Is Amy Herzog Our Best Playwright?

I am a big fan of Amy Herzog. For the variety, humanity and sheer storytelling craft of her work (After the Revolution, 4000 Miles, Belleville), I think she may be the best playwright currently at work in America.  Which is why I was just a little disappointed with her new play, Mary Jane, down at the New York Theater Workshop. This one-act, about a single mother trying to cope with a three-year-old child severely disabled by cerebral palsy, is (as usual) impeccably crafted, sharply observed and often moving. But it seems a little slight and safe to me; easy to empathize with, hard to embrace. Constructed as a series of encounters between the mother (Carrie Coon) and various friends, caregivers and hospital personnel, the play doesn’t set up any compelling problem (a hard decision about treatment, say, or how to pay for home health care),  or move in any surprising directions — only sadly, inevitably downward.

Still, it is a touching and insightful play. In contrast to so many current playwrights, who plop their main character at center stage and have them tell the audience what’s going to happen (most recent offender: Sarah Ruhl, in her sappy For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday), Herzog creates characters and backstory that emerge naturally from dialogue, in scenes that build organically, even suspensefully.  Nothing in the play seems false or forced, and it’s much more honest about the way people cope with a medical catastrophe (a mixture of stoicism and denial) than most disease-of-the-week dramas.  (Again, compare it to Ruhl’s play, which opens with a family deathbed scene that struck me as cliched and phony.) So if Mary Jane didn’t entirely satisfy me, it doesn’t lessen my eagerness to keep following Herzog’s exciting career.

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