Theatergoers will have to take a leap of faith with playwright Alix Sobler and her play The Glass Piano, about to have its U.S. premiere at FAU Theatre Lab in Boca Raton.
It concerns a Princess Alexandra, who either did, or believes she did, ingest a glass piano when she was a child. Ever since, she has lived a cautious life knowing the piano could break into tiny shards inside her. The fable-like play, you see, is a lot for an audience to swallow.
The New York-based writer was listening to a podcast that focuses on lesser known stories from history when she first heard about the princes and her condition, known as glass delusion. “It was not common, but was a recurring thing,” she says during a rehearsal break at FAU’s Parliament Hall. “I found it to be really intriguing, as sort of a metaphor.
“I immediately saw this could be a play. The first thing I thought was ‘How would you do that onstage?’ which made me go, ‘I have to do it.’ ”
Sobler saw parallels between Princess Alexandra and herself. “I am a person who struggles with anxiety. I’m a playwright and a New Yorker, so that almost goes without saying,” she notes. “It’s something I’ve grappled with throughout my life and I thought, wow, what does it mean to have a big thing inside of you, something that’s so fragile? To feel like it could always break, to feel like you’re always in danger, to feel like just one false move and you’ll wreak everything. And I thought, ‘Wow, I relate to that feeling.’”
Writing The Glass Piano was one thing, staging it was quite another. “It’s open to designers and directors to figure out how they want to represent it,” says Sobler. “Whether they want to be literal, whether they want to be figurative, so I’m very open about it. Because I think there’s lots of different ways to tell a story.”
As to the audience’s acceptance of the far-fetched tale, Sobler insists she was not worried. “I think if you make a big, bold statement to audiences, they get on board.”
For the moment, Sobler is content to leave it to director Matt Stabile whether he wants the audience to believe the princess swallowed a glass piano or it is sufficient that she believes it.
“This is only the second production. I’m very interested in how the different interpretations affect the play,” she says. “And I also think that whether you believe it or not is dependent on your personal life experience. It might split audiences in terms of what they think is going on on the stage. But I think that ultimately what we understand is that whether it’s real or not, it’s real to her. And so it is just as devastating.”
While the princess’s condition is potentially life-threatening and works as a metaphor for serious themes, Sobler has merged it with some broad comedy. “There’s a lot of comedy in tragic or risky things and a lot of drama in situations that are supposed to be fun and funny. I think it helps us relate better to the characters if we can laugh with them, if we can relate to the familiarity of their situation and can laugh. Almost all of my plays involve some comedic elements. I think life is just much more fun that way. We’ve gotten trained to separate drama and comedy and we don’t need to.”
The Glass Piano had its world premiere in London in 2016. “I have an agent in London, and she loved this play and was championing it,” Sobler says. “She found a director to attach and he found a theater. I just sort of got lucky.” The play was well received over there, garnering a lot of attention for Sobler.
Even so, many plays never get a second production. Again Sobler got lucky.
The script was posted at The New Play Exchange, an online marketing tool for playwrights to reach out to artistic directors and literary managers. Stabile saw it there, read it and decided to include it in his season.
“We had never spoken. I didn’t know about him, he didn’t know about me. He read the play and he liked it,” says Sobler, beaming. “He’s doing really wonderful things with the theater and I’m excited to be a part of it. Having a second production is such a gift, getting to see a second set of actors do your play raises a whole new set of questions, because they have their own interpretation.”
Describing the differences between the London production and what Theatre Lab audiences will see, Sobler says this one “has a little bit less of a literal time element to it. It leans into the metaphor and the interpretation of what that means for the play. It’s less focused on the historical aspects of it and more focused on the poetry and what is being said about the human condition.”
She concedes that The Glass Piano is somewhat different from her other plays, which tend to be more realistic. “But in other ways it is in line, because a lot of my plays are funny, hopefully. And a lot of my work is interested in history. So even though this one doesn’t have to be told literally in history, it is somewhat historical. Often that’s where I start.”
The play has been described as a fairy tale, a label that Sobler embraces. “A fairy tale for adults,” she adds. “It has the setting of a castle and it has a princess in it, so we automatically read ‘fairy tale’ in that. I think what that does is say, ‘Don’t worry whether this is real or not. We’re telling you a story. You’re here to be spun a tale.’
“You’ll find in it moments that are quite serious and are saying something really large, but there’s a lot in it that is just enjoyable and fun. In the way that a fairy tale sneaks in a moral sometimes. I don’t moralize, but I do try to say something larger.”
THE GLASS PIANO, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Saturday, Feb. 8–Saturday, March 1. $32- $40. 561-297-6124.