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An Obie Award-Winning Playwright At Home With The Undermain

by Jerome Weeks 14 Jan 2014 7:34 AM

Len Jenkin, the author of the Undermain’s popular sci-fi comedy, Port Twilight, is back – for the fifth time with the Undermain. This time, it’s a world premiere at the City Performance Hall.


zobellPlaying tonight at Sister Fleeta’s Dollhouse: Michaela Krantz, Rhonda Boutte, Stefanie Tovar  in Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel at the Undermain Theatre. Photo credit: Susan Kandell

Playwright Len Jenkin, an Obie Award winner, has had a 24-year relationship with Dallas’s Undermain Theatre — beginning with Poor Folk’s Pleasure in 1990. This weekend, the Deep Ellum company opens its fifth Jenkin play – the world premiere of Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie at the City Performance Hall. And like the others, this show was designed by SMU grad and Tony Award-winner John Arnone, KERA’s Jerome Weeks spoke with Jenkin in the Undermain’s basement space.

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  • Excerpts from the conversation with Len Jenkin. What did he make of the Undermain’s atmospheric but inconvenient basement space when he first saw it?

“I loved it. That basement has a lot of history in it. It’s got 30 years of theater-making going on in it. Look, it’s obviously a really challenging room. It’s got these damned columns in the middle of it. And I would like it if the ceiling was 15 feet higher. That would be nice [chuckles]. But it’s just got a nice feeling to it.”

  •  Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie — with its old man who’s just had heart surgery trying to get back to the beachfront boardwalk where he’d worked as a teenager and videotaping everything as he goes — certainly echoes Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

“Absolutely! I was halfway through and I realized that it had echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape. And I was nothing but pleased. I mean, Krapp’s Last Tape is someone sitting at a table, right? And there’s one voice. Here, there’s, like, there must be 30 voices, and it’s someone moving through a varied landscape. But the core effort, which is a kind of coming to terms with certain memories, with certain kinds of loss, that same thing is present.”

Len Jenkin in a prop electric chair for Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie. Photo credit: Jerome Weeks

  • The landscapes in plays like Port Twilight and Abraham Zobell is often an imagined cityscape full of fleabag hotels and carnivals and B-movie, film-noir settings.

“The landscape in Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie is just a sort of blue-collar-America. It’s like boarded-up small towns and dying strip malls. But the American landscape is not only glorious, a lot of it, now as it’s reaching middle-age, has a melancholy beauty about it.”

  • Jenkin feels his plays need a raw, unfinished quality.

“Y’know, the phrase I use sometimes with my students is, ‘Please don’t put a bow on that for me.’ I like things to be a little more like life, a little more open-ended, that things aren’t tied up so neatly or so cleanly.”

  • Working at the Undermain has meant a reunion with SMU grad and Tony Award-winning set designer John Arnone

“John Arnone was actually an actor in one of my first productions [the Wright brothers play, Kitty Hawk]. Don’t mention it to him. I don’t think he likes to recall it. But he was an actor before he was a designer. … This was too many years back to mention. But John is a great, great designer. What he is interested in is symbolism, he’s interested in storytelling through objects. And he’s just wonderful to work with. So this was great.”