The Spring of Melissa Ross

A reader of this blog recently brought an interesting coincidence to my attention: all three of the female playwrights about whom I have written are named Lauren (Lauren Feldman, Lauren Gunderson, and Lauren Yee).  Today, however, I have decided not to rest on my laurens and have branched out to feature a Melissa.

Melissa Ross

Melissa Ross

It’s a bold move, I know, but her talent is well worth it.

I had my first multi-sentence conversation with Melissa Ross by happening upon (and staying to eavesdrop on) an audience member trying to convince the playwright that two of the characters in her play  An Entomologist’s Love Story ”simply weren’t right for each other in the long haul” and “she [the playwright] must see that”  and “didn’t she agree they wouldn’t end up together?”  The grace and humor that Ross brought to the ensuing conversation was as fun to witness as her hilarious play.

I saw a reading of An Entomologist’s Love Story  at the 2014 TheatreWorks Silicon Valley New Works Festival.  It is a play about two young scientists at New York’s Museum of Natural History researching the mating habits of bugs and having some issues with their own. While writing the play, Melissa arranged to intern with the researchers in the basement of the Museum of Natural History.  The play was an edgy, witty look at love in our time and a festival favorite.

Over a donors lunch at that festival I heard Melissa Ross describe how her background as an actor assists her process- she performs her plays for herself as she writes them;   the actor in her has discussions with the playwright in her about what works or doesn’t after she reads a scene aloud to herself; allowing her multiple talents to literally have a conversation and enable her process.

During an audience talkback, she counseled aspiring playwrights to read a lot of plays — and preferably to read and then see and then re-read the same play — noting and thinking about the “scoring” of the play — how the playwright writes the language clues for the actors and directors to indicate the cadence and the sonic interplay of the lines. This advice to a casual question gave me a lightbulb moment into one reason why Ross’ writing works so well on stage:  she orchestrates her language so carefully and consciously.  Her characters talk the way real people talk in real life — they talk over each other; one character curses too much and sometimes talks too loud or too fast; the pitch of their voices (high or low) is directed based on what the character is experiencing at a given moment.  Deliberate art; thought-out.  Genius.

Rob Nagle and Melanie Lora in South Coast Repertory's world premiere of  “Of Good Stock“ by Melissa Ross, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch.  Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR

Rob Nagle and Melanie Lora in South Coast Repertory’s world premiere of “Of Good Stock“ by Melissa Ross, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR

I have now seen two plays by Melissa Ross and, while they were completely different in many ways, there is a similarity to the thoughtful, witty heart of her characters’ interactions in both plays.  After seeing each play I  thought about how fun it would be to be Melissa’s next-door neighbor – to run into her getting coffee or have her in for a drink after rehearsal.  I am not alone.  When I met her for the second time last weekend at the Pacific Playwrights Festival in Costa Mesa (where her play Of Good Stock just ended its well-received world premiere run at South Coast Repertory Theatre) she was usually surrounded by friends and fans.

 

Pacific Playwrights Festival playwrights:  Aditi Brennan Kapil, Qui Nguyen, Melissa Ross, Itamar Moses and Bekah Brunstetter (missing: Rajiv Joseph). Photo by Madeline Porter/SCR.

Pacific Playwrights Festival playwrights: Aditi Brennan Kapil, Qui Nguyen, Melissa Ross, Itamar Moses and Bekah Brunstetter (missing: Rajiv Joseph). Photo by Madeline Porter/SCR.

She has a huge, ever-ready smile and people love working with her.  David Kay Mickelsen, the esteemed Costume Designer who worked on Of Good Stock, told me Melissa was “amazing – fun and wonderful”.  In the tradition of Chekov’s The Three Sisters, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig and Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, Of Good Stock  is a play about three sisters and, to varying degrees, their men.  It is funny, smart and heart-breaking.

Alicia Silverstone

Alicia Silverstone

A second production of Of Good Stock will open in June at Manhattan Theatre Club starring Alicia Silverstone.

This will be a busy spring for the playwright who has another play, Nice Girl, Nice-Girl-Key-Art-square700-700x700scheduled for its world premiere run at the Labyrinth Theater in New York starting May 7. Here is their website description of Nice Girl:

 ” In suburban Massachusetts in 1984, thirty seven year old Josephine Rosen has a dead end job, still lives with her mother, and has settled into the uncomfortable comfort of an unintended spinsterhood. But when a chance flirtation with a old classmate and a new friendship at work give her hope for the possibility of change, she dusts off the Jane Fonda tapes, and begins to take tentative steps towards a new life. A play about the tragedy and joy of figuring out who you are and letting go of who you were supposed to be.”

In addition to the three plays named above, Melissa’s plays include  Thinner Than Water, You Are Here, Do Something Pretty, and The Allies.

Looking at my personal preference in plays and playwrights I see a strong bias for plays that are not comedies but are filled with humor – smart, witty dialogue that catches me by surprise.   These delightful moments make the sadder stories palatable; they can be punctuation marks or pacers in more serious and thought-provoking storytelling.  Melissa is a master at this.  In many ways, Melissa Ross is the Wendy Wasserstein of her generation – and that is not a facile comparison.  Her work, as well as some personal qualities, remind me very much of the late extraordinary Pulitzer Prize winning Wasserstein – Melissa’s easy grin and quick wit, her ability to listen intently, her personal charisma, the way her characters’ capture a certain background social tone and voice of our time, and how her plays show an understanding of the essence and complexity of friends and family.

Melissa Ross.  Remember her name.  I think you will be seeing it on Playbills and award shows and programs far and wide for a long time.  This writer has something special.

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