Profile: Partial Comfort Productions
The downtown troupe is dedicated to new plays with an edge.
Tue Sep 13 2011
Photograph: Yindi Vatanavan
Every summer for the past ten years, Molly Pearson and Chad Beckim have spent a week on retreat with members of Partial Comfort Productions, the Off-Off Broadway troupe they founded in the fall of 2001 devoted to that often-thankless task of developing and producing new work. From morning till night, writers, directors and actors workshop plays in bucolic locales from Vermont to the Berkshires to Connecticut. Much has stayed the same, but the past decade has brought notable change to the late-night routine.
"We used to all go sit by a bonfire, stay up way too late, drink too much wine, but that's not happening anymore," says Pearson, 31, who brought her baby along this year. "Now people are like, 'I'm gonna have my tea and go to sleep.'"
Members of Partial Comfort may have grown up over the past decade, but the company is still modest in size and scope. There are no administrative offices (unless you count the Cobble Hill apartments of Pearson and Beckim), the productions are Equity showcases (meaning actors receive stipends instead of salaries), and when contributions declined after the 2008 financial crisis, Pearson and Beckim cut back to one show a year. However, last year that production was one of the season's unexpected surprises. Samuel D. Hunter's A Bright New Boise, about a religious zealot's search for the son he gave up, earned critical praise and extended its run briefly. It won an Obie and was nominated for three Drama Desk Awards, propelling Partial Comfort to a new level of recognition.
They're trying to build on that this month with the world premiere of Beckim's play After., in which a 34-year-old man tries to rebuild his life when he's exonerated by DNA evidence following 17 years in prison. Work, family, dating, even going to the movies are fresh and foreign experiences. "It's about starting over and having to relearn everything," says Beckim, 38, after a rehearsal. "If you have someone who's a loner and then gets shut in with all these men who've done unspeakable things, how do you navigate the beginnings of friendship or sexual relations or even a love interest?"
Beckim began After. four years ago, when he read about a man who'd been exonerated after years behind bars and caught an episode of Oprah about prisoners training service dogs, something his protagonist, Monty, does. Still, the story eluded him until it came to fruition at a retreat. Five of the play's six roles were written for the company members who are playing them, but Beckim recalls that it still took some wooing until he could persuade Alfredo Narciso—who just understudied Bobby Cannavale in The Motherf**ker with the Hat on Broadway—to do a showcase.
"Part of it was because Alfredo knew it was written for him," says Beckim, noting that Partial Comfort won't produce a play unless at least half the cast, the playwright and director come from the 53-member roster. "Otherwise, you're just a producing organization, which is not what we're doing." Indeed, Pearson and Beckim, who met through an ad she placed in Back Stage while trying to form a company, cite membership companies like Steppenwolf and Naked Angels as inspirations.
Although they chose the title of a Dorothy Parker poem as their designation because, as Pearson explains, "We liked the way it sounded, kind of cool and edgy," she adds that "it has come to define our aesthetic, which is that the work should be partially comforting. Not just edgy or angry or violent—there's heart and humanity and empathy and understanding."
In the beginning, Pearson and Beckim hoped to create acting opportunities for themselves, but both have since moved into other areas (playwriting, teaching drama and coaching basketball for Beckim, and film producing and teaching producing for Pearson). Still, Partial Comfort remains an important part of their lives; Beckim even has a tattoo of its logo on his back.
As the company evolves, Pearson would love to have what she terms "grown-up money," but she refuses to get defensive about professional status. "I don't apologize for the level," she declares. "When we were starting out, we were like, 'Oh, it's an Equity showcase, sorry.' Now I'm like, it's a damn good play—and obviously you've got to do jobs that pay your rent—but it's a chance for you to create a good role, and that's really exciting."