“I suppose it’s impossible for me to divorce my interpretation of plays from my background as an actor,” says Jesse Eisenberg, the Academy Award nominee best known for his 2010 role as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Eisenberg has also written four plays, three of which he starred in; his latest, Happy Talk, starring Susan Sarandon, opened in New York this past spring and will be published next month by Grove Press. Here, his picks of plays worth reading.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee
During a play, the audience is stuck in the room with a person onstage, feet in front of them. And because of this stark proximity, the audience is forced to contend with this behavior and see it through to its end point, even when it’s a struggle. This is what initially excited me during the New Jersey community theater production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that I saw when I was 15. It was thrilling to be in the room, a voyeur of people fighting with each other. It was so engaging that I was almost disappointed by the brilliant revelation of the non-existent son. I would have been completely satisfied by watching the painful interaction between this vengeful couple without an underlying reason for their distress.
Scarcity, by Lucy Thurber
I began writing plays when I was 20 years old and was primarily inspired by two plays written by friends of mine. This is the first, and it tells the story of a working-class family in western Massachusetts who are visited by a yuppie, bleeding-heart teacher from New York City. It is a funny, authentic, and harsh indictment of cosmopolitan condescension. What thrilled me about this play, besides its wonderful characters and rumbling personality, was that it was primarily playing to an audience who would identify with the antagonist. This tension—between the play’s main theme and the people watching it—made me rethink the stories that I could write and the way I could explore my own flaws onstage.
How to Make Friends and then Kill Them, by Halley Feiffer
The other play written by a friend that inspired me is How to Make Friends and then Kill Them. It’s a hysterical absurdist comedy about three women who torment each other throughout their lives. It is shocking but always emotional, as though it was written by a very funny person, but from their gut rather than their head.
Lady, by Craig Wright
Finally, Lady, written by one of my favorite writers, taught me about dramatic efficiency and the way comedy can be used without undermining drama. The play is a compact, well-worn story about a withering friendship, but the real trick is that each character serves a thematic purpose while still seeming genuine and complicated. It taught me that you can write about politics as long as there are real people at the center.