March 8, 2011

Daniel Bernstein ’14 Wakes Up

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Last Friday, the 2011 winner of the annual Heermans-McCalmon Playwriting Contest, Daniel Bernstein ’14, had a staged reading of his one act play Waking Up at the Flex Theatre of the Schwartz Center. The play touches on the very real consequences of one-night stands and the fast, thoughtless nature of the party scene.

Bernstein said he wanted he wanted the play to be “reflections of the touch and go at parties and the moments when the alcohol disappears.”  Bernstein considers this his first attempt to write something with more than a comedic quality. “I’ve always written comedies because that’s where my strength lies.” Humor remains the play’s strongest point, without a doubt. But the play is a dramatic comedy, and the problems facing his characters add depth to the play.

Waking Up is about a party and three pairs of people that hook up afterwards. The play begins with the three couples in their separate beds, awaking one by one. An exciting dynamism starts right away in this subtle set-up, as we see their lives in intimate relation, drawing the audience into the play through the relatable and innocent comedy.

The three couples tell three different stories, which grow in seriousness. One couple wakes up to discover genuine feelings for another. Another pair frets over a broken condom, and one leaves the other with a fake phone number. In the last case the woman remembers being date raped, and comes to a horrible realization about the identity of the man beside her.

Bernstein moves away from the simple touches of sitcom in his use of time, which also anticipates the emotional complexity that lends the play a darker tone. After the initial morning the set becomes that of last night’s party (we are asked to imagine the bench used for one of the beds as a couch). We see the relationships forming, but we do not stay in the party. The play constantly alternates between the morning, which progresses linearly, and scenes from the party chosen in no particular temporal order. What is remarkable is how well these transitions flow into each other. It is all too easy to lose the audience in a trick like this, but not once did the play offset the audience with the changes in time and place.

The play is still at its best in its lighter moments. The gay couple’s story stands out among the three — they realize after strong doubts that there is actual substance to their relationship. It’s happy ending contrasts the other three.

The more serious stories, especially if taken alone, are less interesting. While Bernstein succeeds in staying close to reality in the story of the mistaken hook-up, it becomes almost formulaic in its telling. And in recognizing the lover as a past rapist the play loses some of its realism. It’s not that this could never happen in life, but that it’s further removed than the other stories and more melodramatic. And though the dialogue works so well in the more humorous scenes, it loses some of its sparkle in its darker moments.

Bernstein said that these stories are composed of the kind of things that he and his friends have experienced during his time at Cornell. “I won’t say which one, but one of them is actually pretty close to something that really happened.”

The Heermans-McCalmon Playwriting Contest selects one undergraduate submission each fall for a performance in the spring. It is required that the play is about American life in some way. Bernstein mentioned what a great opportunity it was to work with the director, Peter Flynn, who is currently Artistic Director for the Hangar Theatre and has previously worked on Broadway. The award includes a prize of $500 dollars. “It was nice getting paid by the University for once,” Bernstein said. Benjamin Hennessey ’13 was awarded with the second place prize.

This is the third play of Bernstein’s to receive an award. Two earlier plays, Human Nature (2009) and A Series of Awkward Moments (2010), won Stagedoor Manor’s annual Dramafest Competition. Bernstein said that he had only begun to write seriously around three years ago, starting with Human Nature. “I kind of wrote it on a whim the night before it was due. I actually wrote it while I was here visiting Cornell. Fate I guess!”

Bernstein wrote Waking Up under similar time constraints. “I wrote it when I should have been studying for finals last semester, which is funny because I still did well on them. I wrote it in maybe two to three days, most of it during one morning.”

Along with his commitments in theater, Bernstein is double majoring in music and psychology. Right now he is directing the production of Lucky Stiff at the Risley Theatre.

Bernstein himself was all smiles on Friday. When I approached him to talk I had to cut off several people just to get him to recognize I was there. “Too many questions, too many questions!” he said. With all the recognition he has received recently, it would be no wonder if Daniel Bernstein felt a little overwhelmed. But with a play that so uniquely captures the stage, that innovates stories we all recognize through an intricate structure, it may be that this young playwright will just have to get used to the attention.

Original Author: Ian Walker Sperber