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Oblivion: Playwright and Director in Conversation

by Matt Miller & Carly Mensch

Matt Miller: Oblivion asks some great questions about the parameters of parental responsibility with regard to the spiritual/religious education of their children. What was your religious upbringing, if I may ask? Carly Mensch: I went to Hebrew school up until my bat-mitzvah, but that was more of a social experience than a religious one. My real education from my parents was a moral one. They put a premium on things like honesty and integrity. I remember I once lied to my brother in a very silly way-I told him that baby powder was dangerous to sprinkle on little boys’ arms-and this spiraled into an all-night door-slamming stand-off between me and my parents over telling the truth. Their argument was humanistic: lying wasn’t bad because some higher power said so, it was bad because I was scaring the shit out of my brother and reaping emotional havoc on our family. MM: In the play, Julie’s increased involvement with the basketball team in the midst of her search for spiritual enlightenment is an especially interesting plot point to me. Any thoughts on the sports/religion intersection? CM: I’m conflicted here. Part of me thinks there’s huge intersect. I was a pretty serious soccer player up until college-weekend travel teams, varsity captain-so I know first-hand the religiosity of sports. That sense of discipline and ritual and devotion to something larger than yourself. Long-distance runners often talk about running as meditative, which sounds to me like the kinetic version of prayer. on the flip-side, I think most team sports-competitive sports is maybe a better term-are at their core more concerned with contained, finite goals than with anything open-ended. To win the game. To break a record. To beat your best score. Faith feels more open-ended. Less narcissistic. MM: Despite the gravity of the ideas and issues Oblivion explores, the play has a great sense of humor. Do you have any comedic heroes/mentors? CM: I feel like I’m supposed to say mark Twain and Beckett, when really my comedy heroes are Woody Allen, Tina Fey and the British guys who write for that BBC show The Thick of It. Oh, and novelists Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace. MM: The character of Bernard has a rather intense appreciation for Pauline Kael, the film critic. You mentioned to me briefly that this idea was partly inspired by your own interest in the author David Foster Wallace. Can you talk about that a little bit? CM: I’m obsessed with David Foster Wallace. I read his books in a near continual loop, scouring the pages for answers about how to live a meaningful life on this planet. He’s what I guess you call a landmark author, a literary Bob Dylan for people of my generation: over-educated yet spiritually malnourished 20-somethings who fear they’re overdosing on the excesses of entertainment and media yet have no idea what to do about it. But then he died. Or rather, he killed himself last September. After his death, I felt lost, confused, lonely. I found myself re-reading his books more closely than ever before. I even started talking to him. Regularly checking in with him. A sort of, what would DFW do? And I realized he was the closest thing I had to a religion. MM: What’s the most stressful part of the playmaking process for you as a playwright? CM: Casting . MM: And conversely, what’s your favorite part of the process? CM: That first flash of an idea. When for a brief period, you think you’re going to be writing the most beautifully wonderful thing on earth. MM: Anything you’re looking forward to doing in Chicago this fall? Have you spent much time here before? CM: I’m super psyched to see Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park. And visit President Obama’s house. And maybe ride a riverboat. MM: What’s the best perk about writing for Weeds? CM: Weeds has a history of making bold decisions and taking on extremely taboo subjects with unflinching gusto. That’s very empowering for a young writer. We also get a lot of funny pot paraphernalia sent to the office, like a frisbee you can smoke out of.