Interview: Playwright Karen Rizzo and MUTUAL PHILANTHROPY at NJ Rep

By: Oct. 15, 2017

New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) presents the East Coast premiere of Karen Rizzo's Mutual Philanthropy directed by Evan Bergman. The cast includes Joe Carlson, Laurel Casillo, and Jim MacDonald. The play is a comedy that blows the neighborhood watch whistle on the power plays and prejudices seething secretly beneath the California cool of a community transitioning from working class to billionaire bohemian.

Lee, a struggling and gifted artist, and his breadwinning wife, Esther, live in the ethnically diverse East Los Angeles enclave of Mount Washington, where Esther grew up. So do their friends Charles and Michelle, more recent arrivals with big plans and big money for making the neo-hip neighborhood even 'nicer.' Both couples' kids attend the same top public school; they shop at the same Trader Joe's; they share similar views on social issues and a passion for contemporary art. In fact, Lee is near certain that Charles is about to buy one of his large sculptures. With so much in common, what could go wrong over a cozy home dinner hosted by Charles and Michelle? Pretty much everything, once the one difference they all like to pretend does not matter is pried open wide by manipulation, temptation, resentment, and too much to drink. had the pleasure of interviewing playwright Karen Rizzo about her career and Mutual Philanthropy.

Karen Rizzo's stories and essays (one of which garnered a Western Publishing Association's MAGGIE award for Best Essay) have been featured in numerous publications including The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Publishers Weekly, Beatrice, a couple Random House anthologies of women's humor, on NPR and at L.A.'s ongoing reading series Literary Death Match, Vermin on The Mount, Personal Space and True Stories. She is the author of the Los Angeles Times summer reading pick Famous Baby and Things to Bring, S#!t to Do..., a BookSense non-fiction pick of the year. Her plays have been performed at NYC's Ensemble Studio Theatre, Samuel Beckett Theatre, Playwrights Horizon's Theatre School, and in Los Angeles at Arcade and Ensemble Studio Theatre/L.A. Mutual Philanthropy was a semi-finalist for the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Conference and had its West Coast premiere at EST/L.A. Karen lives with her husband and two children in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.

When did you first start writing?

Started writing as a teen, mostly very bad teen-angst stuff, but then I wrote my first play in college, even though I knew I was going to be an actor. So I wound up in NYC in my twenties, pursuing an acting career, and of course I did the requisite little plays and classes and showcases and soon found my way to Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST), where I became a member, still as an actor. I wound up in a kick-ass "writing class for actors creating their own work" taught by Leslie Ayvazian, where I wrote a mini one-woman show that I performed at EST. Then I wrote a short play that I was also in, and then another (again, for me), and then I wound up here, in Los Angeles-my then-boyfriend and I drove out for a three month visit...20 years ago.

Tell us a little bit about your education and how it influenced your work.

I didn't have TV writing on my mind (unfortunately, perhaps), instead I wrote a short story that was published by the first place I sent it to-it appeared in a Random House anthology of women's humor-so that spurred me on. I married the boyfriend and had my first kid, an event which became the biggest influence on my writing. I delved into the personal essay genre and wrote several very long pieces for the LA Times-all of which featured my son or our old and tiny home or a girlfriend or my spouse as central characters. I had another kid and settled solidly into personal essay writing. I sold a book based on lists and Short Personal essays, and then I sold a novel. When my kids were a bit older I was able to get back involved with EST, this time in Los Angeles, where I started writing theatre pieces again, which is also where I workshopped Mutual Philanthropy.

What inspired Mutual Philanthropy?

Mutual Philanthropy came about through experiences with having kids in local schools. It actually started out, in part, as a personal essay, but in talking to my husband one night we came up with a "what if" scenario involving two couples brought together by their young kids being best friends. It made us laugh, because we delved into a completely absurdist version (fueled by some cheap red wine), but then the next day I couldn't stop thinking about the concept and I started writing scenes for a play. And I kept working on it. Eventually EST-LA opened its fall 2016 season with it.

How do you like working with NJ Rep?

New Jersey Rep is, like, the dream destination. Everyone, from SuzAnne and Gabe-the artistic directors-to my director Evan Bergman, to the whole artistic team and playhouse staff, is so smart and chill and supportive. It really is like a family. It doesn't hurt that the company house is walking distance to the Jersey shore.

Anything else, absolutely anything you would like our readers to know.

It ought not go without saying that we found the perfect cast (thanks to casting director Judy Bowman), but I should also mention that said husband happened to originate-and is currently featured in-the role of Charles...playing against type, of course.

For more information on Karen Rizzo, visit her web site at

Previews for Mutual Philanthropy begin Thursday, October 19. Opening night with reception is Saturday, October 21. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 2pm, through November 19. Tickets are $46 (opening night, $50; premium seating +$5), available at 732-229-3166 or online at

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Karen Rizzo