A few years ago, the playwright Kathleen Tolan decided she needed smoother legs. “So I went to this wax person,” Ms. Tolan recalled recently, “and I just found it hilarious to lie on this slab getting my hair torn out by the roots -- and paying for it! The woman who did it happened to be Russian, and we had this amazing conversation about Chekhov and Tolstoy while she was pulling. I thought, ‘I’ve got to put this in a play.’”

A version of that conversation does indeed occur in the penultimate scene of Ms. Tolan’s new comedy, “The Wax,” which opens tonight at Playwrights Horizons. Set in a seaside hotel room, the play portrays a group of middle-aged friends gathered for a wedding. Billed as an existential farce, it cross-breeds the physical conventions of French farce -- people popping in and out of doors and under beds -- with unexpected flights of literary discourse and philosophizing about love, desire, and identity. Not to mention the pain of depilation.

“There are farcical elements to the proceedings,” observed the playwright and director David Greenspan, a friend of Ms. Tolan’s who appears in “The Wax” as an actor, “but Kathleen frustrates a lot of your preconceived notions, which I enjoy. When you don’t get the expected payoff, something else happens that is often much more revealing.”

Mr. Greenspan is part of an extraordinary ensemble cast of esteemed character actors whose careers straddle mainstream stages and downtown theater. The others include Frank Wood, Karen Young, Mary Testa, Robert Dorfman, Laura Esterman, Mary Shultz, and Lola Pashalinski. Directed by Brian Kulick, the show runs through January 21.

The 95-minute play evolved from an 18-page script Ms. Tolan wrote for an evening of one-acts put on by the playwrights’ unit of the HB Studio, to which she belongs. Each of the plays took place in a hotel room, and the one-set, pressure-cooker format of the play allowed her, she said, “to haul onstage everything I wanted to discuss. That included sex and sexuality, one’s relationship to one’s erotic feelings, how one judges these feelings, love and fidelity, and the confusion -- the possibly unnecessary confusion -- that can occur in intimacy.

“Also, the camaraderie and fun of the writers’ group made me bump it up from a comedy to something quite extreme,” said Ms. Tolan, a slender 50-year-old woman with long curly hair and friendly blue eyes. We were sitting in the empty Playwrights Horizons theater last week while a storm blanketed Manhattan with snow. “I felt mischievous and daring.”

These two themes -- sexuality and formal daring -- have resonated throughout Ms. Tolan’s career in the theater. Born and raised in Wisconsin, she studied theater at New York University for two years before dropping out to join Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Project, which had just mounted an acclaimed, highly theatrical version of “Alice in Wonderland.” Through Mr. Gregory, she met the then-unknown and unproduced playwright Wallace Shawn.

“We spent the first hour or two of each day rehearsing Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame,’” Ms. Tolan remembered. “Sitting on the floor between Andre and Wally every day for a year watching ‘Endgame’ was the most amazing training for me. I learned what theater can be, what a play can be, how to explore motivation, how to open up your imagination and fly.”

The company was simultaneously rehearsing Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” Ms. Tolan continued, “but Andre didn’t like any of the translations, so he asked Wally, to write an adaptation. Wally watched rehearsals for many months and came back with a play that didn’t resemble ‘Peer Gynt’ at all. But those of us in the rehearsal room recognized the dynamics and the subtexts that emerged as we threw each other against the wall and tried to tear off each other’s clothes and behaved with a combination of infantile, misogynistic behavior and incredible creativity.”

Ms. Tolan left before the company performed Mr. Shawn’s play, the famously sexually uninhibited “Our Late Night,” but she became good friends with the writer and later appeared at the Public Theater in “Youth Hostel,” one of three short plays by Mr. Shawn, which portrayed a group of young people exuberantly throwing off their clothes and simulating sex. When she turned to writing plays herself, Ms. Tolan found that she had absorbed much from Mr. Shawn’s strange and compelling plays -- most notably, the desire to forsake the formulaic depiction of relationships familiar from soap operas and sitcoms for language and action that is more raw and risky.

In Ms. Tolan’s first play, “A Weekend Near Madison” a famous feminist folksinger and her young female lover decide to have a baby, and the folksinger organizes a reunion of college chums to decide which of her male friends she would like to be the father. (When the play premiered Off Broadway in 1983, Mary McDonnell and Holly Hunter played the lesbian lovers.) In “Kate’s Diary,” which Mr. Greenspan directed first at Playwrights Horizons in 1989 and later at the Public Theater, Ms. Tolan combined excerpts from “Remote Conflict,” a journalistically-researched play she wrote about Central American refugees, with extremely personal diary entries about the difficulties of relationships. “Kate’s Diary,” she said, “became about: how do you write a play that addresses ethical, political, and moral issues when you’re sitting in your bed falling apart?”

Her next play, “Approximating Mother” (produced by the Women’s Project in 1991) concerned adoption and the triangular relationship between the birth mother, the adoptive mother, and the child. Her ongoing interest in the experience of a young woman who gives up her baby for adoption led her to write a play about a pregnant teenager, “A Girl’s Life,” which was produced at the Trinity Square Repertory in 1998. “Partly because of my own Catholic background, I wanted to explore how sex and desire -- this incredibly important element of life -- is strangely not addressed or dealt with in a way that’s healthy,” said Ms. Tolan.

“The Wax” continues this exploration by touching on the fluidity of adult sexual identity. The play centers on the shaky marriage of Christopher (Mr. Wood) and Kate (Ms. Young). Kate is drawn into a kissing match with her best friend Angie (Ms. Testa), who is also married. Mr. Dorfman plays Hal, a successful composer who has left his wife (Ms. Esterman) and taken up with a man (Mr. Greenspan). Ms. Tolan acknowledged that sexual fluidity has been key to her own experience. She has had relationships with both men and women, and she continues to raise two daughters with the playwright and historian Charles L. Mee, Jr., to whom she was married for ten years.

“Human relationships are so difficult and mysterious to me,” Ms. Tolan cheerfully admitted. “I called this play ‘The Wax’ because it’s about stripping away. It’s about the ridiculous pain and hilarity of modern life. And the woman who waxes, who represents another world and another culture and another century, is meant -- in a humorous but serious way -- to bring a certain perspective on this little hothouse.”

New York Times January 7, 2001

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