Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Searching For Certainty (Spring 2000-Winter 2003/Spring 2010)

Some projects feel like projects. Others feel like your life. This falls in the latter category. It single-handedly shaped a decade of my existence. I am overwhelmed at the thought of trying to track this journey.

This play is what prompted my move to LA. It introduced me to a whole new circle of friends, Larry Clarke and Jeff Donovan in particular. It vaulted the possibility in my professional life to a whole new level. I know the reality of my career but if it hadn't been for this play I shudder to think what might have been.

In fact, I just returned from New York where a film version is currently being shot. So a decade after the first staged reading I just did my first SAG film work on it. Amazing.

Searching For Certainty:

My cousin Mike wrote this searing examination of the modern courtship. Before we put up the actual Los Angeles production which still reverberates to all those who were in it or saw it, we did staged reading after staged reading, many in New York and one week-long workshop in Cleveland.

For anyone who thinks writing a great play is an easy task, they would do well to track the progress of this particular work. It went through transformation after transformation as Mike attempted to wrestle the three-pronged story into the perfect final shape.

The plot is deceptively simple. Dom and Deb are engaged and about to embark on the Pre-Cana retreat required by the Catholic Church for all those to be married in the faith. The communication exercises used to foster closeness wind up revealing secrets that threaten their relationship to its core. The priest who is running the retreat attempts to help them wade through the dark corners without splitting up.

From the beginning I played the part of Kevin, Dom's oldest best friend, a singer-songwriter from Providence, Rhode Island who is drowning in a sea of booze and shallow relationships. I know, I know, I am from Rhode Island, I am a singer-songwriter, but Mike invented this guy whole cloth. He is lewd, obnoxious, leering, sexist, infantile and endearing to an almost dangerous degree. His charm and humor have buffered him from having to deal with the reality of his life.

Kevin is obsessed with an old college friend named Betsy. They had one of those relationships unique to college in which you spend all of your time with someone who still has a boyfriend or girlfriend. Kevin in a fit of drunken bravery and self-pity bared his soul, admitted his love and scared Betsy off. They haven't spoken in nine years.

Also factoring in to the story is Dom's younger sister Melissa, uneasily married to Roddy, a garrulous whirlwind of a software salesman. She has recently lost a great deal of weight and begun to pursue her dream of becoming an actress, much to Roddy's chagrin. Her secret, revealed in the penultimate scene of the play, threatens to derail two relationships and her own with her brother.

Some details of the play have shifted as it has moved to the screen, a fascinating process which I could write eight other posts about!

I am proud to say that I did readings of this play with some of the best and most accomplished actresses of this generation. Kate Walsh. Annie Parisse. Miriam Shor. Callie Thorne and then in the actual Los Angeles performance Missy Yager. It still blows me away.

As we moved to take the play to Cleveland, they held auditions for the first time. I actually auditioned for Kevin and Dom as well.

Up to that point, Mike had read Dom in several of the readings. But he was not interested in acting in the play, he wanted to be able to watch and take in what needed to change, what worked.

Thus Jeffrey Donovan came into our lives. In the loving vernacular of my family, what a douche.

From the first rehearsal it was clear that he was a force to be reckoned with. He was a Massachusetts kid and instinctively got the rhythms inherent in the piece. I've since see him take on wildly different roles and realized that this acumen had nothing to do with the place of his origin. He's just a great fucking actor. His success is not accidental.

The reading in Cleveland went well but Mike basically went back to the drawing board afterward. We'd thought there might be a production following right on the heels but Mike wasn't satisfied with the state of the script. Plus he was a teensy bit busy being the center of a hit sitcom.

But he found the time and chiseled away at the play until he was ready to pull the trigger.

So. 2003. January. Peter Askin, who had directed the reading in Cleveland and fostered the readings in New York, was going to direct a full on production in Los Angeles.

I stayed at the infamous Oakwood Apartments near Universal City. A complex nestled into the base of a hill, it houses all sorts of people in town working on various projects. There are full time residents but the overall vibe is one of a live-in hotel. I saw my first coyote in the driveway late one night.

I pulled into town and went right to Mike's house. Mike gave me a group of songs to listen to that he had used as inspiration while in the midst of his latest rewrite. He told me to go out to the guest house and listen to the whole thing. I hadn't heard most of the songs and they were so apt, piercing directly to the core of this character's heartbreak that I burst into tears listening to the very first song.

Also at play in the power of my emotional response was the sense that this would be a giant moment for me professionally. I'd had near miss after near miss and was, quite frankly, floundering in New York without really knowing it. To be whisked out of my surroundings to work on this play which was so near and dear to me was like the kid pulling his thumb out of the dyke. I was a raw nerve.

Mike also asked that I write a short melody for Jeff Donovan to sing...Dom sings a line back at Kevin from a song he'd written about Betsy..."Her name was Betsy..." Mike needed a tune for Donovan to mock me with. He'd asked Jon Leahy and Shark to come up with a musical snippet as well. But I was so invested in this play that I wound up writing a full song that day in the guest house.

Within one hour of arriving at Mike's I'd had a nervous breakdown and written a song.

I called it QE3.

The rehearsal period was very short but most of us were very familiar with the material by this point. We opened after an intense but painless two and a half week process.

A veritable who's who of Hollywood sat in the tiny dusty ramshackle theater in Hollywood. I remember telling Mike just to keep whoever was coming that night to himself until after the play. I'd blow a gasket if I knew.

Because Jeff had booked a big TV gig, we could only run the play for two weekends, a total of eight performances. It seems impossible in retrospect. I still, more than seven years later, get compliments from people about that show. And not the garden variety "Great job" comments. No, Mike's play elicits much stronger thoughts.

People say things like, "I wound up breaking up with my boyfriend after that play." Or "I decided to ask my girlfriend to marry me after that play." Or "I started to think about God again and it freaked me out." Things of that nature. It is not a small play.

Now, the material success that was intimated by the impact of this play did not pan out for me. Probably because it was all I was focusing on. But when I think about the payoff that this play has had in my life my mind boggles. Lifelong friendship, continued fruitful collaboration, support through difficult times...what more can you ask for?

Oh, yeah, how about a part in a movie? How's that for a cherry on top of a ten year sundae?