God Bless the US


Last night, after a weekend's worth of rehearsals, I was involved in another staged reading of Justin Warner's play, American Whupass. (You may recall my last encounter with this play [and with the dude from Clerks] over a year ago.) When last we left American Whupass, it was slotted to be performed in New Jersey in the fall of this year. Since I hadn't heard anything more about this production since, I thought to myself, "Aw. They found someone else. Aw. Poop." Exactly like that. I enjoy the play very much, and continually find new things to pursue in portraying "my" character in it, Terry Bowen, campaign-manager savant extraordinaire. To my pleasant surprise--and, I'm sure, Justin's extreme frustration--the play was dropped from production, which is why I hadn't heard hide nor hair since, until Justin emailed me asking me to audition for a new group producing a reading of it. Theatre Resources Unlimited is producing staged readings in the next month for a panel of producers to provide feedback, and AW was put up in this series last night.

The venue is an interesting one. By and large, the intention of the reading series is to give feedback on producing a given play; that is, getting it up in a venue, marketing it, etc. This means that for the first time we were performing the play without the intention of getting feedback for improving the script itself. We were hoping to present the best product possible, in order to win over producers interested in doing just that. It remains to be seen where the play will get next as a result, but Justin is a brilliant worker, and there's little doubt that he'll pursue its production to the last. Incidentally, Friend Todd is appearing in the third installment in this series, which is the conflict that prevents him from joining Zuppa del Giorno in Italy this month. Small enough, world?

I had a hell of a good time working on this play again. I always do, but this time was different in many ways. We've never had so much time to work on the play itself in prelude to performing it, and we had a very insightful and professional director in Nancy Robillard, who saw me personally through a lot of discoveries about my role. (To top it all off, we were rehearsing in a penthouse in Tribeca, which ain't half bad. Bill Fairbairn was amongst our cast, and his apartment ain't half bad, lemme tell you.) American Whupass is a play that deals in logical absurdities, yet it's all grounded in real-life examples and motivations. I've written about its unique quality before, so I won't go on at length, but I will take a moment to observe that it's strange that such a quality should be so unique. People love this brand of comedy, at once ridiculous, yet perfectly believable. It goes back to ancient Greece. Why should it be so rare these days?

It all went down at The Players Theatre, a cool space with a narrow seating area that was very evocative of a sense of depth. (Of course, no backstage space to speak of because we are, after all, talking about New York real estate.) I think the reading went well. We had some good audience reactions, and Friend Kira was in attendance to provide some complimentary words afterwards. It's just possible, though, that I played my role a little too close to the cuff.

Bowen is a duplicitous dude who starts out seeming very Johnny America, only to reveal more and more his win-at-any-cost perspective. I've played him variously over a span of nearly three years now (That's nearly like a quasi-successful sitcom [if said sitcom just featured the same episode with minor variations over and over again]!), and what appealed to me at first is still my favorite aspect: He believes in what he's doing, and that the results make him "the good guy." An actor can get down with that, man! It's also great to play him completely straight in the beginning, when he seems pure, with an awareness of his orchestrations behind the scenes.

However, the play has a kind of "avalanche of absurdity" effect, integrated not only into the writing but also into the dramatic action, and I think I missed the boat on riding that this time around. My affection for playing Bowen straight should have relented a bit more, and I should have let myself get a bit more wrapped up in the action. A classic example: When the daughter of the senator Bowen is trying to keep in the Senate enters the race against him, Bowen tells the senator, "You've got to stop her before it's too late, Wayne. There is no template for this. No template!" I understand this moment implicitly. It's best when "No template!" comes screeching out almost involuntarily. The man's career hangs in the balance, not to mention the public safety of hundreds of the senator's constituents. On Monday, I played the line very sincerely, but failed to allow my voice to crack, which is something that has happened in every other reading of the scene I've ever done. A small thing, to be sure. The devil is in the details.

To what do I attribute this change? I'm so glad I asked. I've been mulling it over for a little while, and have a few possible explanations. The first, and simplest, is just as I've said above: I'm enamored of playing the character straight. He functions well in this way and, oddly enough, feels more loathsome to me by the end (which I relish). The second is that I may be making this change in my performance in general these days; as I grow older, I'm looking for subtler cues and effects, ways of accomplishing the same things without as much noisy energy as I might have opted for in earlier years. This venerable-sounding choice should also be viewed in the light of fairly regular feedback I've received over the years that my choices as an actor need to be "toned down," or that I need to be "calmed down" for a straight play. In other words, the choice may not be all chosen. So we'll call that point of possible explanation "second-point-five." Third and lastly, it may just be my body feeling different. I can't deny that the sensations from my body are a huge part of my acting, and in recent years (be it a result of age or injury or what-have-you) I've needed to work more to generate that more-manic energy that drives screwball comedy.

I'd like to find a way in to that energy again for myself. Recently I've responded better to the clown work in part, I think, because it contains built-in silences and a sensitive response. Sure, it can be back-breaking and impulsive, too, but it feels essentially sensitive to me. Screwball is different, and it's something I can do very well. I don't ever want to lose that. In reading Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of, I gained a new perspective on how our supposed definitions of high- and low-brow culture came about. As a young nation, we screwed that up pretty good, in my opinion, and have stuck to it. Redeem screwball, friends. Go a little crazy now and then.
 
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