Andy Bragen's new play, Don't You Fucking Say A Word, is inspired by a true and somewhat embarrassing event involving tennis. The native New Yorker spent his young adult life playing at the public tennis courts on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, just north of the Brooklyn Bridge. One day, several years ago, he and his longtime tennis partner found themselves in a kind of John McEnroe-style yelling match over a technicality. They screamed at each other, Bragen says, then tried to continue playing before finally screaming at each other some more. Bragen recalls storming off to take a seat on the bench and his partner huffing past him off the court.
"We were both beyond livid," Bragen recalls. "We both went on our ways home and both called our respective girlfriends at the time. And they're basically like, 'What the fuck is wrong with you?' My girlfriend—now my wife—said, 'What do you mean you had a—what are you talking about? What were you doing? That's a very good friend of yours.' And then we called each other and tried to make up. We played tennis again a week or two later, but we were very delicate with each other because we were a little nervous."
Bragen has told this story over the years with a combination of pride, horror and shame. The tennis pals patched things up and continued to play at the public courts. But the idea of this untidy eruption and the way their significant others reacted to it stayed with him. It got him thinking about love, anger and friendship, and how those things manifest in different ways with different people.
"I'm pretty mild mannered, but I lost it that day," he says. "The play didn't emerge for a long time because I didn't know what the play was—not until I realized it was about the women who know these crazy, stupid men."
Don't You Fucking Say A Word is more or less finished, having gone through workshops and readings with the Brooklyn Shakes ensemble and at the New Dramatist playwright center. This week, it gets another reading at Missoula Colony 20, Montana Repertory Theatre's annual gathering of playwrights, where writers workshop their pieces and the public can attend readings of unproduced works. Bragen is one of three special guests, joining Francine Volpe and Elizabeth DeMent.
- Missoula Colony 20 will feature playwrights like Andy Bragen, above, and public readings of plays centered around the theme of conflict.
The colony's theme this year is "conflict," so Bragen's confrontational title fits the occasion perfectly. He credits playwright and novelist Marsha Norman, who co-founded the Colony along with Montana Rep's Greg Johnson, for providing him with some of the fundamentals for writing confrontation into his work. In a 2006 essay, Norman noted, "Plays are about conflict. We come to plays to see things happen. Plays must contain mistakes, surprises, reversals, murders, betrayals, fights, overheard conversations, secrets, in short, dramatic action. Plays are not conversations. If something doesn't happen, it's not a play." (We will try to forgive her for also writing that playwrights who have no compassion for their subjects should go into journalism.)
Don't You Fucking Say A Word is about the competition that happens on and off the court. It's about people and their real or perceived approaches to conflict.
"One of the men is sort of bringing a kind of anger and intensity to the court and then can let it go afterward," Bragen says. "The other one turns in on himself and is actually the worse for it. And with women, their competition is a lot subtler. The women are also asking the question, essentially, 'Who are these men that we love who did this thing where they had this fight on the tennis court?' and the broader question of 'Why do we love who we love?'"
Tennis as a way to illustrate conflict makes sense. (You might recall that Woody Allen also used tennis as a pretext for relationship conflict in his 2005 film Match Point.) But Bragen's use of tennis sometimes feels less like metaphor and more like a character or landscape. In fact, he's folded tennis into two other plays, creating what he considers a kind of loose trilogy. In 2010, he wrote Loop Tape, inspired by working in a sporting goods store selling tennis rackets.
"I guess retail can be a deeply torturous experience," he says. "I loved it and hated it. They had a 90-minute loop cassette, which had three songs that I remember"The Sound of Silence," "Band on the Run" and "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay"all of which I came to hate."
He described his other tennis play, 2009's The Hairy Dutchman, as being about "the history of New York, and love, and singles, and doubles, and faults, and double faults, and courts, and courting, and hairy dutchmen." The story is a love letter to the New York courts where people of different backgrounds showed up in the same space to play the game. It's a place so full of life, and so loud, that Bragen says people use hand signals to communicate over the din. It's a place where even a passionate screaming match—and eventual rekindling of friendship—wouldn't be out of place. It's the perfect place to inspire a writer.
"On a public tennis court," Bragen says, "it's kind of like what a bar used to be before everyone sort of got sucked into Netflix and the Internet, where you have this diverse group economically, ethnically, racially—everything—all sharing a love for something. In this case, tennis."
Missoula Colony 20 runs Thu., June 25, through Wed., July 1, with readings at UM's PARTV Center. Visit montanarep.org for more info.