“Islander,” a skewed look at a New York Islanders season, examines extreme fandom, violence and the thrill of sports.
Hockey is a brutal game: In what other sport are missing teeth a badge of honor? Not that Liza Birkenmeier and Katie Brook were in any danger of losing Chiclets as they stared down a puck: Not only were they playing air hockey instead of the ice-rink version, but they also seemed to prefer huddling on the same side of the table rather than face each other.
Clearly Birkenmeier, a playwright, and Brook, a director, like being on the same team. They started working together almost 10 years ago and their fruitful collaboration includes the well-received “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” and the new “Islander,” a skewed look at the New York Islanders’ fateful 2017-18 season, when the team failed to make the playoffs and its star, John Tavares, was about to become a free agent. (The show was originally slated for March 2020 and opened Saturday at HERE Arts Center.)
There have been quite a few sports-themed plays by women in recent years, most notably Sarah DeLappe’s soccer-centric hit “The Wolves” and Lydia R. Diamond’s portrait of a barrier-shattering baseball player, “Toni Stone,” but they have focused on the female athletic experience.
“Islander,” on the other hand, zeros in on “dudes doing dude stuff,” as Birkenmeier put it. An extreme version of dude stuff: Professional hockey is “unhinged and violent and white,” she said. In other words, it provides a fine lens through which to look at modern masculinity and its discontents.
To do so, Birkenmeier, 35, and Brook, 39, pulled lines from game commentary and analysis, and podcasts like “Islanders Anxiety.” Then those sources were edited into a quasi-monologue for a composite character referred to simply as Man (David Gould) — so “Islander” is also a sly reflection on solo shows by the likes of Eric Bogosian and Spalding Gray.
There is a certain affection, too, as Birkenmeier and Brook enjoy watching hockey, not just using it as a decoder ring for male behavior. A few days before previews started, the two women turned up at a Brooklyn games emporium for a chat about pucks and violence. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
The show’s narrator is obsessive, whiny, triumphant, analytical, bellicose, despondent — all the stages of fandom. What impression are you trying to create?
LIZA BIRKENMEIER We’re highlighting the ridiculousness of his struggle as opposed to empathizing with it.
KATIE BROOK We’re leaning into the haplessness of it: It’s not a hero’s journey, although he thinks it is. The dance we do is to engage the audience enough that you think you’re going along with him and then you kind of back off.
Do you think professional sports foster a kind of stereotypical masculinity, or do they help channel it so the rest of us are a little bit safer?
BROOK [Laughs] It’s a good outlet but it also reinforces things that I think are bad. Amateur sports are actually wonderful and must be kept separate in some ways, but professional sports, in part just because of the basics of capitalism, have to be violent and extreme. Basketball is not that way.
BIRKENMEIER Or baseball. Hockey really points to a sort of dignity culture: If somebody gets in your goalie’s way, it’s part of the game to go up and punch that guy. It’s part of the sensationalism. I do think it’s very poisonous. The ideas of legacy and dignity and loyalty come up so violently.
Why do you think theater hasn’t really tackled hard-core fandoms, either in sports or pop culture, considering the huge part they play in modern life?
BROOK I don’t think there’s a lot of satire in theater these days. That may be part of it. Also a well-made play is based on things that we should all be able to relate to, like real estate. A lot of them hinge on the loss of the family home or whatever — some big events that everyone can agree is a big deal. But people can’t really relate to most obsessions. Those people are all on the same page about how important it is — it’s for them, not for us.
BIRKENMEIER Sometimes we underestimate that sports is better theater: It’s so much like a play except you literally don’t know what’s going to happen and somebody has to win. A hockey game as a community event is potentially more exciting than a play.
BROOK Well, most people think that.
What was it like researching the show?
BIRKENMEIER Watching the games at bars, I would sit and take notes and men would quiz me. They wouldn’t believe that I was into it. They would ask, “Who’s your favorite player?”
BROOK That’s a softball question.
BIRKENMEIER It is, and often they’d be like, “Is your favorite player John Tavares?” Or ask me what I thought of the last game. Or ask me what I thought of the new or old management, or whose contract was going to be up.
BROOK Insulting flirting: They want to show that they’re smarter than you, but it’s supposed to be a flirtation.
BIRKENMEIER Oh my God, I never took it as flirtation! I would have been more flattered. One guy was really excited about the play.
Did you go to many games as well?
BROOK We went to a bunch of games in Brooklyn and no one was there. After John Tavares left the [Islanders] and joined the [Toronto] Maple Leafs, I went to Nassau Coliseum at the first game against the Leafs and it was horrific. The fans were so angry, they kept yelling “We don’t need you!” every time John came on the ice. It was scary, actually. It’s not a show about violence but there is a sort of underlying fear that this guy [the narrator] is threatening, somehow.
BIRKENMEIER I generally think it’s important to be funny. It’s very easy to take this and to take a serious skewering look at it.
BROOK No one needs to suffer right now.
BIRKENMEIER Let’s have fun, you know?