Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer
Playwright Michael Mitnick sat down at his kitchen table late one evening in September 2009 to experiment with a few pages of a play he intended to use as his senior thesis. He finished the next morning with the entire first act of what would later become “Elijah” and would earn him a place in Chautauqua Theater Company’s 2011 New Play Workshop Festival.
The play opens at 8 p.m. tonight in Bratton Theater as the first of three new plays making their debut in this season’s festival.
The now two-act play has a run time of just less than two hours and is set in 1922. The protagonist, a poor young man from Brooklyn named Elijah, is sent to Paris by his father for the summer to track down his idol, a reclusive composer of ballads. On his way to Paris, however, Elijah meets another young man close to his age, and the two become fast friends. Elijah’s original purpose for being in Paris is quickly diverted into a summer of fun, sex and drugs.
Mitnick began work on “Elijah” at the beginning of his final year at the Yale School of Drama’s graduate program, from which he graduated in 2010.
“I never intended to write the play,” Mitnick said. “I knew that I had wanted to do something set in that time and about someone who was mistaken for a spy, perhaps, and my goal was simply to entertain myself and to want to get to the next page.”
Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny, who will be directing “Elijah,” said when it came down to selecting plays for the festival, it was the story in Mitnick’s play that earned it a spot.
“It was the mode of storytelling,” McSweeny said. “It’s compelling and direct, and I loved it.”
Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch said for her, “Elijah” addressed identity issues, which is a big reason she felt it earned a spot in this season’s festival.
“The way Michael Mitnick is asking very similar questions of identity as an artist, as a Jewish man, as an American — it’s a sort of folktale,” Benesch said. “All three deal with huge fundamental ideas of identity.”
She said she believed many audience members would appreciate the play’s message.
“It’s a family story, to me, which I loved about it,” she added.
Since he wrote the play, Mitnick said, it has had a bare-bones production at Yale in addition to two readings he has done — one at the McCarter Theatre at Princeton University, and the second at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City.
“Elijah” is Mitnick’s newest play; he also has written three other plays.
The first, “Babs the Dodo,” focuses on the phenomenon of home shopping.
The second, “Spacebar: A Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman,” is about a 15-year-old boy who is convinced he’s written the best play ever written. Mitnick said this play “is a play inside of a play.”
The third, “Sex Lives of Our Parents,” focuses on a girl getting married who, as her wedding day approaches, is haunted by visions of her mother’s past that prove to be factual glimpses into her mother’s personal history rather than just dreams.
Mitnick said what he is most excited for in bringing “Elijah” to the festival is the feedback he will receive that he can use to polish the play.
“I’m thrilled to be seeing the other new plays and to get to know them better and really be able to take the play to the next level and continue to grow the piece as a whole,” Mitnick said. “I certainly welcome any kind of constructive feedback, and to be at a place with so many smart people, I would be foolish not to keep my ears open. My hope is to be able to continue to fine-tune the story and the characters and make it clearer and stronger and hopefully more effective.”
Mitnick said he also is excited about the involvement of Chautauqua Theater conservatory member Lucas Dixon, who inspired one of the characters in “Elijah.”
Dixon, a student at the Yale School of Drama when Mitnick wrote this play, originally was not cast in the role meant for him in Yale’s performance of the play.
“He is actually now going to be playing the part that I wrote for him,” Mitnick said. “I wrote a part envisioning that he would play it, and then the way casting turned out, he ended up being cast in a different role in the play.”
The cast for the play includes conservatory members Peter Mark Kendall (Elijah), Lucas Dixon (Nicholas Stoughton), Marinda Anderson (Élisa Broussard), Laura Gragtmans (Hélén Roux), Helen Cespedes (Rivka Feinberg/Telegrapher) and Andrea Syglowski (Sara/Zoé Benoit).
The guest artists in this play are Carol Halstead (Frieda Hoch/Piano teacher), Sam Gregory (Otto Hoch/Tailor/Male attendant/Butcher) and Peter Kybart (Father/Geourges Duruet).
What Mitnick wants audiences to gain from “Elijah” is a strong sense of character, plot and entertainment from start to finish.
“I hope that audiences will be swept into the journey of the central character,” Mitnick said. “I’m eager to have time to really focus on the text, with the top acting students from the various programs and with Ethan, and really fine-tune the play. I like to think of it as an adventure, or something that is deeply narrative and really focusing on story and surprises and plot twists and making it an engaging experience for an audience.”
There will be five performances of “Elijah” through July 31.