Oedipus. Macbeth. Anthony Weiner?
In “The Weiner Monologues,” which question the ever-changing meaning of the phrase “private life,” the fallen congressman emerges as something of a modern tragic hero.
“It’s kind of like a Greek tragedy,” said John Oros, co-creator of the play, which opens Nov. 6 at the Access Theater in Manhattan. The found-text play — in which the dialogue is ripped from the headlines, so to speak, and from Weiner’s infamous sexts — follows the former U.S. representative and failed New York City mayoral candidate from the pinnacle of his esteem and influence to his fall, his phoenix-like rebirth, and his second undoing.
The play (the only relation to Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” being the pun in its name) had modest beginnings; it was a 2011 summer project of Hunter College theater students Oros and Jonathan Harper Schlieman. The play was intended as an experiment for actors to lend their own meaning to work on stage. Oros and Schlieman saw modern media as fluid and dynamic, ripe for theatrical reinterpretation.
“There’s so much material out there, and you can go in a million different directions with it,” said Oros of major media issues, noting that the play is far from, and could never be, “completely comprehensive.”
Weiner himself (Devin James Heater) is just one of the characters in the play, which range from nameless archetypes to celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, to Lisa Weiss, one of the women Weiner was sexting with. The actors and creators collaborated closely to build these characters, which reframe the text. The words of journalists commenting on Weiner, suddenly coming out of the mouth of Marilyn Monroe, add a layer of meaning to the Weiner scandal.
The theatrical experiment began to take shape as the Weiner scandal (Part 1) broke in the news — the revelation about the congressman’s lewd sexting photos and messages, and his ultimate resignation from Congress. Oros and Schlieman realized then that Weiner was the perfect central character, the “the archetype of a kind of sleazy politician,” as Schlieman put it. Even the nature of his misdoings was textual and therefore preserved verbatim.
The rich mine of material came not only from Weiner’s Twitter-based offenses, but the seemingly endless parade of commentary from op-ed writers, TV talking heads, bloggers and anyone with a Facebook account.
“Everyone brings their own interpretation to a text,” said Oros, noting that he and Schlieman allowed their actor friends to contribute creatively, helping to establish different meanings to the same journalistic source.
The workshop developed, and the depiction of a politician’s public fall from grace was a success, with a presentation at Hunter College. Oros and Schlieman both graduated (Oros also from the William E. Macaulay Honors College) and, as Oros put it, “We went on with our lives.” (Disclosure: Oros and Schlieman, as well as multiple members of “The Weiner Monologues” team, know this reporter through Hunter College.)
Once Weiner resigned the seat he had held for a dozen years, the cast and creative team, like the public, with its short attention span, put Weiner out their minds. The play, like Weiner’s self-destruction, was supposed to be over.
But when Weiner announced his mayoral candidacy in May, it was the cast that reached out to the show’s creators, suggesting that the story was not over. When Carlos Danger, Weiner’s nom de sext, made his first foray into the public eye, the writers were inclined to agree. And this was even before July, when it came to light that Weiner had continued his online flirtations through at least April 2013, more than a year after he resigned.
“We thought we were done, and then this thing came up,” explained Schlieman, noting that the second scandal’s absurdity is the modern twist on its tragic nature. It became “a kind of fun story as opposed to the really sad parts of it.”
Oros and Schlieman eventually found the means to reproduce and update the work with the help of Joel Bassin of the Hunter College theater department. Then, in a poetic twist of fate, their work began picking up media attention. From Politico to Buzzfeed, the play itself was news, even ensuring that their online Indiegogo campaign has raised well over its $2,500 goal.
The creative team reached out to Weiner to invite him to the original play but never received a response. “We would comp his ticket,” Oros said. But Lisa Weiss (like Weiner, also Jewish) actually reached out to “The Weiner Monologues” team and now has a role in the play.
Oros and Schlieman have spent hours poring over print and online commentary about the Weiner affair, finding more and more material, and cast members contributed to the living work. For them, Weiner is a window into a larger cultural phenomenon. Schlieman says the warning of the work is, “Nothing is private.” Schlieman said the work warns.
As for Weiner’s Jewish identity, the show’s team eschewed stereotypes, but the former congressman’s typical bluntness may speak for itself. “I personally think Judaism is tied very closely to New York identity, whether you’re Jewish or not,” joked Oros.
The work, its creators say, is not meant simply to kick a politician while he is down, but rather to use the arc of Weiner’s story to explore notions about the media in the 21st century, and the drama that society creates for itself. It’s also as much an exploration of the collaborative nature of theater as it is the story of a man who was the gossip mill’s gift that kept on giving.
“We always just try to hit home the point,” of the volatility of the modern, public world, insists Oros. “We don’t try to make any judgment calls. We want to tell the story in the most fun and weird way that we can.”
The show’s team occasionally wonders if Weiner will pop up publicly a third time and set off more digital bells, but in the meantime the two are thrilled with the play’s popularity.
“[‘The Weiner Monologues’] makes for a great headline,” admitted Oros. “It may have just proved that everyone wants a piece of Weiner.”
“The Weiner Monologues” runs Nov. 6-10 at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway, 4th floor. Performances are Wednesday-Sunday at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20/$17 students and seniors. For tickets, visit theweinermonologues.brownpapertickets.com.