Strange Attractors

Empty Space Theatre

Jan 15-Feb 16

Previews Fri-Tues Jan 10-14.

David Adjmi writes plays. Until his most recent work, playwrighting has been an exceedingly internalized process for the 29-year-old New Yorker, who for years prepared to work by shutting out as much of the world as possible: shades drawn, phones and stereo silenced, ears plugged. This hermetic method helped Adjmi produce his first two plays, Doppelgangbang and Woody Allen's Fall Projects, a pair of brainy, distinctly twisted dark comedies that served to announce David Adjmi as an emerging American playwright to watch.

However, for his new play, Adjmi rejected previous techniques and blasted his hermetic method inside out--"yanking up the blinds, opening the windows, and blaring Beck's Midnite Vultures over and over," Adjmi tells me over coffee in a cafe on Capitol Hill. "Anything to overwhelm my senses." At the time he was in New York blasting Beck, Adjmi was preparing for the 2000 Iowa Playwrights Workshop, where his (as yet unwritten) new play was scheduled to be unveiled. "I'd been writing a lot, and I was getting burnt out," Adjmi confesses. For inspiration, he turned to the work of an old master--Henrik Ibsen, whose 1879 classic A Doll's House provided Adjmi with the basic architecture for his new play.

For three days, Adjmi banged away at his script. To amp up the stakes of Ibsen's once scandalous tale of a wife's forbidden freedom, Adjmi turned to another of his cultural obsessions: Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve as a frigid Parisian housewife who longs to be pelted with horse dung. From this collision of Ibsen, Buñuel, and Beck came Strange Attractors, which had a workshop reading in Iowa three hours after Adjmi's completion of the first draft, and will have its world premiere January 15 at Seattle's Empty Space Theatre.

"It's a beautiful play," says Chay Yew, director of the premiere. "On one level, it's a satire of American society, how we live, our obsession with money, our constant striving for 'normalcy.' Then there's an almost Freudian level, depicting how childhood experience maps out our adult lives. It's very deft, very smart, but it's also punishing and relentless, and the characters ask a lot of the audience. It's going to repel a lot of people."

Awash in sexual degradation, Internet pedophilia, and garden-variety fetishism, Strange Attractors would be a challenge for any director hoping to make nice with an audience. Thankfully, Yew has chosen to flesh out Adjmi's intricate urban nightmare with some of Seattle's most intelligent and ambitious actors--including Ian Bell, Shelly Reynolds, and, best of all, Heidi Schreck, who finds in Strange Attractors' central character a contemporary role that calls on her full, uniquely powerful talent. Trapped in her own, MTV Cribs-styled dollhouse, Attractors' Betsy faces a slew of personal, moral, and mortal challenges that would've driven Ibsen's Nora to pitch herself off a cliff.

Regarding the edgier elements of his work, Adjmi insists, "I'm not a provocateur. But I do need to clear space for the possibility of pissing people off. Once I know I can piss people off with impunity, I know I'll be able to say what I have to say."

As for what he has to say, Adjmi prefers to let his plays speak for themselves. However, he admits that Strange Attractors, in which a handful of characters find themselves through often dangerous transgression, is his most autobiographical work. "The events aren't real," Adjmi explains, "but the emotions are. The desperation of not having enough money, the way society undervalues the individual, the way individuals undervalue themselves--all these are things I have firsthand knowledge of."

Asked about the significance of the play's title, Adjmi pauses.

"In laymen's terms, an attractor is a pattern that occurs in nature," he tells me. "Like the vortex in the drain of a bathtub. If you put your hand in, you can interrupt the flow, but once you remove your hand, it goes right back to the natural pattern."

Considering the events of his play and the vortex metaphor, I posit the theory that, in Strange Attractors, human nature is the vortex and conventional morality is the hand.

"Maybe," Adjmi says, for my sake. "But I don't over-think my titles. If I like one, I'll slap it on."