REBECCA GILMAN sounds just like the heroines of her two most celebrated plays. Over the phone, the 38-year-old is as ingratiatingly "normal" as Sarah, the young college dean wrestling with racism in Spinning Into Butter, or Theresa, a journalist being stalked by a man from an unfortunate blind date in her latest, Boy Gets Girl (which opens at the Rep Monday, Feb. 17 and runs through March 23). That disarming quality may lead Gilman to ever-increasing audiences; she's working on a screenplay to Spinning as you read this. She is, in fact, as articulate, colloquial, and curious as a popular playwright ought to be, and her ability to remain accessible while diving into the murk beneath the calm surface of American life surely gives her added marketability. In 2001, Time magazine raved that Boy was "the finest, most disturbing American play in years."
In both Spinning and Boy Gets Girl, Gilman coaxes you with a routine setup and an almost breezy vernacular akin to sophisticated comedy, then confronts you with far more than you ever thought you'd face. In Spinning, we root for Sarah, assuming she'll combat bigotry when a student is an apparent victim of racial harassment; but in the climactic monologue, Sarah reveals that she can't help viewing her black students as "lazy and stupid." In Boy Gets Girl, what begins as a brisk thriller about a wacko stalker stretches out into a larger, sometimes alarming contemplation of sexual politics. Says Gilman: "I think about the expectations an audience has of a genre, in terms of conventions. And then I try to use that to my benefit, to give them some of those conventions but then turn it on its ear."
She says a New York Times article on stalking provided the inspiration for Boy. "There was one of those sidebars from whatever crime unit covers stalking, and it was, like, 'Things to Do if You're Being Stalked.' It started with, 'Get a private phone number, move, cut down shrubbery in front of your house' and went to things like 'Change your name.' And, basically, there was nothing you could do except gear your life to be in reaction to this crazy person."
That list figures prominently in the play when magazine writer Theresa has to call the cops after blind-date Tony goes from apologetic flower-giving to menacing nighttime phone calls and an attack on her co-worker. But Gilman complicates the moral picture by having Theresa interview Les Kennkat, an aging, sexist filmmaker whose lusty boobs-and-guns oeuvre doesn't keep him from being an OK guy. "I think that when [Les] has that conversation with Theresa about 'Do you look at a guy's ass or do you try to find a good personality?' he's making a very good point," Gilman muses. "That idea about which comes first—are we trained to look at people that way, or is that something that comes naturally?"
Dirty old man Les is prime Gilman territory. Her America is an urban landscape filled with likable, lying citizens trying not to bump into each other and notice the paralyzing truths hiding just inside themselves. Theresa's appreciation of the male sex is nearly destroyed by Tony, but she can't help seeing a flicker of humanity in the decaying Kennkat.
"For one thing, she knows where she stands with him," Gilman explains. "He's completely honest. It's not like with Tony [the stalker], where there's a hidden agenda; Les is just right there on the surface. I was trying to show that as much as the culture perpetuated [by Les] has harmed women, he's been harmed by it in return: He's left lonely, and he's left without companionship. So I guess I wanted to show that men are as much a victim of sexism as women."
That a crude, boorish man could emerge as a whole person in a play that should theoretically give us the opposite is a mark of Gilman's singular, evolving discussion about the complex ordinariness of human beings.