of the shooting when it happens and Uma Thurman is Rachel years later." Both films are scheduled for release this fall.

Meanwhile, Caudle's funny, quirky "Feet of Clay," which won the Samuel French One-Act Play competition and was published two years ago, has been made into a short film directed by Carrie Preston. His play "Likeness" will be done at New York's Primary Stages, where he was invited to join its New American Writers Group, which he says came about "as a result of 'The Sunken Living Room.' "

"I feel very lucky to have my play being done by two regional theaters," Caudle said. "Being a writer trying to get your stuff out there is not an easy thing. In New York, the attitude is 'If I haven't heard of you by now, how good can you be?'

"I'm very grateful to Ryan, and to actress Ann Mahoney, who read on the University of Connecticut Web site that the play had been a Gold Medal finalist for the Pinter Award. I didn't know her, but she forwarded that posting to Ryan, so I can't say enough about Ann, who directed the first reading at Southern Rep. Ryan seeks out, supports and produces new work."

In this case, not even a hurricane could stop him.