Photo of the cast by Chelcie Parry.
David Adjmi’s Stereophonic, directed by Daniel Aukin, with original songs by Oscar nominee and Grammy winner Will Butler of Arcade Fire runs October 6 – November 19, and opens October 29, on the Mainstage at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street). Stereophonic mines the agony and the ecstasy of creation, as it zooms in on a music studio in 1976. Here, an up-and-coming rock band recording a new album finds itself suddenly on the cusp of superstardom. The ensuing pressures could spark their breakup — or their breakthrough. With Stereophonic, Adjmi invites audiences to be flies-on-the-wall in the studio, and the powder keg process of a band on the brink of blowing up.
David Adjmi (Elective Affinities, Stunning, Marie Antoinette; author of Lot Six: A Memoir) has been hailed by The New York Times as “virtuosic,” and celebrated in their pages for his “lifelong devotion to art as an identity-defining tool of self-expression” and “his talent for laugh-out-loud funny set pieces.” Stereophonic is a nuanced exploration of its characters’ relationship to art as an externalization of self—and asks how that functions in the collective formation of a band. Its sonically and spatially bisected set (with a control room and sound room, the latter completely sound-proofed from characters outside) creates a painfully funny confusion between public and private.
Stereophonic also marks a stylistic shift for Adjmi, in which he takes a hyper-naturalistic approach to the storytelling; Adjmi presents characters’ constructive and destructive propensities; their artistic processes; and their stylistic and personal affinities (and disaffinities) with such meticulousness as to almost seem documentarian. For the playwright, this is just as much of an experimental gesture as his earlier, more stylized works. He says, “Typically, I’ve looked for expressive ways to talk about being alive in the world that I felt maybe a naturalistic play couldn’t contain. But I wanted to see if I could achieve that instead with something that feels very lived in, very granular; to see if perhaps I could write an accumulation of moments that feel ‘ordinary’ amounting to some form of transcendence.”
Director Daniel Aukin says, “There’s something about David’s conceit of the recording studio as the site of a play that is so very rich—something we have seldom seen on stage before, and certainly not with this treatment: people screaming and not being heard, people thinking they’re talking in private but being overheard. The possibilities are farcical, yet, stylistically, it couldn’t be farther from farce: it’s so natural, recalling something from a Robert Altman film, plastered with messy life, hyper-specific in its musicality.”
The cast is tasked to create harmonies and dissonances both sonic and emotional: all actors portraying band-members make the band’s music—as they achieve moments of revelation and hit countless walls in the studio—live. Aukin (Catch as Catch Can, Rancho Viejo, Placebo at Playwrights Horizons) guides them in inhabiting a play that simultaneously builds and deconstructs the mythology of fictional to-be-icons. The cast includes Will Brill (Oklahoma! on Broadway, A Case for the Existence of God) as Reg, Andrew R. Butler (Rags Parkland Sings The Songs Of The Future, The Skin of Our Teeth) as Charlie, Juliana Canfield (Fefu and her Friends, “Succession”) as Holly, Eli Gelb (Skintight, The Squid and the Whale) as Grover, Tom Pecinka (He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Torch Song) as Peter, Sarah Pidgeon (“Tiny Beautiful Things,” “The Wilds”) as Diana, and Chris Stack (Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra at Playwrights Horizons, Marie Antoinette) as Simon.
The Stereophonic creative team includes David Zinn (scenic designer), Enver Chakartash (costume designer), Jiyoun Chang (lighting designer), Ryan Rumery (sound designer), Justin Craig (music director), and Gigi Buffington (vocal, text, and dialect coach). Erin Gioia Albrecht is the production stage manager, and Andie Burns is the assistant stage manager.
Adjmi describes the moment where the entire world of the play came into view: Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” came on the radio on a flight to Boston, and he was struck by the lyrics’ emotional instability and duality—with the subtext of the song being “I can’t leave you”—which caused a “fulguration of lightning.” He describes, “I’d never seen this play, I didn’t know how to do this play, but I started seeing the design vividly and thinking about how I could play with sound and soundproofing a booth to have the bifurcation of a set match the duality of those vocals. A play where things are split between two spaces and there’s this constant battle between virtuosic creation and self-destruction. Where the nature of that split space often determines how characters’ relationships unfold. Where two opposite things can happen onstage simultaneously. That was very exciting to me.”