Occupied territory

It used to be just Hollywood actors who played away on the British stage, but now there's an influx of US writers and directors too. What's the big attraction?
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The Independent Culture

Prepare yourselves: the yanks are coming. A high-profile gang of contemporary US playwrights and directors are on their way to London this spring – and yes, Gwyneth Paltrow's coming along for the ride (starring in David Auburn's Proof at the Donmar Warehouse in May). It's not that new American drama hasn't featured on our stages before – recent years have seen Neil LaBute's award-winning Bash and The Shape of Things, not to mention David Mamet's Boston Marriage and Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain – but their presence here is stronger than ever. The Donmar's extensive, five-month American Imports season kicks off this week with Jesus Hopped the A Train, an unflinching look at the US penal system directed by Hollywood actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. LaBute's latest, The Distance From Here, premieres at the Almeida in May, while Tony Kushner's new play, Homebody/Kabul – a staggeringly prescient portrait of Afghan Islamic extremists crossing paths with Westerners – will hit the Young Vic around the same time.

A concentration of new US plays is a particularly enticing prospect right now. What, we may ask, do these dramatists tell us about their national psyche at this difficult time: when we're supposed to be standing "shoulder to shoulder" in the theatre of war; when George Bush has estranged other nations with pronouncements on "the axis of evil"; and when the attack on the World Trade Centre is said to have shaken the American people's confidence to its foundations? Over all, the selected plays don't paint a happy picture.

James Nicola, artistic director of New York's acclaimed Theatre Workshop (which nurtured Homebody/Kabul), believes: "We are still living through the changes and most of these plays were written before 9/11, but I think they add up to a portrait of a time that's not wanting to feel the earthquakes looming ahead. It's a portrait of deep anxiety and avoidance." Upbeat cultural ambassadors for Mr Bush, these writers ain't.

LaBute wants American plays to get grittier. "We're such a nation of pleasers, of entertainers," he says. "Though there have been radical periods [including Arthur Miller in the Fifties or agitprop during the Sixties and Seventies], our writers are not as politicised as yours have been, long-term. We've always insisted 'this is entertainment and not preaching'. But I think, 'Why not?' I believe we might be getting more political now.

"When the plays are more uncomfortable than the seating," he concludes, "I'll be happy." LaBute's approach to his new play, written after 11 September, was to focus on underprivileged Americans. "This country is a great bonding place right now," he says. "It's very easy to pull together, with everyone forgetting their daily troubles for a moment. I could have written a great healing play, but I wrote about those who still have problems on 9/12, or whenever. It's a severe look at people in a desperate situation."

Frustrated by the poverty trap, one of his characters explodes with rage and commits a violent atrocity. One might draw parallels between that act and Homebody/Kabul's more overtly political, international vision where a repressed Afghan woman curses the States for encouraging the Taliban regime and cries, "You love the Taliban so much bring them to New York ... Well, don't worry – they are coming to New York."

Besides racism and religious fanaticism, recurrent themes in many of the plays coming our way include institutionalised corruption, the powerlessness/passivity of individuals who might try to challenge the system – and lies.

Those issues thread through Greenberg's latest play, Take Me Out, which depicts a black baseball hero encountering covert bigotry after he publicly announces his homosexuality. The team – and the hero – gradually disintegrate. "Baseball suddenly struck me as a metaphor for the larger world," says Greenberg. Having started off as a "valentine" to that national sport, he found the play becoming increasingly dark.

Distrust and self-distrust also plague the lead character in Proof, to be directed by John Shakespeare In Love Madden. Katherine (Paltrow's part) is the daughter of a mentally deteriorating mathematical genius whose notebooks need decoding. That's joined by Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero where a quipping security guard gets entangled with a lady-cop and an increasingly high-level cover-up. Lonergan, you may recall, earned an Oscar nomination for his film, You Can Count On Me, and his earlier junkie bedsit play, This is Our Youth, is in previews at the Garrick. When it came to Lobby Hero, he states, "I was interested in people unable to live up to their own ideals because of institutionalised unfairness".

Finally, Frame 312 by Keith Reddin adds a twist to JFK assassination conspiracy theories as it suggests FBI editing of crucial footage. This all sprang from a conversation the playwright fell into at a party. "I met this woman," Reddin tells me, "who's asked to remain anonymous. But she told me some facts – a great story that's never been told before. She formerly worked at Life magazine, viewed the film of the shooting with her editor, then took it, in her handbag, to J Edgar Hoover. When she left Time Life she learned they still had the original reel in a vault somewhere."

While he admits the possibility that the woman is "delusional", Reddin's own research into the matter suggests "a lot of credibility to what she says". More vital than the truth, however, is people's relationship with it. "The big theme is that, while we have all this talk about 11 September, Enron or JFK, we don't really want to know the truth," he says. "You can't raise questions, unpatriotically asking why something has happened. I live three blocks from the World Trade Centre. I'm looking out of the window and I see them loading up a barge. It's a metaphor: just load it up and bury it."

Still, don't expect unadulterated bleakness from the West End's imports. These writers work in plenty of comedy, cute romances and glimmers of hope. Even LaBute – who once stood accused of misanthropy for his film In the Company of Men – cites optimism as one of the strengths of American writing. Although being from the land of pioneering individualists, these dramatists resist generalisations. "If there is a school," LaBute declares wryly, "I'm not aware of it. But it's like fashion trends. I read about it, I look down and I'm in paisley."

To be thoroughly negative for a moment, you could view such a truckload of American plays as an imperialist invasion. We are already inundated with movies and TV shows from the superpower across the pond. It's worth noting, too, that the Donmar's survival relies on financial support from American associates. A few cynics might even surmise that Sam Mendes is networking as he prepares to leave and, presumably, continue his love affair with Hollywood, post-American Beauty. Amerophobes (to coin a phrase) certainly won't be comforted by the fact that half the Donmar's productions have been by stateside writers during Mendes's decade in charge. Down the road at the Prince of Wales theatre, even The Full Monty has been translated into an Americanised musical set in Buffalo rather than Sheffield.

In reality, though, this season is more like fair trade. In the Nineties, stacks of productions from the Almeida and Royal Court jetted over to New York. In fact, Lonergan says, "It's easier for new English plays on Broadway – they seem to get a warmer, anglophilic reception." Indeed, it often takes an acclaimed British staging before US producers will risk backing their home-grown talent. On top of all this, the director Carole Rothman of Second Stage (who presented This Is Our Youth in New York) observes: "Since 9/11, some new writers have suffered from cut-backs and a shift towards cheerful and classic shows." Suddenly, tough US dramatists look more like deserving refugees.

But really the point is that – hopefully without creating some bland mid-Atlantic soup – we can pool our greatest talents. "I don't see anything wrong with this," says Lonergan, "unless we are squeezing out your plays". With the British New Wave of the Nineties having receded, that's hardly a problem. As for enhanced cross-cultural understanding, LaBute has the last word. "America. Will you understand it all? Never. But, through these plays, you couldn't help but understand it more."

'American Imports': Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (020 7369 1732), Wed to 3 August; 'This Is Our Youth': Garrick, London WC2 (020 7494 5085), previewing, opens 11 March to 20 April; 'The Full Monty': Prince Of Wales, London W1 (020 7839 5972), previewing, opens 12 March; 'The Distance From Here': Almeida at King's Cross, London N1 (020 7359 4404), opens 2 May; 'Homebody/Kabul': Young Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 6363), opens 10 May