Playwright Mac Wellman's business card reads "Damnable Scribbler," and that sums him up pretty well. Wellman is prolific _ 30-plus plays produced and counting at this point _ and he's not shy about baffling, provoking, even offending audiences.
"One of my best plays almost closed down San Diego Rep," he says.
Wellman is a ringleader of a new school of language-drunk American playwrights, and Tampa Bay theatergoers will find out what all the fuss is about with the premiere of his site-specific play, Why the Y? (in Ybor City). Staged at the Italian Club by Hillsborough Moving Company, funded with a grant from Dancing in the Streets, Wellman's opus on Ybor City opens Thursday and runs through Nov. 20.
Wellman, who lives in Brooklyn and is teaching playwriting at Yale and Princeton this fall, thinks that theater is getting ready to break out of the marginalized condition it has fallen into and make a splash in mainstream culture. "A lot of important playwrights have come along in the last 15 years who are as good as anyone writing fiction or poetry," he says.
Wellman and playwrights of a similar ilk _ Len Jenkin, Jeffrey Jones, Eric Overmyer and Suzan-Lori Parks, among others _ are taking what would seem like a quaint tack in a supposedly post-literate society: They celebrate the American language. Why the Y?, for example, is full of long, poetic speeches.
"Not until fairly recently did you have writers who really took the text of a play seriously," he says. "In a way we're throwbacks to the Elizabethans."
Wellman's point of view includes a biting critique of a pair of famous American playwrights.
Sam Shepard: "He walked away from theater because he looks like the Marlboro man and can make a million dollars acting. I can't imagine a great playwright in another country doing that."
David Mamet: "Mamet's really smart and he knows his stuff and he's got two or three great plays _ Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo. I don't think Oleanna's any good. What I miss with him is any passion. What he's good at is getting there first and laying claim to a certain kind of ground. Claiming turf _ I think he's really good at that. If he had more behind it, he would be a great playwright, but I don't think he does. Someone like Shepard has heart. I don't think Mamet does, ultimately. I find him just a cold manipulator and not particularly adroit. There are four or five tricks he does and that's about it."
Wellman doesn't think Shepard and Mamet have much to say to younger audiences. Even though Wellman is a baby boomer _ he was born in 1945 _ he's found a following with people under 40.
"My own generation and people older than me don't know what I'm doing at all, but the younger people do," he says. "Those people who I used to think were illiterate can read even some of my extreme plays like Terminal Hip and get excited."