Nagy, Phyllis 1962(?)-
NAGY, Phyllis 1962(?)-
Born November 7, 1962, in New York, NY; immigrated to England, 1992; daughter of Peter Thomas and Virginia Marie (Sottile) Nagy. Education: New York University, B.F.A., 1986.
Agent—Casarotto Ramsay and Associates, Ltd., National House, 60-65 Wardour St., London W1V 3HP, England; fax: 020-7287-9128.
Playwright and stage and film director. Royal Court Theatre, London, writer-in-residence.
National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1991, 1993; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, 1991; McKnight fellowship, 1991; Mobil Playwriting Prize, 1992; Eileen Anderson Playwrighting Prize, 1995; Writers Guild of Great Britain best play award, 1995.
Weldon Rising (first produced in Liverpool, England; produced in London, 1992), Methuen (London, England), 1994.
Girl Bar (produced in Tampa, FL, 1992), Methuen (London, England), 1994.
(And director) Disappeared (first produced, 1992; produced in London, England, 1995), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1995.
Entering Queens (one-act), produced in London by Gay Sweatshop, 1993.
Butterfly Kiss (produced in London, 1994), Nick Hern Books (London, England), 1994.
The Scarlet Letter (adaptation of the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorn; produced in Denver, CO, then New York, 1994), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1995.
Trip's Cinch (produced in Louisville, KY, 1994), Dramatic Publishing (Woodstock, IL), 1995.
The Strip (produced in London, England, 1995), Nick Hern Books (London, England), 1995.
Never Land (produced in London, England, 1998), Methuen (London, England), 1998.
Plays 1, Methuen (London, England), 1998.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (adaptation of the novel by Patricia Highsmith; first produced in Watford, England), Methuen (London, England), 1999.
Found in the Street (screenplay), Mr. Mudd, 2004.
(And director) Mrs. Harris (screenplay), Killer Films, 2005.
In 1992, when American-born playwright Phyllis Nagy "burst on to the British stage, her kooky New York wit pricked a bubble of whimsy that seemed to have enfolded the writing of many women dramatists," wrote Guardian contributor Claire Armitstead. "Here was a metropolitan chick," Armistead added, "who wrote with a razor-blade and thought nothing of giving London its first staged lesbian sex scene." Weldon Rising, Butterfly Kiss, Disappeared, and Never Land soon established Nagy as a serious force in London's revitalized theater scene, showing her as a writer with a strong commitment to feminism and lesbian sensibility, but an even stronger commitment to the integrity of her work. This commitment has sometimes caused collisions with both the theater establishment and gay rights organizations.
Weldon Rising, centering around the murder of a young gay man by a homophobe, is set in a mythologized New York City that combines a gritty urbanism with surreal images, such as the ghostly presence of Jimmy, the victim. Nagy also introduces the theme of passive guilt which runs through much of her work, investing it here in the character of Natty, Jimmy's lover, who provokes the attack on Jimmy and then runs away leaving Jimmy to die. Through the passionate encounters of lovers Tilly and Jaye, Nagy also provides a highly charged erotic contrast to the grim events at the center of the play. In the end, Natty simply disappears from the narrative, leaving the audience to resolve questions raised by his actions and inactions and the nature of his guilt.
A similar sudden exit lies at the heart of Disappeared, which focuses on the disappearance of Sarah Casey from a bar after a conversation with a creepy figure named Elston, who states frankly that he likes to take people home and kill them in his bathtub. Elston, it turns out, is a thrift-store employee who borrows donors' clothes and identities, and Sarah is a travel agent who longs to see the world, and so it remains unclear whether she has been murdered or has simply escaped from her stultifying life in Hell's Kitchen. Through other characters, such as the bartender and the unhappy police officer investigating the case, it soon emerges that Sarah and Elston are not the only ones constructing mental fantasies to ward off despair. As Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Hedy Weiss put it, "The mystery in Nagy's play is not Sarah's disappearance, but the dark tunnels of the human heart and imagination that crave the light."
Dark secrets also lie at the heart of Nagy's version of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, "a stylized, striking-looking, bare-bones version of the classic novel," in the words of Back Stage reviewer William Stevenson. Nagy intersperses dreams and time jumps, uses an adult actress to play Pearl, Hester Prynne's child, and also incorporates modern language and idioms into the seventeenth-century story, all of which provide a distinctive take on Hawthorne's classic tale. In Butterfly Kiss, the playwright again centers her story around a woman with a dark secret, this time Lily Ross, who refuses to speak frankly about the motivations that have led her to kill her own mother. "The play, which focuses so closely on supposed abnormalities, such as Lily's family's relationships and matricide, is ultimately about being normal," noted Modern Drama contributor Claudia Barnett. Lily's mother is pushed to the brink of madness by her obsessive and overpowering grandmother, and her death might even be an act of mercy, though in characteristic Nagy fashion the issue remains ambiguous.
Never Land represents something of a departure for Nagy. For one thing, it focuses on an entirely straight family, and its central premise, the amusing foibles of an Anglophiliac Frenchman and his eccentric family, seems too light for a Nagy play, at least at first. Still, there are familiar themes of self-delusion and incipient tragedy. As Variety contributor Matt Wolf noted, "It's the entire family, not just a single Peter Pan, that won't grow up." The central figure, Henri, is a neurotic paranoid who has created a fantasy of romantic England in his mind to give himself hope in a dangerous world. His daughter Elisabeth has hallucinations when in the bathtub and pretends that her parents are dead, much to the consternation of her lover, who mistakes them for intruders one night. Meanwhile, Henri's wife Anne retreats into alcoholism. Manchester Guardian reviewer Mark Billington found that Nagy "sometimes allows her three-act, three-hour play to meander. But I can forgive her play its discursiveness for its imaginative oddity and its feeling of character." Wolf was even more impressed, concluding in Variety that "at its best, the play is like a champagne bottle that won't stop fizzing."
Despite such positive reviews, Never Land had a difficult passage to the stage. Commissioned by one theater that demanded changes Nagy felt were unacceptable, the play was subsequently rejected by the Royal Court Theater before appearing there under the auspices of a collective, The Foundry. It was not Nagy's first challenging experience within the theater world. When the Gay Sweatshop put on what she felt was a disappointing production of her drama Entering Queens, she vowed never to work with fringe theater again. Her first mainstream production, The Strip, which played in the Royal Court's main house, was attacked by a group of critics who have consistently found objection with Nagy's work. She has also had run-ins with actors, fired directors, and fought with the gay community over criticism that she presents negative portrayals of gays and lesbians. Despite this, Nagy has maintained the integrity of her work and her vision. According to Claire Armitstead in the Manchester Guardian, the playwright's "dogged self-belief has proved her most effective survival mechanism, powering her from an inauspicious start … through a patch as 'the most underperformed playwright in America', to her current position as one of the most interesting writers of the British theatre renaissance."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Theater, November, 1994, Michele Pearce, review of The Scarlet Letter, p. 13.
Back Stage, October 28, 1994, William Stevenson, review of The Scarlet Letter, p. 48.
Chicago Sun-Times, February 8, 1999, Hedy Weiss, review of Disappeared, p. 32.
Guardian (Manchester, England), February 8, 1995, Michael Billington, review of Disappeared, p. T5; January 7, 1998, Claire Armitstead, "It Started with a Kiss," section T, p. 12; January 14, 1998, Michael Billington, review of Never Land, p. 2; September 13, 2002, Michael Billington, review of Trip's Cinch, p. 21.
Modern Drama, spring, 1999, Claudia Barnett, "Phyllis Nagy's Fatal Women," p. 28.
New Statesman & Society, April 29, 1994, Betty Caplan, review of Butterfly Kiss, p. 13.
Theatre Journal, December, 1994, Scott T. Cummings, "The 18th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays," p. 545.
Variety, February 2, 1998, Matt Wolf, review of Never Land, p. 46.
Knitting Circle Theatre Web site, http://mylab.lsbu.ac.uk/ (September 29, 2004), "Phyllis Nagy."*