6:15 pm Oct. 25, 2012
At the tender age of 29, playwright David West Read is about to have his Broadway debut. It's only the second play he's had produced, and it's really, really dirty.
Dirty enough that in January of this year, he traveled to the Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the so-called “Oscars of Porn,” to do research for it. The Performers, an ensemble comedy set at an adult-film awards show, began previews Oct. 23, and officially debuts Nov. 14 at The Longacre Theater on 48th Street, and it's already getting tons of buzz for its talent roster: Alicia Silverstone, Henry Winkler, Cheyenne Jackson and Ari Graynor all star.
During their stay in Vegas, Read and the play’s director Evan Cabnet received a tour from the porn star Sasha Grey. They met the male star of Spartacus XXX and a young Siberian performer who had just been injured in a “particularly acrobatic dungeon scene.” Another star confessed to having just shot a scene in a hotel room upstairs. At one point, Grey even proposes gathering a few of her friends to shoot a scene for the two young men.
“We respectfully declined,” Read wrote in a diary essay for The New York Times.
An Ontario native, Read studied English and semiotics at the University of Toronto. He got his MFA in Dramatic Writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, before enrolling in the Playwriting Program at Juilliard, partly so that he could stay in the United States on a student visa. It was here that he started work on The Performers.
In addition to the snappy dialogue and hilarious story arch, much humor is derived from seeing Winkler, who plays a fading Ron Jeremy-esque porn legend, turn the air blue with an outpouring of raunchy one-liners. In fact, The Performers may contain more four-letter words than any play in the history of Broadway.
In a recent phone interview, Read took a break from rehearsals to discuss his sketch comedy background, his affection for Henry Winkler and some of the highlights of the AVN Awards.
How did you start writing plays?
I did a lot of sketch comedy and one-act plays in college, but it took a while before I really fell in love with theater. I went to NYU grad school as a TV writer. But they have you take classes in all different mediums, including playwriting. The first play I wrote was “Dream of the Burning Boy.” My teacher at the time, Daniel Goldfarb, gave it to his manager and agent, and it wound up premiering at the Roundabout Underground theater in Manhattan. I also had a brief career as an actor in Canada. I was in this made-for-TV movie, and I played the guy who gets killed in the beginning.
Did your research expedition to the AVN Awards affect the plotline of the play?
I’d written the play based on the emotional reality of the characters, not with the porn industry in mind. But I had seen a documentary called The Girl Next Door, in which an adult film star goes to the awards and gets nominated for a bunch but loses them all. It’s a sad, no-gloss look at the life of a porn star. And it illuminated how seriously adult performers take these awards. For them, it’s the Oscars, the Tonys. There’s competition. They want to be validated. That’s why it translates so well to Broadway, I think. There are a lot of parallels between theater and adult film acting.
How do you describe the play to other people?
I think of it as a romantic comedy. All the best romantic comedies are fantasies. There aren’t a lot of couples that meet at top of Empire State Building, you know, or wind up interrupting a wedding. All romantic comedies are based on imaginary projections of what love could be. And that’s what this play is about. It’s like: Wouldn’t it be great if a couple could make it work in the world of adult entertainment? They face all these issues of jealousy and trust. Their relationships are really pushed to the extreme.
Was it hard to craft this material in a way that makes it palatable to a Broadway audience?
I tried to deal with that by creating characters—played by Alicia Silverstone and Daniel Breaker—who are very much like the people in the audience. They’re from New York. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. They’re learning as we’re learning. I wasn’t trying to push the audience to feel uncomfortable. Also, Vegas and breast implants and porn—it’s all so theatrical and big that I think it works on a stage in a really exciting way.
Henry Winkler seems born to play the role of porn legend Chuck Wood. Did you have him in mind when you were writing the character?
[Muffled greeting] Henry just walked right passed me as you were saying that [laughs]. I wrote the first draft with no one in mind, other than the Juilliard actors I was working with. But I’d been working on the play for two years, basically. We had a lot of line readings and I got some amazing people to participate, who I could write towards. Early on, I said it’d be great if we could get someone like Henry Winkler to sort of trade off his star status. And then Henry himself actually agreed to do it!
I like how you give him the filthiest lines in the play.
[Laughs] He’s just such a sweet guy, I took a sort of sadistic pleasure in making sure the most horrible lines come out of his mouth. He’s beloved by all ages, which makes it fun for the audience, too. Hanging out with him in the city is like being with the mayor. He can’t go anywhere without getting mobbed. And the fact that he’s friendly—well, it takes someone like him to pull off a character like this without being creepy or offensive.
As far as language goes, this has got to be one of the dirtiest Broadway plays of all time.
Well, Motherfucker with the Hat, starring Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale, has a lot of foul language. But in this play, the four-letter words are mostly used as verbs, which bumps up the profanity count up by a couple hundred. When you hear the stage manager prompting an actor with one of these lines about assholes or fisting, you kind of pinch yourself that we’re in a Broadway theater. That said, I wasn’t going out of my way to use that language. I was just trying to be authentic about the ways these people talk.
Did anything that happened at the Adult Film Awards make it into what people see onstage?
Since the whole play takes place on one night at the awards show, it's more about the characters’ relationships. We didn’t need details about what it’s like to be on set, or what their career path was like. We’re just looking at this very isolated moment. Then again, some things made it through. I wasn’t able to say this in the Times but one of the films that dominated the Foreign Language category was called Mission Asspossible. Which is pretty brilliant in its simplicity. Also, a girl accepting an award thanked her own asshole for all the shenanigans she had put it through.
Yeah. So there’s a line in the play where the porn star Sundown talks about all the shenanigans her boobs have put her through. A couple small things like that. The real research material we got out of it was scenic: pictures of the hotel, lounges, rooms. The play’s designers were really careful about capturing the Vegas sensibility.
You seemed to have a lot of fun with the film titles and porn star names in the play. Antonio Bonederass, for example.
Well, I’ve always liked puns. And this play has been a great opportunity to make them. The stage management would share their funny porn titles and names with me sometimes.
Do you remember any particularly memorable award categories?
There’s an award for Best Score, for composers. There’s a Best Screenplay. What’s funny is that the Adult Awards shares a lot of the same categories with the Oscars: Best Actor, Best Director, Best Foreign Film.
Best Supporting Actor?
I don’t think they do Best Supporting Actor. Although there was an award for Best Non-Sex Performance, for someone who appears in a movie but doesn’t have sex. Maybe if this Broadway thing doesn’t work out, that’s something I can try for.
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