Interview: Josh Piven, Author of the Play 'No Reservations'

Writer Josh Piven
Writer Josh Piven
By A.D. AMOROSI

Josh Piven, Philadelphia native and the author behind The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series, gives playwriting a go with No Reservations, a work debuting this weekend in his hometown at the Adrienne Theater’s Skybox on Sansom Street. Though Jesus isn’t the focus of the New York Times best-selling humorist’s satirical Nativity play – a social media-savvy look at celebrity obsession - don’t let that stop you from griping. "I encourage protesting," says Piven. "We’d love the publicity."

A.D. Amorosi: Where and when did you grow up in Philadelphia, and how much of that time in has inspired the paranoia that’s rampant throughout your books?
Josh Piven: I was actually born in NYC but my parents moved here when I was two. I mostly grew up in Washington West, first at 8th and Lombard and then 12th and Lombard. I went to school downtown and this was before CCD, Ed Rendell, and the "downtown revitalization" years. I vividly remember watching the MOVE tragedy on television, so things were a little grittier back in the 80s. It toughens a kid, you know. Makes him streetwise. And I went to a Quaker school for 13 years so I REALLY learned how to defend myself. You know, using reasonable argument and positive reinforcement.

A.D. Amorosi: When did you know that writing was the thing for you, the career path where, if you really didn’t feel like it, you’d never have to leave the house?
Josh Piven: I would have to say it was when Woody Allen called and asked me to start writing jokes for him. OK, that was a joke. I don't know, really, I was always interested in writing. I was co-editor of my high school yearbook, always did well in English. My mom was an editor for many years (Doubleday in New York City), so I'm sure some of that rubbed off, you know, that one could actually write and almost make a living. I kid, I kid. I was actually getting things published when I was still at Penn as an undergrad, and then I moved to New York and went into publishing. That was when there were entry level publishing job that actually paid real money, not paid you in Bitcoin or "exposure" or "good will" or any of the current forms of phony remuneration. Before the Web, you had to leave the house to go to the library. Now, you really don't. Which is why I look like Howard Hughes.

A.D. Amorosi: I know you’ve penned novels and theater works, but in terms of the written word, you seem to like the humorous exploded-reality vibe the most. Why?
Josh Piven: I do tend toward satire, I guess. The play I'm working on now is sort of a juxtaposition of the current hipster vibe and the '80s, and compares the two eras, showing the ridiculous aspects of each. (Of course, both are easy targets, that way I don't have to work too hard.) I guess I tend to see humor in most things in my everyday life. Didn't someone once say "don't take life too seriously, because you'll never come out of it alive?" I think it was Billy Shakespeare. Anyway I actually did write a fairly serious novel a few years ago. But it hasn't sold. So, well, there you go. Stick with what works.

A.D. Amorosi:  You’ve penned several successful Worst-Case Scenarios. Do you have Worst-Case groupies?
Josh Piven: I do have groupies but they are just really a bunch of downers, always thinking about the worst that could happen.

A.D. Amorosi: I know there’s no "Jesus" character in No Reservations - why take a poke at the Nativity?
Josh Piven: This play uses the traditional Nativity story to examine some current themes, but it is not ABOUT Jesus. There are some recognizable names from the story, but they are more played for humor. My intent was not to write a play about how Jesus would like, take selfies and Tweet about how the damn Romans were all up in his grill. It's more from the perspective of the people who, in contemporary life, would try to profit by his celebrity status. Anyway in No Reservations you only see a bundled baby. It's The Messiah, day one.

A.D. Amorosi: The whole modernization process of the Nativity tale, give me a picture of what you wanted to update, first, foremost and how?
Josh Piven: Well I wanted to do it, first, from the perspective of the innkeepers...NOT from the Mary/Joseph perspective. And I also knew I wanted it set in rural Pennsylvania, not only because of where it's premiering but also because of Bethlehem, and all the other options for humor (shale drilling, Amish country, local jokes, etc). I knew that I wanted the innkeepers to start out hoping for a quiet holiday, and also that they were desperate for cash, because their mortgage on the inn was underwater. And I knew I wanted to touch on some general themes: reality television, the cult of celebrity, this obsession everyone has with posting everything on social media, the tabloid press, and so on. From there, I just sort of ran with it. Mrs. Harris, the wife, is really the scheming character who sets the entire thing in motion.

A.D. Amorosi: What is your absolute favorite passage within No Reservations, the thing that makes you laugh out loud every time you hear it?
Josh Piven: That sounds like a Sophie's Choice. This play has a million jokes and gags stuffed into 100 minutes. Some not everyone will get, based on their age and their familiarity with the subject matter (and this goes for the cast, at least initially, though I hope they get the jokes now). But that's OK, I wanted some of the humor to be on the more intellectual/thoughtful side, and some to be, well, just plain stupid funny. But: if you put the thumbscrews on me, I would say that Brandon Pierce, who plays Angel Gabriel, has some really funny moments. And that's not to take anything away from the rest of the cast, they are superb, but I think they would probably agree. I don't want to give too much away. Just go experience Brandon's brilliance. He kills it.

A.D. Amorosi: What sort of actors – and a director – did you want on the case for No Reservations? What special qualifications did you need each of them to have?
Josh Piven: Allison (Heishman, the director) is brilliant. This is a farce, and there is a shitload going on with 11 people on stage at times, physical humor, lots of movement, lots of props, caroling, a juggling monkey and so on. Watching Allison work, it's almost like seeing someone choreograph a ballet or an opera. Timing, entrances, exits a birth on stage (actually two), sound effects, a swing stage, it's just a very complicated piece. Allison is an expert at bringing out the best the actors have, but is also open to their suggestions, which is nice. Me, she ignores. And rightly so, because I'm a pain in the ass. The actors are all highly skilled and well known in Philly, both for serious and comedic roles. It may SEEM like the play is about one guy, but it isn't. It's an ensemble piece. We auditioned about 100 actors and went with the cream of the crop.

A.D. Amorosi: You held the first official preview of No Reservations on November 26. How did it go in terms of actor response to the stage and audience response to the play and its message?
Josh Piven: It went very well overall. Emails have been coming in and we've seen a nice bump in ticket sales. There were some technical issues - some items not falling when they were supposed to fall and so on - but those are things that only people who were already familiar with the show would notice. We had a sold out house which was really nice, and unusual for a preview. It was nice to see despite the weather. One person even started Tweeting to the Theater Alliance listserv during intermission--which is actually humorously ironic based on the plot and content of the play. Sorry, I should have said "spoiler alert."

A.D. Amorosi: What is next, for No Reservations? For your work? For you?
Josh Piven: Hard to say with No Res. Our pre-sales have been really solid. So if we get good feedback, then we will obviously try to make it an annual thing. Listen, if Santaland Diaries can do it, we can do it. And then, who knows? I would love to see it do well enough so we could move it to other cities. And I'm quite certain the producers want that too. Next up is Muddled, the play I mentioned earlier about the 80s with a solidly hipster vibe. Then maybe another play, Reformation, which is tale of an East Coast, big-city mayor, fighting a shrinking tax base and a disagreeable  City Council, who looks to gambling to save his crumbling metropolis. I know, it sounds totally ridiculous.

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No Reservations runs Friday, November 29 through December 15 at The Skybox @ The Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom Street, 3rd Floor, 267.225.7175. Tickets are $18 to $25 and are available online at BrownPaperTickets.com

Photo courtesy of Josh Piven

Posted on Friday, November 29, 2013