Fresh from some mixed reviews of The Flea Theater’s latest show, A.R. Gurney’s Heresy, Jim Simpson – the show’s director and the theatre’s artistic director – seems unperturbed. Pushing audiences’ buttons is what his theatre, which he co-founded 16 years ago in Tribeca with designer Kyle Chepulis and playwright Mac Wellman, is all about – and it’s what he plans to do a lot more of in a new space that will open soon.
“I don’t want to do it if anyone else is doing it,” he tells me. We meet in The Flea’s 40-seat basement theatre – the main space upstairs, where Heresy is playing, is occupied at the time by young actors trying ideas out. More about them later.
Gurney has staged seven plays at The Flea. The eminent playwright is a constant collaborator, Simpson tells me. “After 9/11 he wanted to do political stuff and uptown wasn’t interested.”
In Heresy, the New Testament is the frame for a satirical look at a Kafka-esque near-future USA in which Christ is ‘Chris’, a teenage dissident. Simpson feels that Gurney’s fans may have been expecting the nostalgic themes of his earlier works. But whatever the critics say, Simpson believes that both the play and its tone are timely.
“Our fatigue with politics in this country is pretty severe”, he argues, “and Heresy is a delightfully wacky show. It’s a reaction to Occupy Wall Street, to American consumerism, and the American dream, and it tries to bring those things up in a way that is charming, not challenging.”
This makes the show an exception to The Flea’s usual fare. “I like to do plays I find upsetting, because that’s the work that Off-Off-Broadway should be doing”, Simpson says. As an example, he cites Girls in Trouble, a play by Jonathan Reynolds about abortion, which took a different approach to a woman’s right to choose than you might expect from The Flea.
“I really like stuff that pushes my buttons. I hate Fucking Mexicans, now in repertory here, is all about American racism. That’s exactly the work we should be doing.” It’s why two-time Off-Broadway Theater (OBIE) Award winner Simpson, cited for artistic leadership by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in 2002, started The Flea.
Simpson also wanted to raise the standard of Off-Off-Broadway both as an environment for actors (he chose Tribeca because young actresses would be safe there late at night) and for audiences – immense research went into choosing the seating. Simpson wanted a place where young actors could break into New York theatre and more established ones could do experimental work. He also wanted a place where people wouldn’t cringe at their surroundings.
The Flea operates on a short timeframe. There are no two-year plans here. “I’ve just decided what we’ll do in January,” Simpson says. “We can’t plan too far ahead if we want to stay current. That’s something you can’t do in TV, film or even uptown theatre.”