The playwright Emma Horwitz has lived in New York most of her life. The scent of the city is the scent of her memories — or the reek, depending.
“To this day, when it becomes summer and I smell a stinking garbage truck, I think of my childhood,” Horwitz, 31, said. “I think immediately of being 7 years old.”
Over coffee one August morning at Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, Horwitz was talking about her comedy “Mary Gets Hers,” whose orphaned title character is 7 when the play begins, and is comforted by the memory of her parents’ smell.
“Smell is ineffable,” Horwitz said. “It’s personal. It’s momentary. It’s theatrical.”
Slapstick, gently wise and touched with grief, “Mary Gets Hers” is a riff on “Abraham,” a 10th-century play by the Saxon canoness Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. Medieval drama isn’t renowned for its joviality, but “Abraham” made Horwitz laugh when she read it as a graduate playwriting student at Brown University in 2018 and began adapting it.
The play’s hermits seemed to her like clowns, though maybe she was predisposed that way; a voracious Archie and Jughead fan as a child, Horwitz became a writer of fiction and also of comics. Through the characters in “Abraham,” she felt Hrotsvitha winking at her.
Now Horwitz is winking back with her Off Broadway debut. Directed by Josiah Davis, the Brown classmate who first directed it there, the Playwrights Realm production of “Mary Gets Hers” opens on Sept. 22 at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space in Hell’s Kitchen.
By phone, Davis called the play “hilarious — and unsentimental.”
“That’s a word that I think I would use to describe Emma, too,” he added. “Big, big, deep heart, but unsentimental.”
In both Horwitz’s version and Hrotsvitha’s, Mary is raised by the hermit Abraham, a Christian who places her alone in a cell to guard her chastity. Years later, she runs off and becomes a prostitute. But Horwitz’s Mary takes command of her own story, slyly undermining notions of female virtue, and missing her parents always.
Mary’s bereavement spoke to Horwitz, who grew up mainly on the Upper West Side, with her extended family nearby. Over about 18 months while she was at Brown, she lost three grandparents and an aunt. The death of her maternal grandmother — who took her to the theater, who believed in her — hit particularly hard.
“She was the person that saw me when I was little, this genderqueer kid who was a little bit shy and quiet,” Horwitz said. “When my grandmother died, I was urgently looking for anything that smelled like her.”
She found a cloth, sealed it in a plastic bag. By now, though, her grandmother’s scent has evaporated.
“I knew it was going to happen,” Horwitz said. “But I still had the hope that it would always smell like her.” — LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
‘How to Dance in Ohio’
Liam Pearce, a star of the new Broadway musical “How to Dance in Ohio,” spent his childhood performing: staging living room concerts with his younger brothers, rocking out in after-school music programs, acting in community theater shows. He can still remember the release he felt.
“I was very bottled up with emotions and energy as a child,” Pearce, 24, said over breakfast on a recent morning. “I had a million things going on in my head. But when I was performing, I didn’t think about any of that. I really just let myself and my body go.”
In 2018, he moved from Charlotte, N.C., to New York City, enrolling in Pace University’s musical theater program. At 6-foot-5, with wavy hair, wide-set eyes, a nimble tenor and a sweetheart grin, he seemed fated to play romantic leads. And he did play them: Roger in “Rent,” Guy in “Once.”
Two years ago, he saw on Instagram a casting notice for another role he wanted, a part in the first workshop of “How to Dance in Ohio.” Based on a 2015 documentary, the musical follows seven young adults with autism spectrum disorder as they prepare for a spring formal organized by their psychologist. He sent the notice to his agent.
“By the way,” he told her in the message, “I’m autistic. And I see myself in this show.”
The producers agreed. Two years later, after several more workshops and a tryout at Syracuse Stage, he will open at Broadway’s Belsaco Theater on Dec. 10 as Drew, an aspiring electrical engineer with a fervent crush on a young woman in the group. A recent video shows him singing the joyful, rousing song “Building Momentum.” Even as he feels unusually close to Drew, Pearce is proud that Drew is only one character among many and that he shares the stage every night with six other autistic actors.
“It’s so beautiful that we’re representing such a vast array of people on the spectrum,” he said of the show.
Growing up, he said, he masked certain behaviors and rarely disclosed his diagnosis. The musical, and the example of his co-stars, has changed that for him.
“I’m very publicly autistic now,” he said.
In an early number in the show, “Today Is,” Drew and the other characters sing of going places that were not designed for them: schools, city buses, places of business. But a Broadway stage, Pearce believes, is exactly where he belongs.
“When I’m onstage, I feel electricity in my body that I can’t put into words. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life,” he said. “Music and theater have broken me out of my shell and given me such community. This is a space that is designed for me.” — ALEXIS SOLOSKI
Maleah Joi Moon
In sixth grade, during her very first theater audition, Maleah Joi Moon landed the role of Dorothy in her school’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Nearly a decade later, that experience would prove most useful when she was up for the lead role of Ali in “Hell’s Kitchen,” a new musical inspired by the precarious teenage years of the Grammy-winning musician Alicia Keys.
Through cherubic laughs, she recalled the helplessness she felt when she couldn’t find a pianist with whom to practice the original music in her audition packet. “So I was like, ‘I’m just going to go in there and sing something from “The Wiz.”’”
The gambit worked. This fall, Moon will spend her 21st birthday in rehearsals for the Public Theater’s world premiere of “Hell’s Kitchen,” which opens on Nov. 19. And, much like Dorothy, she knows she will be swept up in a tornado of sorts.
The enormousness of debuting in this principal role is not lost on her. In fact, it nearly deterred her. She had dropped out of Pace University in 2022, leaving before completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater. “I was trying to figure out why I wanted to do what I was doing and I needed some time to rediscover the joy,” she said. So much so that, “when the audition for ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ came around, I told my agent, ‘This sounds amazing. I don’t think it’s right for me.’ I didn’t feel like I was enough.”
Wisely, that agent convinced her anyway. And her director, Michael Greif (“Rent,” Dear Evan Hansen”), is thrilled she changed her mind. “When we met her in person, she proved to be a flexible, instinctual, courageous actor and an even more extraordinary singer,” he said. “We all got excited about building our production around her. She’s proving us right.”
It didn’t take long before Moon realized that her fear was also an asset, one that parallels Keys’s coming-of-age journey. The musical (which features new songs from Keys in addition to tracks from her catalog, like “Fallin’” and “The Gospel”) introduces us to Ali at a similarly petrifying juncture. Ali has spent 17 years in a cramped apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, living with a suffocating mother who thwarts her dreams of stardom at every turn.
These days, Moon’s not letting anything, even self-doubt, stand in her way. “When you bring everyone together under the pretense that we’re just trying to touch people, all the other stuff melts down like gravy, she said. “After that first day, I realized how much I loved this. It’s a dream.” — BRITTANI SAMUEL
John J. Caswell Jr.
Missed connections have long driven the playwright John J. Caswell Jr.
His grandmother briefly dated the actor Wayne Newton, and it became something of a family holiday tradition to joke about counterfactuals. “What if you had married Wayne Newton? You wouldn’t have had to work at that grocery store for 30 years,” he said with mock snappishness in a recent phone call.
Caswell’s new play, “Scene Partners,” is shadowed by a series of “what ifs.” He wrote the play, which stars Dianne Wiest and opens on Nov. 12 at the Vineyard Theater, with his mother and grandmother in mind. The women in his family created a happy home for him, he said, “but I always wondered what they could have had if circumstances had been different.”
“Scene Partners” is a striking departure in some ways from his previous works, “Man Cave” and “Wet Brain,” which have garnered acclaim for their skillful and formally innovative handling of weighty material like domestic violence and substance abuse. “Scene Partners” is a much lighter work, “a joyful Hunter S. Thompson frolic across the country to stardom,” as Caswell put it, in which Wiest plays Meryl Kowalski, a 75-year-old actor who finds herself in the uncanny position of auditioning to play herself in a movie about her life.
But the plays share some similarities. “I’m really interested in creating physical spaces where we’re able to see some of the subconscious — where very bizarre human experiences creep in alongside the reality — because I think there are other places that we go where we are better or worse,” he said.
In an email, the play’s director, Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown” and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”), described Caswell’s imagination as “absolutely mad, and deeply moving.”
“Reading ‘Scene Partners’ again and again,” she added, “I can’t get over how emotional his characters’ journeys are, while drawing worlds that vibrate with their own unique logic.”
Caswell, 41, has come a long way from a 10-year-old in Phoenix who wrote self-described bad poetry and novellas. In his hometown, he eventually formed the Progressive Theatre Workshop, a nonprofit performance group that made “plays centered on queer themes,” before moving in 2009 to New York, to work on a play with the avant-garde director Richard Foreman, and accruing a shelf full of awards along the way.
Still, for Caswell, the experience of collaborating with people like Wiest and Chavkin makes for several pinch-me moments.
“Every day I wake up and feel like I have to check my email to make sure that this is really happening,” he said. — RHODA FENG
Photo credits: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times (Emma Horwitz and Liam Pearce); Steve Moon (Maleah Joi Moon); Chelcie Parry (John J. Caswell Jr.)