By Byrne Harrison
Photo by Eric Michael Pearson
Jonathan A. Goldberg (Playwright - The Land Whale Murders) has had work seen at The Public Theater, The Barrow Street Theater, NJ Rep, the Theater Garage in Minneapolis, the Pear Theater in Northern California and the Complex in Hollywood. His play How to Shoot a Bull Moose won the Israel Baran award from the Theatricum Botanicum. He was a guest artist at the LABrynth Summer Intensive and was a Jerome Fellowship finalist. He won the Rita and Burton Award for Playwriting and received an MFA in dramatic writing from the Tisch School of the Arts. This summer he was the book-writer and co-lyricist for the Waterwell musical The Wizard of Wall Street, presented at IU for their Premier Musical Program. He is thrilled to be once again working with Shelby Company.
Tell me a little bit about The Land Whale Murders.
Jonathan: The Land Whale Murders is a murder mystery comedy set in Victorian New York City. It revolves around the death of one of The Four Elementals, the city’s self-appointed science elite. From there we travel to a misguided bird release, a missing whale, more murder, the birth of NYC’s first super hero, and much more. It’s a jam-packed adventure with fights, fish, fowl, running away from danger, and terrible deductive reasoning.
I like the idea of a play that touches on eco-terrorism, but is set in the Victorian era. What influenced you to write on this topic, and as a murder mystery to boot?
Jonathan: The Victorian era provides a treasure trove of references and touchstones that can be mined for comedy as well as provide a window on where we’ve gone wrong environmentally. By setting the play in this time -- loosely, there are several anachronisms -- it gives us a chance to explore our complicated relationship with ourselves and the natural world. I felt that the murder mystery structure would be the best way to shape this story. There is a lot of information and ideas being thrown at the audience, but it’s wrapped in a familiar structure. There is this one basic mystery that is set up at the beginning: “Who killed Hiram Blud?” This anchors the play and ultimately everything that happens—wild as it gets—is all tied to this event.
If you could say one thing to your potential audience, what would it be?
Tom Ridgely (Director - The Land Whale Murders) is a co-founder of Waterwell and has directed its #9, The|King|Operetta [NY Mag Culture Award Nom – Best New Musical], Marco Millions (based on lies) [Drama Desk Nom – Outstanding Director] and The Persians…a comedy about war with five songs [3 IT Award Nom’s, incl. Outstanding Production of a Musical], among others. Other NYC: Jonathan A. Goldberg’s Luck Of The Ibis (Shelby Company); Kimmy Gatewood’s Hat-trick (Ars Nova); Centralia’s Uncle and Au Bon Panic (PIT) [ECNY Nom – Best Improv Group]; Gatewood, Johnson & Lowe's The Apple Sisters (PIT, tour) [ECNY Award – Best Musical Act; IT Award – Outstanding Original Music]; Paden Fallis’ The Play About The Coach (Tank, tour) [Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum Award – Outstanding Touring Production]. Regional/Educational: The Wizard of Wall Street (Indiana), The Water Knows My Name (Perry-Mansfield), Once Upon A Mattress (Johns Hopkins), The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged (Playhouse on Park), Union (Axial Theatre), and Bat Boy: The Musical (Fordham). Upcoming: Art (Playhouse on Park).
I understand that The Land Whale Murders has a steampunk aesthetic. What was it like working in that style?
Tom: I wouldn’t say it has a steampunk aesthetic per se, though there are definitely elements in common. Jonathan set his play in an impossibly fantastic 1896 New York and chocked it full of anachronisms and inaccuracies, particularly in the language. So a lot of the early talks were about how to reconcile all that design-wise. Jason Simms (set designer) brought it up first, and Deanna (costume designer) really ran with it, and it turned into this sort of sexy opium chic – a demimonde that never existed.
Why do you think this style seems to resonate with audiences?
Tom: Um…sexy opium chic? The question answers itself.
You mentioned some of your collaborators. Tell me a little bit about your design team.
Tom: The design team for The Land Whale Murders is a murderer’s row of theatre genius. Jason Simms’s devised a gorgeously simple set that frames the action perfectly. Deanna Frieman’s costumes are worth the price of admission alone. Greg Goff’s lighting is endlessly evocative and does almost all the heavy lifting with time and place. And M. L. Dogg is simply one of the best in the biz; an omnivore of sound. Our secret weapon though is Rod Kinter, who did all the fights – he is the Petipa of Punch, the Fokine of Fence, the Robbins of Roughhouse.
This is not your first collaboration, having worked together on Luck of the Ibis earlier this year. How did that familiarity help with this production?
Jonathan: Tom and I have worked on several projects now. We first met when I was a grad student at NYU. He was a guest director in a class at the Public Theater and we created a fast paced non-musical musical called Capitalism: The Musical! It had like 20 parts played by 4 actors and was performed in a hallway, but was a lot of fun. Tom has an amazing touch as a director and I think he brings a grounding and inner reality to my work. He isn’t afraid of my stage directions like “a dead bird falls from the sky” or “underwater ballet.” He’s very inventive and I think enjoys the challenges my scripts present him. I feel that anything can be achieved on stage and Tom has never tried to limit me or scale back my vision, if anything he’s found a myriad of ways to improve them.
Tom: I love Jonathan. For my money he’s the most exciting young writer working right now. This is our fourth project together this year, and each one has been a joy. In a way Land Whale is the show that started it all. I came to a reading at an apartment in Brooklyn last year, and that’s when we got reacquainted. Familiarity breeds trust. And contempt. Fuck off, Jonathan.
What's next for both of you after this production?
Jonathan: I have a few projects in the works. Some readings are coming up along with some of my short work featured at the Jewish Humor Festival in Minneapolis, Minnesota in January. Also I’m working with Waterwell on a musical about financier Jay Gould. The show had a workshop production at Indiana University this summer and we’re looking to take the next step with that.
Tom: Version 2.0 of The Wizard of Wall Street – the Jay Gould show. And Waterwell’s monthly run of Goodbar, our concept concert based on Looking for Mr. Goodbar, created in collaboration with glam/punk band Bambї. This is also the inaugural year of Waterwell’s Drama Program for 6-12th graders at the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS), a hugely rewarding challenge. Directing-wise, after this I go right into rehearsals for Art at the Playhouse on Park in West Hartford – starring among others Land Whale’s own Rich Hollman.
Finally, what advice do you have for any theatre students who might be reading this?
Jonathan: Don’t be afraid to take big risks and to even fail at times. An exciting failure is always better than a mediocre success. Also don’t let anyone tell you something is impossible; the stage is limitless and you can put anything you want upon it. Also find people who are like-minded and surround yourself with them. People from all corners of the theater world: designers, writers, directors, and actors - support them and cheer on each of their victories. There’s enough people out there who want to tear things down, don’t be one of them – try to always look for the good in things. Sorry if that sounds too much like a fortune cookie. Ultimately though, work with people you like, it makes life a lot easier.
Tom: Sleep your way to the top. That’s how I got here.
The Land Whale Murders
Written by Jonathan A. Goldberg
Directed by Tom Ridgely
Featuring Richard Hollman, Carl Howell, Nathaniel Kent, Amy Landon, and Jennifer Joan Thompson
311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor
December 2-18, Wed.-Sat. at 8 PM