New American Theatre
1312 N. Wilton Place
April 26-June 2
John Bunzel says of himself, “I’m an equal opportunity offender.”
Formerly a writer on TV shows like “The Wonder Years,” among others, Bunzel has built a solid reputation in the local theater scene for his black comedies about sex, money and bad behavior.
“I find humor in love, sex, sexual orientation, family, money and neuroses,” he says. “I make fun of it all.”
His newest play “Boxing Lessons” is having its world premiere run at the New American Theatre beginning April 26. Offered by the critically acclaimed theater company as a celebration of its one-year anniversary in its new home on Wilton Place, it’s directed by theater founder Jack Stehlin and features a top-flight cast in the company’s newly refurbished space.
Bunzel’s multi-edged humor is this time turned toward a story about the family and friends of a famous writer, who gather in his cabin after he dies under mysterious circumstances. As they go through the clutter he’s left behind, hidden family secrets come to light that shake everyone’s understanding of their relationship with him and with each other.
“The core of the play is about a family that comes together to deal with the death of its patriarch,” Bunzel says. “And he happens to be a famous writer, so I think there’s one dimension of the play that’s about how to deal with when a famous person passes away, how the stakes get a little bit higher, but really, though, it deals with the things they find out, the truth about the man their father really was that they only learn after he’s gone.”
The play was “certainly influenced,” he says, by the conflicted feelings he had around his own parents dying, feelings that were based in “knowing about the world they came from, that I was raised in.”
“It was a privileged type of upbringing,” he says, “that had its roots in a WASP-y New England. There were dos and don’ts about what you do with your life and what kind of a man you were going to become.”
He built his play around unpacking the secret life of a man from that same privileged mindset.
“Part of what this is about,” he says, “is how toxic secrets can be. There’s an unwinding of a multitude of secrets, that ultimately lead to a really big secret about the father.”
Much of the play hinges on revelations, so it wouldn’t be fair to go into much detail about what any of them are.
Still, the playwright feels safe in elaborating, “This man, who has passed away, was someone who was locked into that world, where despite being enlightened — despite being a liberal, an artist, a progressive thinker — he was still full of all sorts of shame and guilt around his sexuality. What we’re really putting in front of people is that even in 2019, with so many people who are liberal in their thinking and their politics, they are accepting of a gay and lesbian lifestyle, they voted Democratic their whole lives, they believe in a diverse world, but they still have a lot of shame and guilt around who they are sexually.”
Bunzel says the show is not just about sexuality.
“I’m delving into a lot of different topics,” he says.
As the truth comes out about dad, so do the various truths about the rest of the family and that opens the door to a lot of other topics, one of which he says is “the thin line between love and hate.”
“It’s also about the anger and resentments we hold against our parents,” he says. “I think a lot of people struggle to be able to forgive.”
He’s quick to add that the play is most definitely a comedy.
“This should not be some heavy lecture or melodrama. I’m trying to attack it so that it has emotional resonance also makes people laugh at their own insecurity, their need to keep things secret. Dark comedy is a very difficult genre to tackle,” he says. “Essentially, it’s a tragedy that’s funny and if it isn’t funny, it doesn’t work. It actually seems kind of sick and gross.”
With “Boxing Lessons,” the performers have an even more precarious tightrope to walk because the play is grounded in realism.
What he hopes will connect audiences to the tone of the piece, which he calls “surprising and fresh,” is the universal nature of the characters’ experience.
“I think people are going to be taken by how non-judgmental this play is,” he says. “It’s not commenting at all, beyond the fact that this family has spent years dealing with shame and wanting to hide the truth about themselves, for a multitude of different reasons. And the father — this was a guy who spent his life being a ‘man’s man,’ who everyone saw as being overtly heterosexual. I think this is something that people are going to identify with, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, OK, I knew a man who was like that,’ or they knew a family who found out something like that.”
Ultimately, Bunzel says, despite its darkness, the play sounds a note of hope.
“Without having an ending that wraps everything up,” he says, “where everything gets solved and everybody feels good, it gets to this place where we can take ownership of who we are and what we’ve done. Once we really admit that, we can take responsibility. Then there’s a path forward for us to get better.”
In a time when our headlines are dominated by emerging secrets and our culture divided over how to reckon with them, does the playwright hope audiences will take home any kind of political message about taking ownership and moving on together?
“If it helps them to think beyond the play into the world and our society,” he says, “then that’s terrific.”