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NEA chose astutely when it awarded grants for 2 new plays, and it is seeking applicants for a 2nd round*

December 11, 2009 | 10:00 am

BengalTigerRingoHWChiuForTimes It's assumed in some circles that the U.S. government is inept, if not worse, in virtually everything it does.

But the early returns show that, when it comes to picking new plays to invest in, the feds may have a certain knack.

The thumbs-up comes from theater critics and playgoers who've experienced two new dramas, both by unheralded playwrights, that received $90,000 each last year from the National Endowment for the Arts to support their 2009 premieres.

The program, NEA Outstanding New American Plays, debuted by tapping Rajiv Joseph's surrealistic take on the Iraq war, "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which opened in May at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, and "The Brother/Sister Plays," Tarrell Alvin McCraney's two-evening, three-play work that spans decades in the life of working-class blacks in Louisiana bayou country, complete with epic hurricane.

"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" went over so well that Center Theatre Group is offering seconds: It’s scheduled to run April 25-May 30, 2010, at the Mark Taper Forum. As for Joseph, he was tapped recently as the only playwright among the 10 winners of the 2009 $50,000 Whiting Writers Award for emerging authors. Joseph's most recent play, "Gruesome Playground Injuries,” an examination of a long-term, scar-inducing romantic relationship, premiered in October at Houston’s Alley Theatre.

RajivJosephChristinaHouseforTimes Reviewing “Bengal Tiger,” The  Times’ Charles McNulty wrote, “I'm tempted to call it the most original drama written so far about the Iraq war, but why sell the work short? The imagination behind it is way too thrillingly genre-busting to be confined within such a limiting category.... Attending the opening gave me a sense of what it must have been like to be in London when Caryl Churchill burst on the scene at the Royal Court in the 1970s.”

"The Brother/Sister Plays" inspired similar comparisons-to-the-greats from the New York Times’ Ben Brantley last month when it opened at the Public Theater in New York, following a run last spring at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. (the two companies co-produced the premiere). Now it has been extended a week beyond Sunday, its previously scheduled closing date.

“[T]his...gorgeous trilogy...[is] pumped full of a senses-heightening oxygen that leaves you tingling," Brantley wrote. "Watching them, you experience the excited wonder that comes from witnessing something rare in the theater: a new, authentically original vision. It's what people must have felt during productions of the early works of Eugene O'Neill in the 1920s or of Sam Shepard in the 1960s.”

All of which is to say that, as the NEA seeks applicants for a second round of Outstanding New American Plays, the grant-makers and would-be grantees have something to live up to. The deadline for stating an "intent to apply" is Dec. 18, with winners to be announced in June. Details are on the website of Arena Stage, the Washington theater that has partnered with the NEA to administer the program. Besides two $90,000 grants  — $10,000 goes to the playwright, $80,000 to the theater that’s developing and producing the show  — the NEA again will award five $20,000 grants for plays that are still too early in their development process to have been slotted for a full production.

-- Mike Boehm

*Updated: An earlier version of this story said the NEA money was from stimulus funds. The money for the Outstanding New American Play program comes out of the regular NEA budget, not the $50 million it got from this year’s special economic stimulus funding.


Review: `Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

Rajiv Joseph's newest stripe

Photos: A scene from "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo"; playwright Rajiv Joseph. Credits: Ringo H.W. Chiu/For the Los Angeles Times ("Bengal Tiger"); Christina House/For the Los Angeles Times (Rajiv Joseph).