With writers, there are about six or seven physical types. Jonathan Leaf fits in the European scholar category. Of average height when he slouches, which is most of the time, he might pass as a sharp dresser. But what really draws your attention is the fuzzy dark eye-brows. These wide and thick strips of shag carpet are as expressive as the hands of an impassioned Italian. And they help make Leaf a compelling figure as he harangues against the depressed state of modern theater. These are the busy, dancing eyebrows of an earnest young man with a lot of ideas.
Leaf may as well speak up. In the world of New York City letters, a lot of people are listening to him these days. In the course of just two weeks, I watched as he went from canceling a reading because the play wasn’t ready to signing book contracts and giving legs to a new theater company. It’s the all-or-nothing nature of the arts in New York, and Leaf is becoming a player.
Like so many idealists before him, he decided, after graduating from Yale, to take on the public school sys-tem. He would go to New York and, once there, touch lives and bring about a revolution in teaching. But instead of living out his own after-school special, he found himself in union hell. “In the classroom it was depressing to see how little these kids knew about American history, and even more so how little they cared.”
His teaching experience forced him to question his leftist assumptions. “I grew up in Trenton with an incredibly liberal family. My sister could even be considered a non-Marxist socialist,” Leaf says.
He started to write. “With writing I don’t think formal training is necessary, or even beneficial.” Leaf’s earliest pieces were polemics against the teachers’ union for conservative mags like National Review. Those articles led to other gigs, writing literary, film, and theater criticism for a myriad of publications from the Weekly Standard to the New Yorker.
Though teaching and writing, Leaf soon found himself emotionally and financially spent. He visited some friends in Los Angeles. “On the Sunday Los Angeles Times’s help-wanted page, there are listings for game show contestants. I took a test and got on one.” The show, called The Challengers and hosted by Dick Clark, was a rip-off of Jeopardy. (It ran briefly on the Game Show Network before being canceled.) Leaf ran the table, amassed a sizable winning sum, and quit teach-ing. His expenses were minimal (he lives with his grandmother in Flatbush, Brooklyn), so he could get by on the game show earnings while becoming a full-time writer.
In addition to his journalistic pursuits — which now include freelance criticism and a weekly stint at the New Partisan — Leaf finished a novel, a fictional account of Harvard’s student radicals. As quickly as a college student showing ID at a trendy bar, he produces for me a letter from Hilton Kramer, the legendary for-mer chief art critic of the New York Times. Kramer is notorious for liking nothing, yet he bestows praise on Leaf’s novel like a doting mother. “In The Hope of the Future he has achieved something remarkable; a comic novel about the student radicals. The Hope of the Future is also a comedy of manners in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye and Portnoy’s Complaint, though it is less sentimental than the former and a good deal more merciless in its satire of liberal pieties than the latter.”
After a couple of years, though, Leaf realized his talent was for theater. He decided to stay in New York, instead of looking for a start in smaller markets such as Washington or Chicago, and began focusing on general aesthetic principles. “Theater is live, and you listen to it. You listen to whether or not the words make music. The power of theater is through language and the actors’ ability to deliver it.” This emphasis on theater as an oral medium in which language trumps imagery was a kind of revelation for Leaf. It led him to make a most unusual choice for a modern playwright.
He decided to write in verse. And, just as improbably, he proved to be good at it.
Not that he isn’t tinkering with the traditional idea of verse. “I’ve read almost every verse play, and many first rate dramatists fail because their approach is with the wrong language. Verse needs to be plainspoken.”
Not surprisingly, Leaf takes inspiration from classical theater. “Shakespeare is my favorite playwright, of course. I also appreciate George Bernard Shaw.” He is especially taken with the great universal themes of classical theater — duty, responsibility, and the individual versus society — as well as the great characters, specifically the exalted yet tragic ones like Macbeth and Hamlet.
Looking for a hero he could write about, Leaf found a national icon. “I read Founding Father [by Richard Brookhiser], and thought it was a scandal that we don’t know our nation’s history. I had grown up in Trenton, literally a few blocks from the Prussian barracks, but had no idea they were there.” (The Prussian Barracks, in case you’re the kind of American Leaf worries about, were where Washington crossed the Delaware.) He decided to write a trilogy about George Washington. Well-received in staged readings, the plays were praised by the New York Sun, opening doors for more production opportunities.
“Washington was an actor, and few people know that. His flair for the dramatic probably helped him with the rebellion.” Leaf is referring to the Army plot of Newburgh Heights in 1783, which became the basis of the first part of his trilogy, Washington and the Army Plot. In it, General Washington addresses the troops, who are ready to march on Philadelphia to demand pay. His character arc reaches its pinnacle when he can-not read a letter from the Continental Congress, confessing, “The war has made me blind.” Realizing the depth of his sacrifice, Washington’s men decide against a coup. It was in this play that Leaf began to develop his style: ideas of magnanimity with bigger-than-life characters.
As Leaf searched for another subject, he stumbled upon the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. “He is the perfect study for a romantic tragedy; an over-the-top-life with many character flaws. Plus, he’s a poet, so I could use flowery language in verse and get away with it.” Pushkin: A Verse Tragedy resulted, praised by James Wood of the New Republic as “the best verse play in English since Shakespeare.” A bold statement, which is sure to ruffle the feathers of the mundane kitchen-sink dramatists who dominate the Off-Broadway scene.
Since a reading of Pushkin, Leaf has seen his works staged, read, or presented at Arc Light Theater, Cap 21 Studios, Galapagos, Playwrights Horizons, and the Public Theater. He is constantly networking and shows up to almost every party in the city. The trick to success in New York is exposure. “Once you have a good play, you have to shop it around. It’s almost a never-ending process.” Through his social engagements, Leaf has made contacts with Ridge, Immediate Theater Company, and Works Productions. All three are devel-oping various plays of his. “I think it’s important to stay involved in that world.”
Leaf met the actor Harry Lennix (The Matrix Reloaded, Titus) through a reading for Pushkin. Lennix has since commissioned Leaf to write a play about the life of Duke Ellington. He is also working with the director and three-time Obie winner Bob McGrath to stage another play of his, a prose work entitled The Caterers starring Angelica Torn.
The last time I saw Leaf, he was thrilled. He had just received a book contract from Ivan R. Dee publishers for a manuscript on the history of theater. Even if he was a bad student, he is the perfect candidate for writing this account. His favorite reading material on the school bus was Shakespeare. A broad knowledge of drama is an understatement for describing his capacious memory for all things dramaturgical.
One of his loftier goals is to reestablish theater’s place in society. I’m not the biggest fan of twentieth-century theater. Contemporary plays are trying to give hype to the average man. Look at American Buffalo, there’s no action, no sense of duty. It’s a brilliant play, because nothing happens for two hours and you’re not even sure what the characters are talking about, but it holds your attention. Still, the play is representative of the limits of modern theater. That’s why the theater company I’m trying to start will be called Twenty-first Century Theater. I’m hoping this century will see a rebirth of great plays.
Will Snyder loves to hunt and attend the theater. He writes and edits about both in New York City.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire