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An appreciation of J. T. Rogers.

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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Why was Rogers’s earlier play denied the attention Kushner garnered for Angels in America? The difficulty lies not only in politics but in the economics of play production. While his breakthrough drama is a fascinating and highly suspenseful story about an American academic and his and his family’s search for a missing friend in the days and weeks leading up to the Rwandan genocide, it resembles Blood and Gifts in its depressing theme and prohibitively expensive production costs. And here, too, Rogers was not peddling a welcome theme. Like the younger David Mamet, he was writing plays with conservative ideas, no matter what his voter registration card suggested. 

The son of a political scientist father and actress mother, both from Berkeley, Rogers concedes that he now understands the necessity of a solid middle class for political stability: The madness born of its absence is among The Overwhelming’s themes. Indeed, in both plays, his Americans are well-intentioned people who are naïve in their presumption that the world possesses a kind of plasticity that will mold itself to their touch. His plays are very much the antithesis of what’s coming out of MFA programs these days (i.e., small-scale stories with minimal plotting and suspense about carefully observed characters—say, a young man coming out of the closet or a troubled marriage between two sensitive intellectuals). 

J. T. Rogers’s alternative approach is a function of his divergent path to playwriting. Like Mamet (and, for that matter, Shakespeare), he started out with the intention of being an actor, and then, like so many would-be performers, arrived in the big city, found himself involved in running a small theater, and took on the role of dramatist. This was a part, to his surprise, he much preferred—one for which he has considerable gifts and, more important, a wider ambition than most contemporary playwrights.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright in New York.  

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