Playwright Marisa Wegrzyn brings deadpan violence to all kinds of stages.
When she was mugged at gunpoint a few years ago in East Lakeview, Marisa Wegrzyn remained momentarily calm. “You sort of leave your body,” she says, although she assures us she freaked out later. She had just recently made her big postcollege move to the city—the 26-year-old playwright grew up in Wilmette and attended Washington University in St. Louis—and a gun in the face wasn’t exactly her idea of a welcome wagon.
However, it did inspire the first Wegrzyn play to get a full production in Chicago (last spring’s sleeper hit Diversey Harbor, about four Chicagoans connected by a girl’s unsolved murder, which played on a double bill with David Mamet’s still-ubiquitous Sexual Perversity in Chicago). But while that show was unadulterated fringe—Theatre Seven, the storefront company to which Wegrzyn belongs, debuted the production—the young scribe also had higher-profile irons in the fire.
A few months after Diversey Harbor debuted here, her black comedy The Butcher of Baraboo, about a female meat seller whose husband disappears, premiered Off Broadway at Second Stage. (It was originally commissioned by Ed Sobel of Steppenwolf, where it was workshopped as part of the First Look series.) The show got shellacked by New York critics, a sharp contrast to the warm Chicago media embrace Diversey Harbor received, but that hasn’t hindered her professional rep. She’s working on another Steppenwolf commission, and was recently asked to contribute material to the acting showcase in the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival.
And in the midst of it comes her second collaboration with her Theatre Seven posse, a satire about female assassins called Killing Women, which opens this week.
Given the contradictory storefront cred and proper-theater appeal of Wegrzyn (pronounced “wegger-zen”), given that the plots of her plays favor wry bloodlust, and given that her voice is the kind that could give “quirky” a good name again, we were eager to meet her. And we were as surprised by her unassuming nature as she seems to be by her own success. Coming from a data-entry temp gig at the Merchandise Mart, her blond hair braided into two pigtails under a folded red bandana, Wegrzyn downplayed just about every how’d-you-already-accomplish-that question we leveled at her.
How’d she score an agent before getting anything professionally produced? Shrug. “A friend who interned at the McCarter Theatre recommended me to her.” How’d she get connected to Sobel at Steppenwolf? Shrug. “A director I worked with in college is a friend of his.” How’d she get hooked up with the Actors Theatre of Louisville? “Well, they contacted me.” Because her agent told them to? Nervous giggle. “Uh…maybe?”
But none of her self-deprecation is a performance. “I know it usually doesn’t work that way. Ever,” she says.Wegrzyn’s alto deadpan is genuine, and her attitude is anything but canned. She’s not prone toward gushing about how great it is working with her Theatre Seven pals. She doesn’t rant about the scarcity of women playwrights. And although her mellow humility is Midwestern down to her toenails (“I was anxious just walking down the sidewalks,” she says of her three weeks in New York working on Butcher), she doesn’t indulge in New York–versus–Chicago rhetoric. At least not with us.
Yet her professional-versus-storefront experiences tell their own story. Witness, for example, the opening of Diversey Harbor in Chicago versus the New York opening of Butcher. In New York, director Judith Ivey had an out-of-town commitment that required her to miss the show’s final two previews; she was long gone by the time the sour notices hit newsstands. In Chicago, on the other hand, when a disagreement led to the departure of the stage manager the night before opening (“Things just didn’t work out,” Wegrzyn says gently), the playwright found herself in the tech booth on opening night. She and Theatre Seven artistic director Brian Golden, who directed Diversey Harbor, ran lights and sound while critics got their first look.
Wegrzyn, at least for the moment, remains unfazed, taking both instances in stride. When asked where she’d like to be in ten years, she considers the question, and with the kind of comically violent honesty of her plays, answers, “Um, not facedown in a gutter.”
Killing Women takes aim Friday. 17.