NEW YORK, N.Y.—This year’s biennial Steinberg Playwright Awards, presented at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre Dec.
4, went to Ayad Akhtar and Lucas Hnath. Both playwrights’ most recent work explores sociopolitical themes, with Akhtar’s Junk, at the Lincoln Center Theater through Jan. 7, depicting the rapacious Wall Street of the 1980s and Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, which ran on Broadway earlier this year, a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s 19th-century play about a woman who dares to leave her husband.
The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust gives the $50,000 prize to playwrights in the early and middle stages of their careers “whose current bodies of work exhibit exceptional talent and artistic excellence.” Previous recipients have included Tony Kushner, Lynn Nottage, and David-Henry Hwang. Playwright J.T Rogers, introducing Akhtar, quoted Stephen Sondheim as saying the only prizes that matter “come with large checks,” because they give writers time to take on more difficult work.
Akhtar said he was “not hopeful about where we are as a nation, as a species,” because “even my hope is being monetized.” He blamed what he calls the “attention-finance complex,” which has used technology to yoke human consciousness and turned it into data, selling it as a liberating victory over centralized power.
He said Junk depicts the turning point in the 1980s when the ideal of the collective good fractured, leading to the replacement of society with a marketplace. The excerpt presented perfectly captured the barbarians-at-the-gate lust for pillage of the era, with corporate raiders contemptuously trampling the conventions of tradition—that business should be about making money by producing goods and services, instead of cannibalizing industries—as stodgy constrictions on their power and avarice.
Hnath’s work is a little less blunt. The biggest audience laugh of the evening came during the excerpt from A Doll’s House, Part 2, in which Nora (Julie White) has achieved success with an autobiographical novel about a woman who dares to leave her husband. When she visits her ex some 15 years later, the maid (Jayne Houdyshell) inquires skeptically, “You make money writing?”
The excerpt from his 2015 play The Christians presented showed a single mother (Emily Donahoe) questioning her minister (Andrew Garman) about why he doesn’t believe in a hell—and she’s appalled when he says Adolf Hitler would go to heaven, because heaven is a place where everyone’s sins are washed away. Hnath told the audience that he wanted to show “how language blocks our view,” that he wanted to write a play about evangelistic Christianity without using stereotypes or the facile themes of hypocrisy, and avoiding what he called linguistic “bullshit triggers” that make people automatically reject a character, soundbites and profound-sounding phraseology that reveals nothing.
Akhtar said theatre was an alternative to the world of the “attention-finance complex.” It’s difficult to monetize, he said, because it’s a collective experience that “only happens when it happens”—it’s live and can’t be paused or rewound.