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On the Couch

by Rebecca M. Alvin

When John Markus came up with the idea for The Empaths, which will have its world premiere at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) this week, he was engaged in the process of online dating. “I have been single for 7 years on and off and I do what any normal single person does these days, which is I go online to try to meet people,” he explains. “In an online meeting you exchange texts, and if that’s successful you go to a phone call. And during some phone calls, I found myself doing something, which is if it really clicked and we seemed to get along and there was a nice flow to the conversation,  I would say to the person on the other line, ‘this is going so well, let’s skip the first date and go right into couples counseling.’ And if they laughed, I would go out with them… Most of the time people had a sense of humor about that. And the more regular the laughs [became], the more I thought, ‘this is a play.’”

The end result is a play about Celine, a privileged 30-something who meets the man she thinks is “the one” in Lichen, a sensitive, highly evolved guy. In an effort to make sure things go well, she tricks him, and her therapist, into having their first six dates in therapy, secluded from the outside world.

The Empaths will have its world premiere at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) this week, a place Markus had previously premiered his other play The Fabulous Lipitones in 2014. Markus was drawn to WHAT by its artistic director Jeffrey George, who is directing The Empaths and has been involved with this play since it was in the reading stage. “He really gets it,” says Markus. “The Empaths is about the human condition and specifically relationships that are familial relationships and romantic relationships.”

Markus is no stranger to theater, but he has had a long and successful career in television, writing for sitcoms, including Taxi, The Cosby Show, and A Different World. He has also produced for television and co-created the Al Franken show Lateline. But when writing The Empaths, he worked with co-writer Rebecca Bazell, an accomplished journalist who has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other publications, but had never written a play before.

The two met at a party and hit it off, although not romantically. Because they shared some of the same sensibilities around comedy, Markus told Bazel his idea for The Empaths and asked her to co-write.“Initially, he said, ‘would you be interested in writing the female role?’ And then, as we started going, we kind of switched back and forth and ended up doing something very different,” recalls Bazell.

“The Empaths is about the human condition and specifically relationships that are familial relationships and romantic relationships.” 

John Markus
Photo: Ken Goodman

The difficulty of finding a suitable mate is not a new concept, but there is something particularly 21st-century about the plot of The Empaths. Bazell says the character of Lichen is modeled on the kinds of men she met when she was single and living  in San Francisco, which she describes as “this new breed of men, which I had not met before in New York, which is very open and into polyamory and exploring new sexuality and gender roles. I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, so it was not something I understood,” she says.

But also, Bazell says the play was written at a time when Markus and she (and a whole lot of other people) were pretty sure Hillary was going to be our next president. At the time, she says, “It would be a play about how the American male has been supplanted, and their reactions to it. And then when that didn’t happen, we had to really look at reframing the play, because that’s not funny anymore when Trump is president. So we had to kind of tweak it to fit into today… to what this kind of male would be like now.”

Also, while the idea of couples therapy has been around for decades and is no longer seen as unusual, the idea of trying to kind of craft one’s soulmate and control a relationship, customizing it as you would a social media profile, feels very now. And the stereotypical Millennial obsession with the self, coupled with past generations’ acceptance of therapy as an inevitable part of life also creates a new kind of dilemma in trying to find one’s perfect match.

“Although I am a big supporter of therapy and how it’s enriched my life, there is a risk to the exploration of our own personal lives and histories in trying to make us whole, which is the goal of it,” says Markus. “You start tinkering with what you’ve got and things are going to change.”

The Empaths will be onstage at WHAT, 2357 Rte. 6, Wellfleet, Wednesdays through Mondays, July 20 – August 19, at 8 p.m. (There is no show Monday, July 24 and there is an added show Tuesday, July 25). For tickets ($20 – $35/$12 students) and information call 508.349.9428 or visit


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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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