How ‘Invasive Species’ Built Big Downtown Buzz for Writer-Star Maia Novi’s Off Broadway Debut

Buzz for the new play “Invasive Species” infiltrated the downtown New York theater scene like a swarm of spotted lanternflies. Maybe you noticed one of those photos of Jennifer Lawrence wearing a ball cap bearing the play’s red logo. Or you caught clips of the star-studded opening-night performance, with Quinta Brunson, Chris Rock, Harvey Guillén and Morgan Spector all in the crowd. Or you came across the show on TikTok, where the production’s most watched post has racked up 4.8 million views.

Powered by savvy promotion and A-list connections, “Invasive Species” has made a sceney splash for its 28-year-old writer-star, Maia Novi. The New York-based Argentinian’s autobiographical debut play turns her disorienting real-life experience in a Yale psychiatric hospital into a frank, highly theatricalized roller-coaster ride that careens across reflections on mental health, family and a creative drive sparked by watching American movies.

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“In a way it’s the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to me,” Novi says of her 19-day stint in the hospital in the spring of 2022, just before she graduated from Yale’s David Geffen School of Drama. In the wake of a mental health crisis brought on by pre-graduation pressures and career concerns, the incident — “like a slap in the face, shocking but very invigorating” — propelled her to convert her candid diary entries from that time into a play. “Invasive Species” had a developmental run at The Tank in midtown Manhattan last year prior to its Off Broadway run this summer at the Vineyard Theatre downtown.

“From the start Maia definitely knew the energy and the hyper-ness that she wanted the play to have,” says director Michael Breslin, who helped give the diary entries a theatrical shape. He’s staged the show as a spare, propulsive production enhanced by precise lighting and sound design. “I thought about it almost like a piece of music.”

The play’s commercial run at the Vineyard is backed by executive producer Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright and screenwriter (“Zola”) with a knack for grabbing attention both for the shows he produces (like the Pulitzer-finalist multimedia play “Circle Jerk,” co-created by Breslin) and for his own work. His Tony-nominated “Slave Play” has drawn controversy-stirring criticism from the U.K. prime minister even before the start of its West End performances on June 29. This week Harris’ documentary “Slave Play. Not a Movie. A Play.” premiered at the Tribeca Festival.

Novi and Harris met at Yale when she acted in his senior thesis play. As a producer and a creator, Harris has always been upfront in his desire to remind people that “a play can be a party; a play can be sexy; a play can be fun.” “Invasive Species,” he says, fits that bill.

“Maia is a true live wire,” he explains. “She writes with such lucidity and freedom in a language that is not her native tongue, and it’s just astounding tome.”

A native of Buenos Aires who moved to the U.S. to attend Yale, Novi says her aesthetic is rooted in the edgy experimental theater she grew up on in her native country. She cites Michaela Coel, Rosalía and David Lynch as inspirations for their boundary-breaking, fearless, often confrontational work.

“People are afraid of avant-garde these days,” Novi laments. “Be abject! Have some contradiction in you.”

As “Invasive Species” heads into the second month of its limited run, Novi and her collaborators are mulling interest from film and TV types, and also considering a run in London or stops in Europe and Latin America. And she’s developing a movie treatment of a thriller she co-wrote with her husband (and the dramaturg of “Invasive Species”) Amauta M. Firmino. She’s eager to explore the world of film and TV, but she vows to do it on her own terms.

“None of the artists I look up to think in boxes,” Novi says. “I can’t wait to be acting on camera, and I can’t wait to make it happen for myself.”

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