Jenny Rachel Weiner, GSAS ’14, is fascinated by topics other people shy away from, like the connections between heartbreak and humor, or the gaps between who we are and who we say we are—especially online. Can we find love on the internet? Is technology helping or hurting us?
These are some of the questions Weiner explores in Kingdom Come, her modern, heartfelt, and hilariously dark off-Broadway debut, which premiered this fall at Roundabout Theatre Company’s home for emerging artists, Roundabout Underground.
“It’s right at my sweet spot of what I’m interested in writing about,” Weiner says, “which are the things in life that are hard to look at but also make us the most human, and that we need to laugh at in order to get through, in order to see what’s really happening.”
At the center of Weiner’s play is catfishing—using a fictional identity to lure someone into a relationship online—a phenomenon previously explored in documentaries and even an MTV reality series. The plot follows the relationship between two thirtysomethings: Samantha, who is confined to her bed but posing online as an athletic man, and Layne, whose online dating profile says she’s an adventurous flight attendant though in reality she is almost immobilized by her many anxieties.
Throughout the play, the audience is brought into their private conversations that take place online. The messages are projected onto the walls of the theater and read aloud by the actors.
Unlike many other catfishing situations, Samantha and Layne develop a real connection. So what’s most surprising about the play is that, despite the complexity and pain caused by the situation, there is no villain. In fact, there’s a lot of laughter that comes from the audience recognizing themselves in these characters.
Weiner initially set out to become an actor, but during her undergraduate days at Boston University, “writing would sort of creep up in little nooks and crannies,” she says. Being a playwright makes her feel more exposed and vulnerable than performing on stage, she says. But once she embraced it, “I was able to take my creativity by the reigns in a way that I wasn’t able to with acting.”
After college, Weiner worked with an education theater company in Chicago for a few years before enrolling in Fordham’s MFA program in playwriting.
“It was such an amazing opportunity,” she says of the program, which Fordham offers in collaboration with Primary Stages. “To have this support system, basically an incubator in New York City, is incredible. There are only two of us in each class, so it was just me and Eljon Wardally that first year. We got so much access to professional theater, and doing two productions in two years is a great and unique opportunity.”
One of Weiner’s two graduate productions, Horse Girls, led to a collaboration with director Sarah Krohn, who helped Weiner mount a professional production of that play off-off-Broadway of the same show in 2015, shortly after she completed the program.
Horse Girls, like most of Weiner’s plays, marinated for a time before it was written. “I like to sit with an idea for a while,” she says, “and it feels like a little secret. I think about it and I feel like things start to pop into my life that are reminiscent of it, like articles I read or people I meet.”
But Kingdom Come was different. Inspired by her own frustrations with online dating—with that mismatch between the people she got to know online and the people she would later meet—and her friend’s experience being catfished, “this story kind of spilled out of me,” she says. She wrote the first draft in three days, and the spine of the play remained intact throughout all her revisions.
As Kingdom Come opened at Roundabout Underground, Weiner was already working on another script for the Playwrights Program she’s enrolled in at Julliard. She also continues to work with children through the educational theater company Story Pirates in New York City. Whatever she works on, she says, she aims to “write with humor and heart.”
“It’s been a really exciting, fun journey, and I’m still discovering my voice and accepting who I am and that what I have to say is important. Kingdom Come is really my musing on modern-day loneliness,” Weiner says. “I hope the audience leaves questioning what they know, and that the play is a mirror for their own lives and experiences.”
Kingdom Come will run from November 2 to December 18, 2016, at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Hear more about the show in the video below.