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The Wunderkind
Out of works built from his inner fears, a 32-year-old playwright stages an extraordinary rise.

“Yes, astonishing, isn’t it? And at his age.”

In lieu of fixing a meeting place for lunch, Itamar Moses ’99 told me to telephone when I arrived in his Brooklyn neighborhood. I emerged from the subway station in Park Slope to a disorienting jumble of cafés and shops. When I called, he said he would leave his brownstone and we’d walk toward each other along Seventh Avenue. We would meet somewhere along the way.


The Wall Street Journal’s theater critic exclaimed: “Is there anything he can’t do?”

I wasn’t at all sure his plan would work. The thoroughfare was crowded, and the only image I had ever seen of him was several years old. Moses had no idea at all what I looked like. But as it happened, I had no trouble picking him out from across the street. Dressed in blue jeans and a gray shirt, he cut a youthful and somewhat quizzical figure as he cocked his head to the side looking for me. Both the unusual gamble and his inquiring look would come to seem characteristic.

At 32, Itamar (EET-a-mar) Moses is a theatrical wunderkind, though he professes not to regard himself that way. “I sort of think it’s the case that nobody knows who I am,” he told me over a bowl of corn chowder.

That is likely to change. “One might reasonably conclude that this is … the time for this ambitious young playwright-as-thinker, already beloved of theater insiders, to break through to a wider audience,” Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote in the Los Angeles Times in September 2008. “It’s clear this is Moses’s moment,” Mark Blankenship ’05MFA declared a month later in American Theatre magazine, citing productions at such prestigious venues as the Manhattan Theatre Club and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. When a set of linked one-acts, titled Love/Stories (or But You Will Get Used to It), opened in early 2009 at the Flea Theater in Tribeca, the Wall Street Journal’s theater critic, Terry Teachout, was moved to exclaim: “Is there anything he can’t do?”

Moses’s development as a playwright has been rapid, telescoped. “He has a mind that’s very acutely tuned to structure, and he has an amazing ear for dialogue. It’s unusual to have a playwright who is so strong in both of those,” says Daniel Aukin, who directed the 2008 MTC production of Back Back Back, Moses’s take on steroids in baseball. One of his early plays, Outrage, was a dramatization of his Yale senior thesis. Another, Bach at Leipzig, earned comparisons (not always favorable) to Tom Stoppard. After these ambitious and prolix historical riffs, Moses unexpectedly unveiled more refined and modestly scaled work: chamber pieces, such as The Four of Us and Back Back Back, both of which examine ambition through the prism of friendship.

Ambition has been a “central preoccupation,” Moses says. But these days he is moving toward a new focus, on romantic love and emotional commitment; and new formal challenges, including musical theater and screenplays. Over time, he has learned to expend less effort on verbal pyrotechnics—to strip down his work and risk simplicity instead. Moses’s personal struggles have always filtered into his writing, but now they lie closer to the surface. “You write about feelings that, while locked up inside of you, are really terrifying or overwhelming,” he says. “When you write about this stuff, you take the power it has over you in your life, and you put that power into your work.”

“Anyway, that’s what they do. Is they build you up. And then act like you did it to yourself and they knock you down.”

In 2005, Moses had what the Los Angeles Times called his “Icarus-like moment.”

“This is how incongruous my life was at the time: I came out of an SAT tutoring session with some 15-year-old,” he says, “and there was a voice mail message from Tom Stoppard telling me that he liked Outrage.

After graduating from Yale, Moses had enrolled in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. There he continued to transform his Yale humanities thesis—on Socrates, Bertolt Brecht, and the Inquisition victim Menocchio—into Outrage. A dissection of revolution, martyrdom, and academic politics, the play hopscotched eras and played with theatrical conventions, improvising on European history and the history of theater. (In a nod to post-modernist self-consciousness, the play’s Brechtian narrator was none other than Bertolt Brecht.) Moses now sees Outrage less as a critique of revolutionary ambition than as an example of his own hubris. “The ambition is in, I think, the play itself—how big it is, how many characters it has, how many story lines it has,” he says. “It’s a hallmark of how ambitious I was at the time: ‘I’m going to write a giant play, I’m going to write the biggest play anyone’s ever seen’—without regard to the fact of whether I had the craft to pull it off.”

It was when Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater produced Outrage in 2005 that Moses first met Stoppard. The two spoke on a panel at the theater together and then shared a late train back to New York. The Wilma had given Stoppard a copy of Outrage, according to Moses, and Stoppard left him the voice mail message three or four days later.

“So we were in touch for a while after that,” Moses says, as though that were the most natural development in the world for an aspiring 20-something playwright who had yet to have his first New York production.

Sure, “privately, it was really exciting,” Moses says. But he insists that the relationship never amounted to a full-fledged mentor-protégé bond. “I think people imagined us in a room by candlelight and him imparting stuff, and nothing like that ever happened. We exchanged a bunch of letters and he read a couple of my plays, and when he was in town, we went to eat a couple of times. And that was it.”

Not quite: Stoppard also penned a very brief laudatory preface to the Faber and Faber edition of Moses’s first published play, Bach at Leipzig, that called the young playwright “a new and original voice in the American theater.” His imprimatur colored the reaction to Bach at Leipzig, whose fusion of philosophy, wit, and farce earned such adjectives as “Stoppard-like” and “Stoppardesque.” But Moses insists the play owes at least as much to Molière and Oscar Wilde.

A fictional version of an actual eighteenth-century event, Bach at Leipzig revolves around a competition for an organist’s post at a church in Germany. The work’s form mimics that of a fugue, with characters repeating themes and variations. A half-dozen organists, all named either Georg or Johann, not only audition, but perform for one another—debating music and metaphysics, donning disguises, cutting deals, and resorting to fraud, bribery, and blackmail. Moses’s targets once again include the conventions of playwriting. One Johann expresses the longing to “write a play in which the demands of its form do not supersede the truthfulness of its content!”

Reviews of the 2005 New York Theatre Workshop production were largely dispiriting. The most devastating attack, by Charles Isherwood of the New York Times, dismissed Bach at Leipzig as “an ardent but hollow literary homage” whose “needlessly complicated architecture fails to conceal the void of real ideas at its core.” But some critics, and audiences, were enthusiastic. The Wall Street Journal’s Teachout pronounced Bach at Leipzig the year’s “best new play.”

Still, the critical bruising left its mark on Moses. “The thicker the Stoppard lenses are through which they’re looking at the play,” he told me, “the less capable [critics] are of actually experiencing the play. Apparently, naming your influences is just like handing people a stick to hit you with.” His mostly good-humored wit can turn mordant on the subject of critics: “I think tone is the issue—coming into a play with a sort of arms-folded, eyebrows-raised skepticism, as though the playwright is secretly trying to get something past you. I don’t know any playwrights who write that way. We’re never doing it to annoy you! We’re trying to do something deeply felt that is meaningful. But there’s this weird presumption of malice on the part of the playwright.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a personal stake in this?”

Moses grew up in Berkeley, California, the son of a film professor and a psychotherapist who met in the Israeli army. Because Gavriel Moses was an Italian emigrant, the army had enrolled him in Yael Miller’s Hebrew class. But Gavriel had lived in Israel until he was eight and already spoke fluent Hebrew, “so he had nothing better to do than flirt with the teacher,” Moses recounts. The couple moved to the United States so Gavriel could complete doctoral studies at Brown. (He is now an associate professor of Italian and Film Studies at the University of California–Berkeley; Yael is in private practice.)

From his mother, Moses imbibed a fascination with Freudian psychology. (The three baseball players in Back Back Back, he says, represent the Ego, the Superego, and the Id.) From the example of his father, who has long planned to make his own films but not yet begun, Moses says he drew the lesson not to put his own dreams on hold—“a sense of urgency, that I better do this right away, and I better not put it off.”

Moses attended Berkeley High and edited the school newspaper, an experience he would elaborate on in the 2008 play Yellowjackets. With ethnic and racial conflicts at a boil, Berkeley High was “a scary place to go to school,” he says. “What was frustrating and frightening about it,—and then, later in life, dramatically useful—was being in a position where there was a possibility of being physically assaulted.” And yet because of the school’s politics and his status as white and privileged, “if you were to complain about it, or to imply that the attack seemed to be in some way racially motivated, you were also on the wrong side of that argument.”

Seeing Tony Kushner’s Angels in America when he was 17—“just an overwhelmingly powerful experience”—pushed Moses toward playwriting. At Yale, he became a humor columnist for the Yale Daily News, took playwriting courses, and helped stage three of his works. He also acted, “mainly just to get to know everybody. Then I could force other people to be in my plays!” he says. “But I actually loved performing.”

“Please stop using my biography as an excuse not to pay attention to what I actually wrote. Yeah, I’m young. So what’s wrong with my play? It’s young. Why? Because that is the safest fucking thing you can possibly say.”

In the past few years, Moses’s plays have been trending more deeply personal. The Four of Us, written in 2004, is about ambition and literary competition, but also intimacy and what is left unspoken between men and between men and women. In “Afterword: An Introduction,” in the play’s published version, Moses describes its emotional backdrop: “It wasn’t yet clear that I’d be able to have anything resembling a self-sustaining career. Also, I had just ended a very long relationship, so I was spending a fair amount of time staring blankly into space.”

Moses says that after circulating the play in New York, he kept getting notes from “older people who were running Off-Broadway theaters” who “liked how the play was crafted, but they felt that nothing happened in it.” But he knew from the play’s earliest readings that it worked, that it keyed into his generation’s anxieties about competition and success. Media reports on The Four of Us speculated that it was inspired by his friendship with Jonathan Safran Foer—who had landed a six-figure advance for his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, while Moses was still struggling. “That would just be a lie if I said that wasn’t true,” the playwright concedes. He drew on a variety of relationships for the play, but “there was an inciting incident there: what happens when this [success] happens to one person and not to another?”

The Four of Us, which moves both backwards and forwards in time, traces the relationship between an aspiring playwright, David, and a suddenly successful novelist, Benjamin, from the ages of 17 to 27. They ricochet between envy, loyalty, disappointment, and betrayal, and the risk of exposing those emotions was “part of what was exciting about it,” Moses says. It involved “trusting [that if] you look at what seems most idiosyncratic or vulnerable about you, the things you most want to hide, and then you put them out there,” then other people will respond, “‘How did you know?’”

The polished 2008 Manhattan Theatre Club production was a critical and popular hit. Even the skeptical Isherwood managed mild praise, calling the play “a clever if modest study of the strains that success can put on a sturdy friendship.” The Journal’s Teachout, already a fan, was star-struck: “Is there a more promising playwright in America than Itamar Moses?”

Although The Four of Us pivots on a stunning formal twist, it showed Moses stepping away from the elaborate high-wire acts of his earliest work. “The craft is gentler,” he says. “Who knows what factors play into it? Getting older, trusting the craft more, having the sense that people are looking at you—so you don’t need to order them to quite so much.”

Man: “‘In order to do what I wanted to do for the rest of my life I had to learn so much about it that I ruined forever my ability to enjoy it in the way that made me want to do it in the first place.’”

Woman: “That’s it? That’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard in your life?”

Moses’s routine begins around 9 or 10, when he wakes and departs immediately for a café around the corner, wearing the previous day’s clothes. “It doesn’t allow the option of anything else to intrude in my day,” he says. He writes for two or three hours before returning to the brownstone he shares with artist Nick Frankfurt ’99 and other former Yalies. There he eats his first meal, a bowl of cereal, and digs in for an afternoon of writing in the empty house.

His several works in progress include his first screenplay, a collaboration with two acrobats for the San Francisco Circus Center, and a musical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude. With composer Gaby Alter, a childhood friend, he’s also writing another musical, called Reality!—“about reality TV as a bellwether of a generation-wide societal ill, which is the belief that your life has meaning only because people are watching it.” Finally, he is revising a play commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Completeness, about a romance. One member of the couple is a computer scientist who is trying to solve a famous puzzle known as the Traveling Salesman Problem: how do you find the most efficient route for visiting each of several cities just once? The task is “a good metaphor for dating,” Moses says. “If you wait until you know you’re making the best possible choice, the actual real-world result is you make no choice at all.”

Moses is unmarried but was, at last report, involved in a relationship (about which he will tell a reporter precisely nothing). Interestingly, he describes the central question of Authorial Intent, one of the linked plays in Love/Stories (or But You Will Get Used to It) thus: “How do you maintain something? How do you get to know someone better without destroying the thing that drew you to them in the first place?” It’s a dark view of love. But this is, after all, a playwright who finds drama in “the tiny ways in which we allow ourselves to die every day.”

And because Moses is Moses, he sees in the fading of romantic love and passion an analogy “to your art as an artist: how do you not learn so much about your craft that you ruin your ability to be interested in or excited about the art?”

Is that one of Moses’s concerns—that his formal mastery may ultimately be at odds with inspiration? Has he perhaps peaked too soon?

He shrugs off the question. “In terms of the craft, I’m trying to work harder and dig deeper, so I’m not worried about not producing work that challenges or interests me,” he says. “But in terms of peaking professionally, keep in mind there’s a whole level of stuff that can happen professionally that hasn’t happened to me: I’ve never had a commercial transfer of my work, I’ve never had a show on Broadway, I’ve never won an award for a play in New York, I’ve never even been nominated for any of the Off-Broadway awards.

“Not that I’m in the market for that,” he hastens to add, “or think that’s necessarily meaningful. The Wire, which is transparently the greatest television show in history, never won a single Emmy. Not that awards matter, but you asked me if I’ve peaked. Artistically, definitely not. But professionally—if so, it’s a relatively low peak. Which is not, by the way, something I mind. I enjoy working quietly in a corner.”  the end





Video clips from productions of Moses’s plays


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