When The Chameleon opens next week at Theater J, DC theatergoers will have a chance to find out why New Yorkers are raving about Jenny Rachel Weiner, a wickedly funny playwright who uses laughter to illuminate complicated issues.
In this case, the issue in the spotlight is assimilation and the havoc it can wreak on identity.
In The Chameleon, the central character—an actor who has disavowed her Judaism in order to hide or blend in—must decide to stand up for who she is or risk disappearing.
The character, who is part of a large Jewish family, has just won the starring role in The Chameleon, a big action film in which a nebbishy female is able to turn, in an instant, into an all-powerful hero, hailed by the public for her lifesaving deeds.
“Of course, it’s the typical immigrant’s fantasy,” Weiner laughed, as we talked about the play in an interview conducted over the telephone and screen.
“I wanted to create a Jewish superhero—a female Superman if you will—who could blend into the anonymity of the crowd but stand out once her special powers are revealed. It’s also about identity,” she added.
Although The Chameleon is Weiner’s tenth play to be produced, it’s the first to have its world premiere at a Washington theater.
“Why Theater J?” I asked.
“That’s easy,” she replied. “First, it’s a very, very Jewish play. There are eight characters spanning four generations, and they’re often seen around a dinner table, eating Chinese takeout in honor of a Jewish Christmas. So ‘the J’—as we call it—is a logical setting.
“Second, and even more important, this is a play that demanded a great leap of faith. Theater J’s artistic director, Hayley Finn, came on with such a strong belief in the play that I couldn’t say no.
“Also, the play needed work, and it needed someone like Hayley, with passion and spirit, to bring it to life,” she added, explaining that the play, while boldly theatrical and audacious, tackled the very difficult topic of representation, or who we are or how we want to be seen.
Last, the timing was right.
That’s because the Writers Guild strike, which caused so much havoc in the entertainment industry, turned out to be a boon for someone like Weiner, who writes for both the stage and screen. (So far, she’s completed three screenplays and four TV scripts in addition to nearly a dozen plays.)
In fact, it’s because of the writers’ strike, that she—and many other playwrights who double as screenwriters—have been able to return to the stage and devote the time needed to craft a professional production.
“In the old days,” she pointed out, “writing for Hollywood was considered ‘selling out,’ but nowadays the disciplines overlap. Both formats involve creativity and a similar skill set.”
Here in Washington, she said, “I’m having the time of my life.” Normally based in Brooklyn, she and her husband—lighting designer and theater consultant Ryan Seelig—and their toddler son, Eli, are currently ensconced in an apartment in nearby Logan Circle.
“The Chameleon is about assimilation and the risk it poses of losing one’s identity,” she explained. “That loss is the other side of the assimilation coin. It’s the price people pay for blending in.”
Looking at her own family, she asked, rhetorically, “Are we assimilated? Definitely. Are we still Jews? Absolutely!”
Like many others of her background and age, Weiner is a descendant of immigrants. Her great-grandparents came from Eastern Europe, where they were Orthodox but not especially religious. They were outsiders due to language and customs.
By the time her parents came along—two generations later—they had begun to assimilate, joining the Conservative movement and becoming active members of an American Jewish community.
“My siblings and I did the whole thing—religious school, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, seders, high holidays,” she said. “But we were under no pressure to conform.”
As adults, she and her husband have chosen a Reform synagogue—Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope—where they are active members of the congregation.
“We’re practicing our own version of Judaism,” she said. “Judaism is a very important part of my life. As a family, we’re deeply connected, bound by love and food and shtick.”
Now 36, Weiner grew up in Florida—“the sixth borough of New York City,” she quipped—in Coral Springs, where her family moved when she was three. By the age of five, she was acting and singing in community theater.
“Theater was always my passion,” she said. “I wanted to be an actor. But it took a while to realize that writing, not acting, was my calling.”
The turning point came in her junior year at Boston University, where she was pursuing a fine arts degree. She took a course in monologue writing with Lydia Diamond, a renowned playwright as well as a professor at the college.
When Weiner performed a monologue that she’d written for the class, the playwright/professor pulled her aside. “You’re a writer,” she said. “That’s who you are.”
Following that pronouncement, Weiner took a playwriting class during her senior year and wrote her first play. “When I found out that Ellie Heyman—who was then getting her MFA in directing—was looking for a project for a school production, I offered my own play. It was accepted,” she said, still sounding awed.
The project turned into what was basically a crash course in playwriting. Heyman, who has since then collaborated with Weiner on many plays—including The Chameleon—subsequently worked on remounting the play the following year. It won the National Student Playwriting Award at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival in 2010.
Weiner, however, was still waffling between writing and acting as a career. She was performing on stage in Chicago when she met Josh Harmon, author of Bad Jews and the upcoming Prayer for the French Republic. He urged her to accept an offer from Fordham University’s Inaugural MFA Playwriting Program.
“He said, ‘You have to do this! You’re one of the funniest people in the world!’” With that, she decided to pull up her roots, move to New York, and pursue playwriting full-time.
In 2016, Weiner—by then off and running as a playwright—was selected for the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at the Julliard School.
The highly prestigious program was targeted at emerging writers—people, like her, who had already begun a playwriting career—and only five people were admitted.
“In fact, it was Morgan who introduced me to Ryan,” she said, describing Seelig—who is the lighting designer for The Chameleon—as “the most amazing man.”
The two were married in 2021 and are now the parents of Eli, who—at 22 months—already shows signs of following the family tradition. “He’s a comedian too,” she said. “Eli and I have a whole routine. We dance and sing and laugh at each other’s jokes.”
Humor runs in the family, she reflected. “My grandfather was the funniest man I’ve ever met. I’ve always been a comic writer and actor. And now Eli is joining the act!”
Now that the writers’ strike is over and The Chameleon is ready to open, Weiner and her family will be returning to New York. Asked what she would be working on when she returned, she emailed a list of tentative projects.
“I’ll be working on two of my original pilot scripts,” she wrote, “plus developing a new TV show for Hulu; finishing an Audible Original script; working on pitches for a brand-new film and TV show, and working on a novel adapted from one of my tv shows!”
She’ll also be spending some quality time in Brooklyn with Ryan, Eli, and a dog named Murphy Brown.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Chameleon plays October 16 through November 5, 2023, at Theater J at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($50–$70, with member and military discounts available) online or by calling the ticket office at 202-777-3210.
The program for The Chameleon is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for Thursday evening and Saturday matinee performances. For more information, visit Theater J’s COVID Safety Guidelines.