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The Interviewer Becomes the Playwright

With “Hearts Like Fists,” Adam Szymkowicz uses his other voice

If you’re a playwright, then talking to Adam Szymkowicz is a good sign that you’ve made it. Thanks to the popular “I Interview Playwrights” feature on his blog, Szymkowicz has essentially become the Mike Douglas of the playwriting community, coaxing thoughtful remarks from writers of all stripes.

“When I go to a theatre party, I usually talk to the playwrights,” he says. “They’re the awkward ones standing in the corner. It’s weird, because if there are a bunch of young playwrights there, I’m like a weird celebrity. And that’s great, but I kind of wish it was for my plays and not my blog.”

And there’s the rub. Szymkowicz is a playwright himself, who also wants to establish his voice as an artist.

He’s currently getting a chance, since his play Hearts Like Fists is at the Secret Theatre through Dec. 15. The show is an off-the-wall, melancholy comedy about an evil doctor who poisons couples in their sleep and battles the crime fighters trying to stop him. There’s also a lovesick doctor trying to perfect an artificial heart and a donut-addicted nurse.

Despite this whimsy, however, Hearts Like Fists is not intended to be goofy romp. It has a delicate tone that could easily be destroyed by an over-enthusiastic production. That’s why Szymkowicz added a note at the beginning of the script, asking productions to avoid being too cartoonish.

“You need to take it seriously and not wink at the audience,” he explains. “That will kill the play. I feel like we don’t have the words to talk about tone, and so I never really know what to say in order to get people on the same page. But I want people to read it a certain way, which is why the note is there.”

A play about three masked women fighting a villain known only as Doctor X could easily be played just for laughs, but Szymkowicz’s script is also a moving look at what constitutes heartbreak and the ways in which people deal with the end of a relationship. Some find solace in food; some in work. And some, like Doctor X, try to preserve love forever by injecting couples with fast-working poison before they can hurt each other.

A production that treats the material like “Adam West in Batman,” as Szymkowicz says, would destroy the real meat of the story.

“I actually want it to be about things, and I want people to focus on the language of things and not the comedy,” he says. “I want it to be fun, but I also want it to be more than fun.”

Working with some former collaborators helps. Flux Theatre Company, which produced Szymkowicz’s Pretty Theft in 2009, is staging Hearts Like Fists, and some of the actors from that earlier play are also in the cast this time around. Knowing and trusting them, Szymkowicz felt they would understand how to navigate the line between buffoonery and broken hearts, something that he hasn’t always been so confident of in the past.

“I’ve seen people reaching to add extra visual jokes, not trusting the play and thinking, ‘This is a comedy, so we’ll add in wacky sound effects!’” he says. “And there’s nothing that I can do at the end of the day, but I can try to give some amount of guidance to people who care. I’ve not had a lot of terrible situations, but the times I have, they’ve just been awful.”

As for his other project, Szymkowicz sees no end in sight to finding playwrights to interview. “I’ve tried to stop a few times, but then people return with the questions answered, and I feel like I have to keep going with it,” he says. “It’s inspiring to me and to other people. I have to keep doing it.”

Mark Peikert is the N.Y. Bureau Chief at Backstage.
Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum

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