Friday, June 11, 2010

Sick (Spring: 2010)

Wow. A lifetime of plays and I've already reached the present. I just finished a run playing the role of Dr. Brown in the World Premiere of Erik Patterson's fantastic play "Sick" at the Los Angeles Theater Center.

Turns out that I would take the longest break between full productions ever in my life. Almost three and a half years passed between "Devotion" and the opening of "Sick".

Now, I kept as busy as I could during this time. Projects included a short spoof of movie review shows that I shot with Larry, several evenings of short plays from the Yo-Yo Theater company, several different evenings of sketch comedy through the infamous "Slap & Tickle" group and one offshoot of that "Saturn & Vine" in which Larry and I premiered our High-Talkin' Detectives in "The Finishers", and a lead role in a sweet sitcom pilot from the creator of Kate & Allie called "Little Women, Big Cars".

Plus I recorded and sold my song "Always Leaving Providence" to the Showtime series "Brotherhood" and recorded and released "Good Bye, New York" as a single on iTunes, accompanying that with an evening of songs about New York at the Bootleg Theater. Oh, yeah, and I performed in two evenings of music for charity, one using all Fugazi songs, one using all Pixies songs.

All this while parenting, dealing with the terrible illness and subsequent passing away of my wonderful father, and desperately trying to wrestle myself into some sort of acceptable shape, both physically and mentally.

Yikes. It has been a rough couple of years. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, got pneumonia and pleurisy, and discovered that I suffered from a chronic condition called "carotydina" which is an inflammation of the carotid artery.

I was rather overtaxed and did not feel like I could take on a full production.

That is, until Erik asked me to do "Sick".

I'd met Erik several years earlier at Tuesdays at 9, another creative outlet that I pursued fanatically in the intervening years. Naked Angels sponsors a cold reading series every Tuesday night at 9PM at St. Nick's Pub on 3rd St. near the Beverly Center. If you live in LA and haven't checked this out, I strongly urge you to do so.

Each week writers preview ten pages of whatever they are working on. Actors are handed the scripts almost at random before the night and then they read them cold. No rehearsal, no familiarization with the material, just instant show. There is also a musical guest each week that performs two songs. Which I also did a few times over the past couple of years.

This evening was my creative lifeline in the down time between all the aforementioned projects. It gave me the sense that I was pursuing my craft even if I had no professional proof of such. It was a weekly oasis of creativity in the desert of day jobs, mental struggle and financial worry.

Every time Erik showed up with material to be read something special would happen. His work is constantly surprising without being overtly so, deep without being ponderous, funny without resorting to shallow jokes and well-crafted without being predictable. Plus his subject matter varied wildly from piece to piece, something that I really responded to. I loved that you never knew what to expect.

But he never asked me to read for him! We were friendly enough, more so than I was with any of the other writers. He'd become a fan of my sister Sheila's blog so it always felt like he knew everything that was going on in my life!

In any case, Melody and I went to see a production of "He Asked For It" in West Hollywood. I'd seen excerpts of this play at Tuesdays and even so was not prepared for the emotional wallop he inflicted on us. There really was no part in it that I could have played but I joked with Erik afterward that he better put me in his next play, or at least let me do a reading of his stuff at Tuesdays.

Lo and behold, several months ago, Erik asked me to do a reading of "Sick" at the Los Angeles Theater Center. They'd chosen it to be a part of their season through Playwright's Arena. Playwright's Arena is dedicated to work written by Los Angeles writers that are set in Los Angeles as well. "Sick" fit that bill to a t.

The reading went well and Erik and the director Diane Rodriguez asked me to do the production. I felt as if the lag time between my last play and this one was worth it because I could unreservedly say that the play was worth it. I'd turned down other stuff over the years because of time commitments or laziness but in looking back I just must not have responded to the material. I wanted this part.

"Sick" tells the story of Pamela, a very young mom who is convinced she is dying. Her long suffering husband David has had it up to here with her delusions and has developed a crush on his sister-in-law, Carla. Carla is married to Pamela's brother Gary and she has just embarked on the 12-Step Program and kicked Gary out of the house in an effort to stay clean. Gary comes to stay with Pamela and David and their ten year old son Michael. I played Michael's pediatrician, Dr. Tim Brown.

I am not going to give too much of the plot away, seeing as this play has only been performed once in full production on the planet. Suffice it to say that Pamela's hypochondria sets in motion a series of events that threaten the family to its core.

Ironically enough I got really sick during rehearsal and was a veritable shell of myself for almost three of the five weeks of rehearsal that we had. But even this setback was something of an eye-opener for me. In the past I would have raged against this unfair development, why me? Why now? Why couldn't I catch a break when I needed it?

Instead I just hunkered down, conserved as much of my energy as I possibly could, and constantly reassured myself that I would be ready to go on opening night. And you know what? That's just what happened. I kicked the illness and caught up to the rest of the cast.

There were challenges as there are in any production. But overall it was one of the most relaxed enjoyable rehearsal periods I've ever encountered. Erik's play is so finely constructed that a lot of the work is done for you. All you have to do is say the words and everything unfolds.

I met some great new people, got to work with a playwright whose work I had admired from up close for over half a decade and performed a breast exam right on stage.

Could not ask for more.

Well, an agent would be nice but ten percent of nothing is nothing anyway. Who needs 'em?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Diverting Devotion (Fall: 2006)

Larry Clarke had begun dating a very talented writer/actress, Fielding Edlow. They'd done a production of "Miss Julie" together and had fallen in love. She was looking around for another play to do when she read "Diverting Devotion" by Mike O'Malley.

This play is why Larry is in the O'Malley universe...he'd played Henry opposite my cousin Kerry in the inaugural production at the Irish Arts Center in New York City. Kerry's performance as the foul-mouthed elementary school teacher on a date with the Larry's shell-shocked Henry ranks extremely high on my all-time big-laugh scale. He was so good he made me forget I had desperately wanted to play the part. She was so good she may have deterred any audience members who were considering a career in education.

In any case, Fielding flipped over the play. They approached Mike, he decided to re-write it and re-publish it as a new, different version. Larry would direct, Fielding would play Janice. Mike suggested that Melody would be a good choice to play the part of Nicole.

At the time Melody still lived in New York City and we were doing the long-distance thing. As I've alluded to in the past, hindsight allows me to see the many ways in which I was unable to truly perceive my own deep-seated issues. I was in desperate need of anger management training, diligent therapy in pursuit of that goal and wholesale changes in my body life (i.e. quitting smoking, eating right, working out, etc.).

Not being able to take any steps towards any kind of health, I was continually lashing out at Melody. I kept it from the public at large (until an opening night diva fit, unfortunately) but my rage was eroding any chance Melody and I had of being happy.

In spite of her misgivings on these counts, Melody took the leap and quit her job in New York to come to LA to do the play.

Larry filled out the rest of the cast as follows. An old friend of his who I'd only briefly met before, Michael Hurley, would play Sully. Terry Maratos would take on Henry, the part that Larry had played in NY. Jen DeMartino would play the foul-mouthed teacher Nancy, and Dee Ann Newkirk would play Carol.

I would give you a plot summary but the truth is that I hope you read it, read the updated version that Mike published through Samuel French. I am very proud to have my name on it, to have played a part in helping Mike rewrite it.

I am not proud, however, of how I acted during the play. I have come to a place of self-forgiveness about it so I'm not even going to go into detail. Suffice it to say that the stress of a production forced what had remained secret and reserved for Melody out into the open. I yelled. I raged. I behaved very badly.

I am lucky to have friends and family who have deep capacity for forgiveness and understanding.

Now, all that aside, this play is like a joyride from hell. The inexorability of the heartbreak is excruciating. Mike peppers laughter throughout at such an astonishing rate that once things start to turn sour it is like a sucker punch.

The final trilogy of scenes play out like a microcosm of every love story gone awry. Much like when we did "Certainty" the audience comments weren't specifically about the performances or play but about THEMSELVES. As in, "Oh my god, I was PETE in college. I was dating this girl..." Or "I was CAROL! I freaked out on this guy I was dating and etc. etc."

There is something in the way Mike unfolds relationship trauma that is universal. You watch his plays and look at each character and think, "That was me. That is me."

Now that a few years have passed and I've been able to leave a lot of my self-destructive behavior behind, I am able to look fondly on this production. I can forgive myself for my faults which threatened to derail everything. Everyone poured their heart and souls into it and left everything they had on the stage.

It just goes to show you that you can reach an audience with a great play and a great cast even if the behind-the-scenes stuff is fraught with tension and strife. And you can even keep your girlfriend and friends after you act like a total jackass and yell at everyone on opening night.

How lucky am I???

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Glory Pie (Spring: 2006)

After "Bloody Corsets/Body Count" I hit a rough patch personally. I was still years away from any kind of real internal change or acceptance of what my true issues were. This hamstrung me in ways I couldn't perceive. The biggest stress was the fact that Cashel had moved first to Maine and then Texas. I was not handling the separation very well.

He'd visited a few times, even helping to hand out programs at "Bloody Corsets/Body Count". I'd visited him as well but we were both deeply affected by the distance between us. His arrival in the fall was a great help.

Somehow I was called to audition for a new play called "Glory Pie". This was one of those times when I instantly knew that the part was mine. I might not get it, but I knew it was mine. The audition went very well and my instinct was correct.

"Glory Pie" opens with a couple dealing with the news that they are pregnant. Guests are expected at any minute, her sister and brother-in-law who are just about to go to China to adopt a baby girl. They are taking this course because they have not been able to conceive. My wife fears that her sister will not take the news of our natural conception well.

Complicating matters is the unexpected arrival of our new next-door neighbors, an Aussie actor and his lingerie model girlfriend. They inject a party atmosphere into the evening that sets everyone off on a drinking spree. Tensions rise, tempers flare, and voila, hit show.

We opened at the Coronet Theater right near the Beverly Center. Eddie Izzard had just done a string of shows here, testing out new material and there was a feather boa draped over the window of the dressing room.

After having done a show with a whole group of friends, it was a real treat to meet and work with all new people. Well, all new but for the actress who played my wife, who I had met through my circle of friends.

We were not rushed, we had the co-authors directing, we had a crack production team behind the show. The Lawlers wrote the play partially based on their own experience adopting a little Chinese girl but they didn't rest on those laurels. The sibling rivalry was sharp, the new-Hollywood party couple was a sexy hoot and the whole design and execution of the show created a real party vibe.

The set felt like an ultra-modern retro Silverlake house decorated to look like a 1950's martini bar. There was a spontaneous dance sequence that interrupts the uneasy dinner that has, fueled by alcohol, funneled into a party. And the audience ate it up with a spoon.

My character flirts shamelessly with and ogles unabashedly the lingerie model. My wife is aggressively pursued in a light-hearted way by a new guest, the slick Aussie friend of the Aussie neighbor. And yet somehow, in spite of these obvious stabs at flirtatiousness, the writing manages to make it clear that these two are meant for each other.

Alyssa Stec played my wife and she was a bundle of dancer nerve and verve. Her tension builds until she takes center stage during the dance for a sexy ass-shaking solo which builds to a hip rattling climax. Alyssa was a Rockette in another life and nailed this moment, managing to ACT at the same time. A great performance.

Real life Aussie Tom Tate played the thick-as-a-brick heart-of-gold Aussie actor on the brink of stardom and Bree Turner effortlessly inhabited the hedonistic yet oddly innocent world of his lingerie model arm candy. All the baby talk gets to her and she deepens considerably over the course of the dinner. Her understudy was a wonderful actress named Parisa Fitz-Henley who brought her own wonderful flavor to bear in such a way that the play changed. Not for better or worse, but good change, like watching a sunset shift from deep red to purple-orange.

Dan Kinsella and Carla Capps were hilarious as the nervous couple about to fly to China to pick up a baby and bring her back here. This nervousness was palpable and crucial to the conflict at the center of the play. For while my wife and I have to face the arrival of a few growing cells, these two are about to pick up a living human being. Instant parenthood.

Finally, Darren Schnase and my friend Sean-Michael Bowles both played the Aussie latecomer who turns the party on a dime. This is a tricky part as he is a whirlwind, late to arrive, first to leave, he comes in and somehow by his very presence, unfolds all of the tensions that have been bubbling beneath the surface. All while remaining above the fray.

Packed appreciative houses, great reviews, out and out hit show.

Now, I would be remiss in telling this tale if I didn't write about the aftermath. The Lawlers filmed our performances to pitch the play as a TV pilot. The popularity of the show led them to seek to move the production to a larger house.

The money people wanted to do so but wanted to cast names. Which I get. My cousin and I had been joking about Mark Ruffalo replacing me in "Searching For Certainty" almost since the first reading. But The Lawlers asked us all to be understudies once the play moved. Which made me mad.

Now, I was mad all the time those days so I think my reaction would be quite different these days. Then I could only connect to the insult. Not the fact that they were caught in a difficult spot and were doing the best that they could. Now, I still think they should have just told us what was going down and thanked us for our help. I think relying on our knowledge of the play to give them a back-up plan is understandable but they probably should have just come up with other options.

But truth be told, what else were they gonna do? NOT ask us to be involved? That wouldn't feel right to them either. The second production never materialized, partially I assume because it is such an ensemble piece that no name big enough to draw houses would be interested. It really works on each actor, it is not a showcase piece for any one person.

What I care to focus on is the moment in the play when all the characters spontaneously erupt into a choreographed dance which whipped the audience into a frenzy. I always did love to dance.

And I kept Eddie Izzard's feather boa, too.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bloody Corsets/Body Count (Spring: 2005)

One of the major offshoots that came about due to "Searching For Certainty" in Los Angeles was my new friendship with Larry Clarke. Now, I'd known Larry since 1996 when he originated the role of Henry in Mike's play "Diverting Devotion" in New York. We'd done all the readings of "Certainty" together and had also both fled a disastrous staged-reading we'd been roped into. But we were not friends.

"Certainty" changed all that. Larry had moved to LA a little bit earlier and he was determined to show me around town. He took me to the 101 Diner, he took me hiking in Runyon Canyon, he took me to the monstrous steps in Santa Monica. It was a little while into the rehearsal process that I realized: I had a new friend! I hadn't made a new friend the entire time I'd been in New York City for chrissakes.

The friendship deepened from there as I moved in with Larry and Jeff at the now infamous Rossmore Apartment complex. I slept in a nook between the living room and kitchen. It was in this apartment where Larry, in a fit of fevered creativity, wrote the bookend one-act plays "Bloody Corsets" and "Body Count".

He would stagger out of his room, sweaty and disheveled, clutching his laptop like it was a battered old notebook, and he would read aloud to me, doing all of the characters. These performances are burned onto my brain. I remember howling with laughter, clutching my stomach, telling him that he needed to STOP.

He was determined to mount a production immediately.

That apartment is where we rehearsed both plays. "Bloody Corsets" has four characters and "Body Count" nine.

Plot summaries of both plays are as follows:

"Bloody Corsets" is the title of a one-woman show that is being rehearsed in a black box theater. The director of the piece is married to the actress playing the main role. Their dynamic is the true story of the play, but we also get the play-within-a-play and the twisted nature of the theater company itself, which is basically this married couple and their sycophantic stage manager. The only outsider is the hired hand running the light and sound boards.

"Body Count" is the story of one disastrous night for a restaurant staff. In essence it is a war movie. A new staff member rubs everyone the wrong way as he tries to quickly assimilate himself into the deeply stratified levels of hierarchy and personality quirks that make up the pecking order in this high quality joint.

Back to back the two pieces lasted just over an hour.

I wound up playing the stage manager in the first piece by default. Larry and I were having a hard time figuring out how we could schedule full rehearsal for two casts at once. The only cast member who was not in both shows was the light/sound board operator in "Bloody Corsets". If I played the stage manager our rehearsal problem became much easier to manage. This wound up being quite a fortuitous shortcut because I have never had more fun than I did playing that brainwashed doormat.

We would all cram into our apartment and go to work. Talk about a labor of love. Larry would rewrite as he saw fit, solving problems as we went. He had very specific bits in mind for both shows...the comedy was quite often physical in nature and had to be choreographed to the limit. There were wine bottles being thrown, pratfalls, fake explosions (remember, it was a war movie!), glasses, plates and pepper grinders to be dealt with, and in the case of "Bloody Corsets", humor that came directly from ill timed light and sound cues.

These shows, while short, were extremely intricate.

But Larry literally had a flawless blueprint in his mind of how it all ought to go. We simply let him conduct us around the stage. His attention to detail, his determination to wring every ounce of humor and drama out of these stories was inspiring.

The audience reacted as if they were being tickled. It had a squirmy, "oh-my-god-if-you-don't-stop-that-i'm-going-to-pee-my-pants" feel to it. "Bloody Corsets" is a packed 15 minutes but somehow seems epic and insane. "Body Count" is about 45 or so and starts out casually enough but builds to a feverish climax much like a cliche ridden war movie.

No one made any money. In fact, everyone probably lost money on this thing, what with minor expenses. Larry most certainly did. He designed and built the set. He bought the costumes and props. He put together a program.

At the center of it all was Larry. These two plays hadn't existed just a few months earlier. Now they were whipping audiences into a frenzy. Thank god for new friends!