Very Funny, with an Eye on the Larger Story: The Work of Molly Smith Metzler

Molly Smith Metzler grew up in Kingston, New York in what she calls a “tough place”— the town was economically depressed in the 1990s, and Metzler grew up in a community that was deeply divided across income lines. The daughter of two public school teachers, Metzler often went into New York City with her parents to see theatre and art. She attended a large regional high school with frequent violent episodes. Growing up around people living with minimal means was an experience that inspired Metzler’s interest in writing about class.

After high school, Metzler went to SUNY Geneseo, “where the smart, poor kids go in New York State,” she says. The semester before graduating, she took an introduction to playwriting class, which became the birthplace of her life’s work. She explains, “I had never really been creative before. I was a huge nerd. I was going to get my PhD in comparative literature. I had never tried creative writing at all.” Their first assignment was to write a scene between two characters who had conflict. Metzler stayed up all night writing a play about her parents’ divorce. She sat down to write and was enraptured; before she knew it, the sun was rising. Metzler recalls, “It basically changed my entire life.” She developed “an immediate addiction” to the craft, and went on to study playwriting at Boston University, New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts, and the Juilliard School.

Metzler’s first full-length play, Training Wisteria, tells the story of a contemporary American family in shambles after a recent divorce. It premiered in 2002 at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and put Metzler on the map as a playwright to watch. It received the National Student Playwriting Award from The Kennedy Center, the Mark Twain Award for Comedy Playwriting, and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education’s David Mark Cohen Award. It was produced at the 2006 Summer Play Festival at the Public Theatre and again in 2007 as part of the Cherry Lane Mentor Project.

Carve, the story of a struggling artist who gained fame from a painting of a woman he thinks he’s imagined (but who is actually real, known only to his girlfriend and artists assistant), premiered at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre in 2008, and was Metzler’s application to the Juilliard School. With Metzler’s signature wit, Carve explores reliability of memory and the nature of intellectual property, and—in Metzler’s words—“how well we see the things we see.”

Elemeno Pea, the play that brought Metzler to broad attention, premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2011 and had subsequent productions at South Coast Rep, Mixed Blood Theatre, B Street Theatre, City Theatre, Horizon Theatre, and others. Inspired by a summer Metzler spent as a babysitter in Martha’s Vineyard, the play centers around two sisters from working-class Buffalo—Simone, who is enjoying the perks of being a personal assistant to a billionaire trophy wife in her seaside estate, and Devon, who is still deeply connected to her blue-collar roots. The Los Angeles Times called it “an often amusing morality tale about the compromising consequences of money’s seductive power.”

Close Up Space, set in a publishing house, drew on Metzler’s personal experience as an editor and her ten-year estrangement from her father. It premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2012, starring David Hyde Pierce and Rosie Perez. In the play, a powerful literary editor struggles to communicate with his daughter as she attempts to deal with the death of her mother. Metzler calls it “a comedy that builds towards reconciliation” and affirms, “Most of us have people we're estranged from in our life and we might not know how to close up that space.”

The May Queen—set in Metzler’s birthplace, Kingston, which has named a new May Queen every spring since 1916—was commissioned by Chautauqua Theatre Company and premiered there in the summer of 2014. The play follows Jen Nash, May Queen of 1996, who returns to Kingston years later to discover how much has—and hasn’t—changed. Huffington Post described it as “an intense play, crackling with humor and raw emotions that erupt to the surface.”

Metzler is first and foremost a playwright, but her television writing gives a good taste of her sensibility—very funny, with eyes on a larger story: Orange is the New Black, Casual, Codes of Conduct, and Shameless (which she also produces). Metzler believes writing for television has made her a better playwright. “It’s a different muscle set. It’s so fast. You have to get out of your own way. It gives you a ferocity about your work, and a confidence.”

Metzler writes comedies of character and situation—some more screwball than others. Her plays tell stories of funny people forced to make hard choices and showcase her characteristic hybrid tone and her eye for the nuances of identity, class and family. Metzler’s plays—which draw from her lived experiences—explore the ways the past shapes relationships, the way limitations shape choices, and what it takes to get a second chance. Cry It Out evolved from scribbled notes she wrote during the first two years of her daughter’s life and the friendships that came from it. She admits, “I always write plays close to home. I don’t mean to, but I always do.”

Metzler’s awards include the Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center and a finalist nod for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. She is currently adapting Ali Benjamin’s award-winning novel The Thing About Jellyfish into a film for OddLot and Pacific Standard (Reese Witherspoon’s company) and is under commission at Manhattan Theatre Club and South Coast Repertory.

Jamila Reddy