When America was in the throes of the Great Depression, Hollywood responded by providing lavish, escapist fare. Think "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," two landmark films from the 1930s.
A similar impulse was present in works for the stage. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1936 three-act comedy "You Can't Take It With You," for example, became a monster Broadway hit that won the Pulitzer Prize and was turned into an Academy Award-winning Frank Capra-directed feature starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur.
Playwright Josh Tobiessen hopes that his new play, "Crashing the Party," offers a comic tonic in these challenging times and is similarly well-received. Tobiessen describes his 90-minute one-act, which premieres Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, as a descendant of "You Can't Take It With You."
"You put all these nutty characters in a room together, turn up the temperature and see how they bounce off each other," he said last week during a rehearsal break. "What I like about the shows from the '30s is that they have big casts so they can represent the spectrum of society. And they address the social situation while offering entertainment to help people take their minds off their worries."
"Party," which has eight characters, is about the state of the American dream, with side themes that include over- parenting. Specifically, middle- to upper-class parents played by Sally Wingert and Joe Minjares have overindulged their much-loved, materially stuffed two children. The boys -- both loaded up with testosterone -- have lost their motivation to work. As the family's economic situation starts to change, dad comes up with a combustible way to get the boys to find that lust for life again. He challenges them to prove that they are worthy of inheriting the company that he has built from scratch and that is supposedly doing well.
The cast of this premiere also includes notable Twin Cities actors Ansa Akyea, Mo Perry and Rose Le Tran.
"The absurdity of this play is built out of real moments," said Wingert. "It's a lean, mean play in which I play a slightly ditsy Luddite, which is not so far off for me."
On a dare
Schenectady, N.Y.-born Tobiessen, 37, essentially wrote "Party" on a dare. He and his wife, director Sarah Rasmussen, 33, and some friends were at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival two years ago when someone started complaining about problems with American theater, including its famed lag time in reflecting things that are happening in contemporary society.
"In theater, people take old plays and adapt them to this moment," said Rasmussen, a Sisseton, S.D., native who works in new-play development for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and who has been directing since she was a teenager. "But instead of trying to contort something old to fit today, which theaters do all the time, why not just get something from today?"
Tobiessen, a relatively new playwright, went to work, crafting a big comedy with lots of characters, just like his idols of old. Over readings and workshops, including in New York and Minneapolis, the play was pared and tightened.
"It became a challenge for me as a playwright to see if I could do a bunch of things with it," said Tobiessen, who met Rasmussen in graduate school at the University of California, San Diego. The two wed last September. "I wanted to do something with just one set that never changes, for example."
That "Party" has come from idea to the stage in two years is lightning-fast for the theater, a place where a play may be developed over a decade.
In rehearsals, the playwriting-directing duo, who bounce around the country for work, have been studiously working on getting "Party" on its legs. Rasmussen said that she has been mindful of the need to keep things snappy in the rehearsal process.
"With a comedy, you don't want to do a lot of 'table work' where actors sit around and dissect the play," said Rasmussen. "You want to keep its fire popping. And I believe what we have here is poignant, resonant and very funny."
Both Rasmussen and Tobiessen thanked Mixed Blood founder Jack Reuler, who sometimes teaches at UC-San Diego, for the opportunity to premiere this work. Tobiessen additionally wants to give a shout-out to his literary forebears as well.
"While some of the topics in those old plays don't resonate much today, the plays themselves have great comedic structures," said Tobiessen. "They set in motion a bunch of little stories that all end up colliding. Everybody's working themselves into a frenzy. What's different is that my play is a microcosm of now."