Playwright David Adjmi’s delightful new book Lot Six: A Memoir (Harper Collins, 388 pages)
is the most entertaining theater memoir I’ve read since Act One, the gold standard of theatrical memoirs, which the celebrated playwright and director Moss Hart wrote in 1959 (two years before his death) about his stage-struck, impoverished childhood in the Bronx, his theatrical apprenticeship and his first of many Broadway triumphs.
If there are some similarities in the stories – and the wit – of the two Jewish New York theater artists born into challenging circumstances seven decades apart, their differences reflect the many ways the theater has changed.
Hart was forced to drop out of school as a teenager, had his first play produced at 18, and was writing Broadway hits starting in his twenties. The Brooklyn-born Adjmi matriculated at several prestigious universities and graduate programs, and has won major prizes and fellowships — in the acknowledgements page, he thanks nine different writers residencies where he wrote much of the memoir – yet at the age of 47, he has not yet had a play on Broadway. (His new play “Stereophonic,” was aiming for a Broadway run in 2021, but like everything else, is currently in limbo.) He is probably best known for his play “3C,” an Off-Broadway parody of “Three’s Company,” and then largely because he won a lawsuit against the copyright holders of the TV sitcom. If “Act One” capped an illustrious career, “Lot Six” promises a higher profile for a writer who deserves it.
Adjmi wins me over in his very first story, about seeing “Sweeney Todd” when he was eight years old. His mother had been taking him from their insulated Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn to Broadway shows since the age of five, determined “to bring me up as cultured – even if she didn’t know what culture was, exactly.”
But this musical shocked him from the first earsplitting shriek of a factory whistle and the terrifying first song. “Was this the right show? Where was the pie lady from the commercial?”
What follows is the funniest yet clearest and most spot-on description of “Sweeney Todd” that I’ve ever read – all the more priceless because it includes his reaction to it, which was passionate enough to ignite not just an identification with the wronged Sweeney but a life-long devotion to the theater.
“Sweeney Todd made me physically sick, but somehow the ugliness in it was exquisite….I wanted that beauty in my life.”
After the first scene, however, there is little mention of theater for a very long stretch, as the author takes us through the next decade or so of his lonely, circumscribed life — his quirky, dysfunctional family, parochial community, and oppressively rule-dominated yeshiva, where he most definitely did not belong: “I found God very off-putting. He was a bully who inflicted psychological torture on people . And the Bible wasn’t spiritually edifying. It didn’t fill me with emotion, it didn’t make me want to bolt up and start singing or dancing or sobbing the way I did watching The Wiz and 42nd Street.”
The anecdotes from his childhood can be horrid: Sent to school hungry, because his neglectful parents couldn’t even get it together to feed him, he once asked a group of girls whether they could share their snacks with him. One of them threw a fistful of potato sticks on the dirty floor, and giggled. David scooped them up and ate them. “Soon my classmates were all standing in a semicircle, throwing food at me – dried fruit and potato sticks and Twizzlers, and I ate whatever they threw. It didn’t feel like a compromise or humiliation, it didn’t feel like anything…”
His own family made him feel alienated because of their ridicule of what they called Lot Six, which is a dismissive epithet used by the Syrian Jewish community for queer people. Adjmi knew he was attracted to men from an early age, but never said it aloud until 14, when his therapist (to whom he was sent because of bad grades) encouraged him to do so using a hand puppet.
The overall impression of Adjmi’s unhappy childhood is far from grim, because of the many moments of rebellion and relief – the tales of mischief with his one friend, Howie, for example – and also thanks to the author’s sharp, often comic rendering of unforgettable characters and vivid moments.
Adjmi is mercilessly precise in his description of physical appearances. A long paragraph skewers a vengeful teacher by detailing her features, including “fingernails..so long and glossy they seemed part machine. Each element felt so blown out and artificial that when one put them all together it was like a surrealist painting…”
It’s not surprising that, as he tells us in an Author’s Note, all the names in his memoir have been changed, even those of his family.
But if such a visual portrait might feel like revenge, he applies the same unrelenting eye to characters he likes.
“…his fingers were long and thin like insect antennae…”
“She was from Los Angeles but seemed like a New Yorker. She wore a lot of black and looked like she’d be good at hailing cabs….”
“He was doe-eyed and chinless, unrugged and soft-voiced. On cold days, his nose appeared bright red”
The second year acting students at Juilliard “had the unnatural ablated openness of people in cults – their skin seemed ripped off and all the raw nerves exposed.”
About that “ablated.” It means tissue surgically removed. “Lot Six” contains the sort of profuse use of abstruse vocabulary most common in poets and autodidacts – cathecting, pelagic, proleptic – sometimes paired with a low-rent word for what I assumed was intended as comic effect — dyadic closeness, cynosural cuddling.
Given this display of erudition, I was surprised at his occasional lapses in grammar and his profligate use of “disinterest” to mean lack of interest rather than impartiality. It comes as something of a revelation about halfway through the book, when he tells us (amid much discussion of Nietzsche and literature) that as a sophomore transfer student at Sarah Lawrence he purchased “Barron’s Vocabulary Builder and a pack of index cards….” – and shot the words he learned “like lead balls from a cannon.”
There are other unusual choices in “Lot Six.” It includes footnotes, which often tell stories that he could have included in the body of his book, including, weirdly, the story of his coming out to his family. Given the title of the book, there is relatively little about his gay life – little more than a few paragraphs on his first awkward sexual encounter, and a few pages about his first boyfriend.
It isn’t until about two-thirds of the way through “Lot Six” that the author – and his character – dive deep into the theater. Feeling at a low point in his life, he takes a train into the city from college and buys a ticket to see “Six Degrees of Separation” – which he describes with the same clarity and passion as “Sweeney Todd,” struck by how much playwright John Guare, “whom I had never met…knew me.”– then walks through Times Square. “I stood for a moment in the jangle of voices and noise, and I felt a sense of enormous calm wash over me. It was where I belonged.”
He experiences a similar epiphany again walking in Manhattan a few years later, this time in Chelsea, on Thanksgiving break from his graduate studies at the Iowa Writers Workshop (having decided senior year to become a playwright.) He began hearing dialogue for a play in his head. “It was uncanny….the sort of thing that was supposed to happen to writers all the time” – but had never happened to him.
Theater people in the know will probably be talking most about the chapters of “Lot Six” that focus on his year in the playwriting program of the Juilliard School, and his tense relationship with the co-head of the program, whom he calls Gloria (but whose real identity is easy to uncover.)
He graphically depicts her brutal treatment – how she looks at her cell phone, rummages through her handbag, and sometimes simply leaves the classroom, whenever he reads new pages:
“Her overlong fingernails plucked the surface of the table with an aggressive clack. ‘Well,’ she trilled, ‘do you actually need comments on this, or can we just move on?’
“’Are you trying to write cardboard characters,’ she said, ‘or are you trying to write people?’
“The way she said the word ‘people’ made it sound like I wasn’t really a person, how would I even remotely know the workings of the species.”
“’People,’ I replied with a slight aphasia…..”
There is a measure of satisfaction from the fact that, although Gloria so upset Adjmi that for a long time he had trouble writing, she also (inadvertently) helped contribute to his first theatrical triumph – a convoluted tale that’s funny and touching, and involves a gazelle; that’s all I’ll say.
“Lot Six,” like “Act One,” more or less ends with the story of the playwright’s first big success, a play called “Stunning” that was produced at Lincoln Center in 2009 and extended several times. But unlike the story of the Broadway hit that concludes Hart’s memoir, “Stunning” didn’t make David Adjmi rich, and it didn’t make him famous; it made him infamous, at least among the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. They were the subject of “Stunning,” a bleak play that places some largely unappealing characters into a plot he tells us was loosely based on “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It was a play he wrote when he had given up on playwriting, never expecting that “Stunning” would be produced, viewing it in fact as unproduceable. “It was a suicide note — my one last missive to humanity before hurtling myself like Anna Karenina onto the train tracks at McDonald Avenue.” So it makes sense that “Lot Six” ends not in a celebratory theater party for his play, but in a quiet dinner out with his mother and sister, at which his sister recounts an ugly family funeral that Adjmi did not attend. The reaction to the play, and the discoveries he made as a result – “I’d summoned the very past I’d wanted to annihilate” – are among what feel like the new lessons in “Lot Six” about the theater of today. And they are stunning.
Playwright David Adjmi’s delightful new book Lot Six: A Memoir (Harper Collins, 388 pages)