“Playwrighting is hard, but directing is fun,” said Morgan Gould, who wrote and directed the brittle one-act comedy Jennifer Who Is Leaving, now drawing laughter and gasps in its debut performance at Round House Theatre in Bethesda.
Gould should know, since she’s been doing both, in equal measure, for the last ten years.
“I started out as a director,” she told me in a series of telephone interviews, bracketed by final rehearsals. “But then I realized that I wasn’t finding the plays that I wanted to do. So I started writing my own.”
Since then, she’s written roughly a dozen plays (including I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart, which she directed at Studio in 2017). She particularly likes directing the world premieres, such as Jennifer, since she can rewrite as she directs.
“What’s it like to wear both hats?” I asked.
“Very efficient,” she replied, pointing out that writing and directing are very similar. “The only difference is that writing is scary, while directing—especially if it’s comedy—is like a game.”
It’s also like running a marathon, especially if you have a talented cast, which Jennifer does.
The play has an interesting genesis. It began in 2019. “I imagined a character named Nan yelling at her husband over the phone,” she said. “I knew immediately that this was the germ of a play, and that this character would be doing the yelling. What I didn’t know, since it was all in my head, was why.”
The answer came as she was beginning to think about living together with her partner, fellow actor Mike Daisey, who is best known in DC for his monologues at Woolly Mammoth and Arena.
Gould realized that the play was, at least in part, about sharing domestic duties. “Society,” she quipped, “doesn’t condone fair labor, especially in housework.” She wrote the play, and Round House Theatre picked it up for its National Capital New Play Festival last year.
“Best of all, “ she added, still amazed, “is the fact that Round House decided, even before the reading, that they would mount the play as a full production this year.”
As a result, the reading felt less like an audition—which is the way most readings feel—and more like a collaboration. “Round House loved the cast, and kept all four of the actors.”
When Gould was at the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre in Louisville in 2020 for the premiere of her last play, Nicole Clark Is Having a Baby, she met Nancy Robinette, who starred in it. That play was canceled abruptly due to COVID.
In addition to Robinette, who plays Nan in Jennifer, there are Floyd King, hilarious in the role of the cantankerous old man who drives everyone crazy; Kimberly Gilbert as the person who is being driven bonkers, and Annie Fang—a talented young actor who happened to grow up right here in DC—playing a bored teenager.
Interestingly—for a play that is set in a Dunkin Donuts and located on a major highway—all four are veterans of Shakespeare and all are highly adept at comedy.
They also know what works and what doesn’t. According to Gould, most of the changes that have been made in rehearsals have come from the actors themselves.
“You learn what you need to cut, and what you don’t, just by watching them. All four are gifted actors, and they are gifts to the play,” she marveled.
There is some coarse language in Jennifer, but nearly all of it comes from the mouth of the irascible man who is being looked after by the Jennifer of the title.
“He uses language as a weapon,” she explained. “He does it to get a rise out of the others. It’s designed to make the other characters uncomfortable. It’s his way of demonstrating his freedom to say what he wants.”
The character is modeled after the playwright’s grandfather, who died in 2009. “He was always over the top,” she reminisced. “When I was growing up, I thought he was funny. Even now, I can’t hate him.”
In the play, she added, he’s a trickster and a child. He’s surrounded by women, and he wants to shock them.
“Men are not villains,” she said. “But we, as women, bear the tremendous burden of society’s inherent lack of ability (and desire) to socialize men to consider caretaking, domestic tasks, and other culturally invisible labor as a normal part of their lives. And just because individual men didn’t cause it, doesn’t mean they don’t have to work to look at it and change it. Otherwise, women fall into the trap of taking care of everything. And a lot of men aren’t even aware of how damaging that is.”
In Gould’s personal relationship, she and Mike Daisey are now living together in New York, in a beautiful old building near the Cloisters. “My boyfriend is a feminist and he tries to do 50 percent of the work,” she said, “but even with his awareness and our ability to talk (and fight!) about it, it’s a challenge to find parity in even our home.”
Jennifer is a comedy, buttressed by some uncomfortable truths. In the end, it’s a surprisingly emotional play, one with feminist overtones but firmly based on the pillars of classical drama.
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
Jennifer Who Is Leaving plays through May 7, 2023, at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($46-$81 plus fees), call the box office at 240-644-1100 or go online. (Learn more about special discounts here and Free Play program for students here.)
The playbill for Jennifer Who Is Leaving is online here.
COVID Safety: Round House Theatre no longer requires that audience members wear masks for most performances. However, masks are required for performances on April 1, 8, 12, 22, 29, and May 6.
DISCUSSIONS AND ACCESSIBILITY
View pre-show and post-show discussions here.
Audio-Described Performance: April 22 at 2:00 pm
Open-Captioned Performance: May 6 at 2:00 pm
Learn more about accessibility at Round House here.