The origins of “Stinkers” are as tricky to pin down as a wriggly toddler.
It has to do with the worlds of three artists colliding: beloved actor Sally Wingert, who did a developmental reading of “Crashing the Party” nine years ago while she was on Broadway in “La Bête.” Playwright Josh Tobiessen, who wrote “Crashing.” And Star Tribune artist of the year Sarah Rasmussen, who is married to Tobiessen and has directed his and Wingert’s work several times.
All of the above led to the comedy that world-premieres Saturday at Jungle Theater, where Rasmussen is artistic director and where Wingert has not performed since “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” 15 years ago. She plays a woman, fresh out of jail for white-collar crimes, who crashes into the lives of her nonmaterialistic son (John Catron) and his small children (Reed Sigmund and Megan Burns, operating puppets). Awkward parenting attempts — and criticism of those attempts — follow.
As this lightly edited conversation reveals, getting the story goes something like this:
On the (probable) origins of ‘Stinkers’:
JT: Sally said something to me about writing her a play, and Sarah said, “If Sally Wingert tells you to write a play, you’re kind of stupid if you don’t.” Going into writing, the main things on my mind were my toddler children and that Sally Wingert wanted to be in it so, from the get-go, I wanted to represent parenting.
SW: Did you not say to me, “I have a character in mind that you should play?”
JT: That probably did happen. It’s fun to be able to write with a specific actor in mind because it very much becomes, “What would I like to see her do?”
SW: I probably did say you should write me a play. Because: If you do not ask, you shall not get it. I say this a lot but I think Josh is about the funniest contemporary playwright I have ever come across, ever read, ever got to perform. This play really is a whole windup of amusement before the big payoff.
On whether having a play written for you is nervous-making:
SW: No. I knew I'd like it. I just remember thinking it was so funny. I did say a note to Josh: She is not a storyteller. Josh had her giving capitalism lectures but I said I think she’s not necessarily a person who speaks in paragraphs, not because she couldn’t but she has a clock that’s always ticking, like, “Got me? Got me? OK. We’re moving on.” [Claps her hands to indicate: Next!]
JT: I’d like to point out that it’s nice Sally wasn’t scared about acting in the play but I was really nervous about it. There are plays of mine that are sitting in a drawer and probably deserve to be there. They’ve never been performed. So, when I start one, I never have that confidence that it’s going to be great.
SW: But you think this is a good play, Sarah, not just because he’s your husband.
SR: Of course. I think I’m harder on Josh because he’s my husband. “Lone Star Spirits,” when he wrote it, I was like, “Great. Go get a good New York Times review of it and then we’ll talk about doing it at the Jungle.”
JT: We do have a professional career that predates our romantic career. We worked together in grad school.
SW: So, no. I wasn’t nervous. How often does someone get this lucky? It doesn’t happen, in my world, anyway. And I have Sarah.
On working with puppets, used to play the children:
SW: You cannot imagine how fantastic it is. At first, I just liked watching those two humans be toddlers. And Sarah was very patient with me: “We’re going to use puppets. It will work.” And I’d be, “Hmmm, sure, Sarah. We’ll use puppets. Sure.” And then these puppets show up in rehearsal!
SR: Josh had this idea that children are a huge part of so many of our lives but we rarely get to see children on stage. And there’s a good reason for that. I remember I showed John [Catron] the script and he was like, “Are we going to cast a 3-year-old and a 20-month-old in this play?” And I said, “No. No one wants to do that.” The idea is that a child is small and vulnerable and needs to be taken care of, but they also take up an enormous amount of space.
On when you know it’s working:
SW: It’s how the language fits with the emotions of it. It ends up feeling like, “Oh, something really just went through me while I did that.” It happens like that early in the play. I’m just out of prison and meeting the grandchildren — well, meeting one and re-meeting the other. It’s funny and true and I ask them to give me a hug and then, when I’m doing it, it pops into something that is, “Wow! She has just gotten out of jail and has not really acknowledged how off her game she feels. She’s landing on the moon, almost.” In the play, it doesn’t get lingered on for more than a heartbeat and a half, but it is comedy that is bringing you to an emotional truth, and it’s such a surprise.
On others’ contributions to a playwright’s work:
JT: Everybody wants it to be a great production but I also want it to be a great script, moving forward. So, if Sarah and the actors are trying to finesse a moment, to “get through” it, I want to ask them, “Are there things I can do, script-wise, that will help?”
SW: I often tell playwrights, “I don’t understand this.” And they give me a long explanation and I’ll say, “Now, I understand. But when you are not in the room, no actor is going to know any of that, so you have to put it in the script.”
SR: It’s small but meaningful that, when scripts get published, the names of the actors who did it first go on that first page, too, along with the writer. The people who do it first are indelibly part of it, going forward. The questions they ask go into the play.
On putting it out in the universe:
SW: There’s a character in the play who wants wealth without working for it. Something along the lines of “The Secret,” he has a vision board where he puts things he wants. I always think that I kind of made my own little vision board here, with this play.
SR: You manifested it.
SW: I really did.