A Philadelphia playwright you probably don’t know, but should

A hilarious and affecting world premiere by one of the best writers in Philadelphia is opening tomorrow, and you probably don’t know about it.

John Rosenberg

John Rosenberg

HANNAH is the newest offering by John Rosenberg of Hella Fresh Theater, who has been producing works in a renovated paper mill in Kensington since 2010. It’s set in a student co-op in California in the mid-1990s “HANNAH is based on the years i was super fucked up in Berkeley,” Rosenberg says. “I had never seen a play set in that world, so I wrote a play about ravers and their lives in between parties.”

Rosenberg’s plays all take place in a specific recent past, backdrops which enrich rather than dominate the works. Alp d’Huez (2012) features an American cycling fan in Paris in 2003—George Bush is leading the country into an internationally reviled war and a U.S. sports star is cheating his way to Tour de France dominance, but the play is about a marriage falling apart. In Automatic Fault Isolation (2012), a young white woman and a young black man meet in a motel in 1960s Alabama, but it is a story about self-creation and youthful delusion, not race. Rosenberg aims for subtle readings of interpersonal relationships informed rather than enslaved by their setting.

So although HANNAH perfectly captures the ecstasy-driven “awkward, dazed, intimate scenes that seem to naturally occur after 1 a.m.”, (as Jake Blumgart put it in the Inquirer), it is not a play about drug use or dance parties. It’s about young people trying out personas and narratives, running away from past traumas while creating new ones.

photo by Kyle Cassidy

Rosenberg and Jennifer Summerfield in ALP D’HUEZ. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Writing for the Metro, Bruce Walsh compared Rosenberg’s style to John Cassavetes’s, and there are certainly strains of Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence in Rosenberg’s scripts. His characters speak as people off-stage speak. Considering Automatic Fault Isolation, reviewer Howard Shapiro began “I say something, you respond, I respond, we talk, we go on and on, we get off into tangents, we lose a thread of thoughts when something triggers us to take a new path, to pursue another idea. That’s a conversation.”  Writing for this publication, Phindie reviewer Jessica Foley raved about Rosenberg’s “organically immediate text.”

Hella Fresh’s out-of-the-way Kensington location has prevented Rosenberg from attracting a local theater audience already averse to contemporary theater, but critical praise has been consistent. Shapiro praised the “striking insight” of 2011′s Queen of All Weapons, about a Baader Meinhof era German terrorist and two black panthers in San Francisco. In the City Paper, Mark Cofta described Rosenberg’s plays as “gritty, darkly humorous psychological dramas.” The Philadelphia Weekly called him a “playwright with a ferocious amount of talent.”

Francesca Piccioni and Laura Sukonick rehearsing Rosenberg's HANNAH. Photo by Said Johnson.

Francesca Piccioni and Laura Sukonick rehearsing Rosenberg’s HANNAH. Photo by Said Johnson.

Because of the off-the-beaten track venue and Rosenberg’s lack of connection to Philadelphia’s theater community as a San Francisco transplant, his casts are made mostly of actors new to or on the fringes of the local scene. Some have shone in this setting. Talented actor Jennifer Summerfield dominated Alp d’Huez with a “scene stealing” performance. (See a video of an Alp d’Huez performance here.) Sebastian Cummings gave hilarious comic performances in Automatic Fault Isolation, Queen of All Weapons, and 2013′s The Gambling Room (set in pre-Tonkin Vietnam).

HANNAH features perhaps Rosenberg’s best ensemble yet. Psychology grad student Laura Sukonick has worked with dysfunctional and addicted youths and brings an intimate psychological understanding and innate comic commitment to the title role. Francesca Piccioni showed her acting chops as a troubled teen in the stellar New City Stage Company cast of last season’s American Sligo. Pig Iron alumnus Ben Grinberg appeared in the recent Fringe hit Pay Up, and shows a physical command characteristic of the Pig Iron school.

Earlier in the year Phindie surveyed local critics for a “Best of” awards. Every respondent who attended Rosenberg’s Alp d’Huez nominated it for the list. On the basis of a final week rehearsal, HANNAH may rival this piece as Rosenberg’s finest work. You like new theater? You really have to see this. HANNAH runs October 12-November 3, 2013, thepapermilltheater.com.

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.