Nineteen-year-old Tommy, the main character of Stephen Brown’s Everything is Super Great – a sarcastic title is ever there was one – lives a lonely life in a dead-end job at Starbucks.
He is attracted to the female assistant manager who has no interest in him, he has no friends, his older brother has been missing for months and an inept therapist has arrived at Tommy’s home to help him with his troubles. Oh, and the play is a rollicking comedy.
Super Great, an exaggerated reflection of playwright Brown’s life, opens at FAU Theatre Lab in Boca Raton on Saturday, Nov. 30. Directed by the company’s artistic head Matt Stabile, the production will be a co-world premiere with New Light Theater Project and Stable Cable Lab Co. of New York City.
The 32-year-old Texas native Brown began writing the play a decade ago, soon after he moved to New York. As he recalls, “I was working at a Starbucks and everything was just really terrible. I needed a survival job and I very foolishly got a job at the Starbucks next to the Empire State Building. Every morning there were lines out the door of people who were just furious that they had to wait. They were impatient New Yorkers and also I was not good at my job. I was really bad.
“I was barely making ends meet and I had no friends in New York,” Brown says. “I was really lonely in a new city, I had no money to do anything and I couldn’t do anything anyway because I was working seven days a week.”
When he wasn’t busy building frappuccinos, he was writing plays, a pursuit he concedes he knew little about at the time. “I wrote this first play on instinct because I didn’t know how to do it any other way.”
Super Great is what Brown calls “my first real play,” following two unproduced scripts that he deems really bad. “And then the next play after I wrote this one, I started to outline extensively, which ended up being a huge problem for me. You end up boxing yourself into a play that your instincts don’t really want to write. That actually caused me to have two years of writer’s block. That was devastatingly awful,” he says. “I realized it was because I was outlining. I fell so in love with my outline that I wouldn’t deviate from it, but the outline wouldn’t work. Now I’ve gone back to just writing on impulse.”
Asked if the characters are based on anyone from his life, Brown concedes, “They’re all based on me, except for maybe the mother, who is based on my mother. The mother is 100 percent things that my mother says and ways that she acts and things that she does. But the others are very much me.”
No wonder he was able to capture a teenager’s speech patterns. “Those are also kind of based on me. One thing that I love about playwriting is you get to write like people talk. I hate trying to make everything neat and tidy and perfect. That’s just never made sense to me because that’s not how my brain works. But I can write exactly how people sound.”
If Starbucks comes off badly in the play, therapists come off worse. “They were just an easy target for humor,” Brown acknowledges. “I feel a little bit bad about that now, because I really do feel that therapy is a great thing. I’m trying to talk less about therapy itself and a little bit more about people who aren’t particularly good at their jobs, which I have a lot of experience with.”
Since beginning the play back when he was 22 or 23, Brown has had plenty of developmental readings, but none of them has led to a full production until now. “I felt that I never really quite nailed the play,” he says. “I always felt like 70 percent of it was good and 30 percent of it was a little rough.
“I remember I turned 30 and I fell in love with the woman of my dreams, all at the same time. It really focused my life in a way. I felt I needed to start getting some plays produced if I was going to make a life as a writer. I didn’t have an agent at the time, so I was like, ‘OK, let me email every theater in America that does new work and see what happens there.’
“I sent out hundreds of emails, looking for places that did new play festivals. So I sent Matt (Stabile) an email and I think he wrote back a pretty terse response where it was clear he did not want to read anything by me. It was something like, ‘Sure, fine, send me something.’ No enthusiasm at all.
“Then about three months later maybe, I got an email back from him that was like, ‘Hey, we just had somebody drop out of our new play festival. If you’re free in January, I really like your play actually and I would love to bring it down here if you want to.’ And I was like, ‘Hell, yeah, let’s do that.’”
Theatre Lab usually does not consider scripts unless they are submitted by literary agents. “But I read it and I was laughing the whole time reading it,” remembers Stabile. “And there were these moments of real heartfelt honesty.” Although he was still unsure whether his audience would respond to the play, Everything is Super Great would at least fill a vacant slot in his festival, he reasoned.
“If you were to have asked me at the start of the New Play Festival last year were we going to produce Stephen’s play, I would have said, ‘No.’ I tend to look for things that are really imaginative, not based totally in reality. His play is very much about a family, so I was thinking, ‘It’s probably not for us, but I’d like to help him develop it and see that it goes somewhere else.’
“But that reading, it was a Sunday at noon, our lowest attended reading, but it was also our loudest, most energetic reading. The audience did not stop laughing the entire time. It sounded like there were 100 people in the room, even though there were probably 45 or so. We looked at each other afterwards and said, ‘This one has to be on our list.’ I knew I thought it was funny, but I never think that people are going to think what I think is funny is funny.”
Still, the play needed further development. “I say that I learned how to write by writing this play. Most plays, I get pretty close to what the final draft is on the first draft,” Brown said. “Then I make edits and tweaks, minor changes. But this play, with every draft, I’ve thrown out like 30 percent or 40 percent of the play and started anew because I was just learning what a play is supposed to be.
“Matt is an incredible dramaturg. He’s very upfront with his thoughts. Very much ‘I think we need this,’ and ‘I don’t think we need this,’ ‘I think we’re spending too much time on this.’ He doesn’t really beat around the bush. He tells you exactly what he thinks. Also from a writer’s point of view, he’s a great director to work with because he just understands it. He just showed up knowing my play really well.”
The playhouse for Theatre Lab is small, but the space where Super Great will be performed in New York is even smaller. “Our New York playing space is about half or maybe a third of what Theatre Lab has,” says Brown. “We have like four chairs and a table that we reconfigure for the space. It calls for a lot more imagination from the audience than the one down at Theatre Lab. Down there, there’s really intricate blocking which makes some of the jokes work really well.”
Having written the play so long ago, it feels to Brown like the work of a former life. “It’s sort of like going back to a diary of when you were younger.” He says. “You cherish it because it’s a younger version of yourself. I think we all have a lot of nostalgia for our younger self.”
The characters in Everything is Super Great are going through some dark times, but Brown wants to emphasize that the play has plenty of laughs. “I think that it’s a hilarious show, it’s a love story that doesn’t quite work out. It’s about really sh—y jobs that you hate.
“I try to never have a theme that isn’t funny. That’s really how I started writing, I just wanted to make people laugh as much as possible. So even though there’s a lot of deep stuff underneath, it’s very much a comedy.”
EVERYTHING IS SUPER GREAT, Florida Atlantic University Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, FAU Campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Nov. 30-Dec. 22. $32- $40. Call 561-297-6124 or visit calendar.fau.edu/arts.