The year was 2016 and graduate student Alix Sobler needed to write a play for her master’s thesis.
“I write comedy, but the world was in a real state at that moment,” she recalls. “The election between Clinton and Trump was at its height. Things felt really off-balance and I wanted to reflect that onstage in a way that was going to be accessible to audiences.”
The result was Last Night in Inwood, an apocalyptic tale of a perfect storm of crises that threatened the world’s very existence, and a young woman named Danny who tries to keep the peace among her family members and neighbors who seek refuge in her apartment.
And, yes, it is a comedy. A very dark comedy.
Just ask Avi Hoffman, the veteran South Florida actor who plays Danny’s father, Max, in the world premiere of Last Night in Inwood at Boca Raton’s Florida Atlantic University Theatre Lab. As he says of the first time he read the play, “I laughed. I laughed a lot. And thought, ‘This is really serious. Why am I laughing?’ That to me was a great testament to Alix’s ability to take something so dystopian and depressing and terrible and turn it into funny.”
Although it has taken Inwood more than six years to gain a full production, Sobler feels it is more timely now. “When I started writing the play, it was almost sci-fi, it was a thought experiment – what if American cities are under water, what if there’s an uprising against our government, what if white nationalism is growing. And now it’s become all too real,” she says. “What if we have to worry about our health when going outside? What if we’re trapped inside for a long time? So now it’s more immediate. The laugh catches in the throat a little bit more. Or maybe it’s funnier. I don’t know.”
Theatre Lab audiences know Sobler from The Glass Piano, a thought-provoking fairy tale that the company produced three years ago. While the two plays seem quite dissimilar, according to the playwright, “I think that they both reflect a deep inner anxiety, about our place in the world, our ability to cope, our understanding of who we are.” Still, Inwood “is more immediate, speaking to more day-to-day concerns,” she quickly adds.
For the central role of Danny, director Matt Stabile cast FAU MFA alumna Aubrey Elson.
As she says of her character. “She’s so human, she’s so complicated. I think the thing that I love about her is you do hear Alix’s voice so clearly in it. She’s a very honest, good but flawed sort of person,” says Elson. “She’s just trying to do her best and tries so hard to be the peacemaker. To navigate all these different people who are coming into her life, an impossible situation.”
In short, Elson finds her to be an easy character to relate to. “Danny’s situation with her dad is on par with my own situation with my mom. I think a lot about the insecurity of navigating the world. That’s something we’ve all felt in our lives,” she says. “Fear of the unknown, fear of what happened with the pandemic, what happens when our normal gets turned on its head. I think we all had that existential crisis.
“In terms of differences, I think I definitely have more of a filter than Danny has. Danny’s not afraid to express herself. But that’s not to say when you’re put in this situation, who knows what’s going to come out.”
Hoffman also identifies with his character, except for Max’s arch-conservative beliefs. “Definitely the politics are very different, although I have experienced many friends and some relatives who have gone to the dark side,” he notes. “It’s been a struggle to try and understand that. For me the challenge, which I love, is to play someone like this. I very rarely get to play someone who is not necessarily a nice guy. Not because he’s mean and nasty, he just has his way. He thinks he’s right. He believes what he’s saying. I find him a fascinating character to sink my teeth in.”
Sobler initially sent the play out to many theaters and received lots of positive reactions, even awards, but no production offers. “When you have six characters onstage and it’s a new play, theaters are wary of the risk and the expense,” she concedes. “This play in particular deals with a lot of issues and it reflects a lot of political bents. I understand why some people were hesitant to produce it.”
What Last Night in Inwood needed was a company that relished the challenges of new work, a company like Theatre Lab. “Theatre Lab is a small but mighty theater. It does a lot of new stuff and is so invested in its artists,” says Sobler. “I love coming here because it’s such a supportive environment.”
During the pandemic, Theatre Lab held a reading of the play by Zoom and scheduled a full production for last season, which was canceled by COVID. But even that has an upside, for Stabile believes Inwood fits better now.
“It’s a continuation of what the theme of this season has become for me, which is that bad things are going to happen in the world and the only way we’re going to make it through is by still believing in each other,” he says. “That’s what really happens in this play. These very different people with very different backgrounds and identities have to find a way to get through all that and help each other survive.”
Asked why theatergoers should see Last Night in Inwood, Hoffman gets the last word. “Because it’s damn good. You will not see another piece like this, where you can take such a serious subject and make it not only palatable but funny,” he says. “You will come in and laugh your head off and then cry because, oh my God, it could happen.”
LAST NIGHT IN INWOOD, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, 777 Glades Road, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. Saturday, Jan. 28–Sunday, Feb. 12. $35-$45. Call 561-297-6124.