Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Birdman of 48th Street

It's been an active week for me, with a round trip to New York, an ineffective audition, and a staged reading of one of the oldest plays in existence.  But while I spent time on the New Jersey Turnpike, and while I confused a director with my monologue from Ionesco, and even while I deconstructed the archaic language of an ancient morality play, I was reeling a bit from the Post-Show Depression. For the past nine weeks, the centerpiece of my life has been this guy:

Victor Velasco
It was rather a fluke that I ended up in this production of Barefoot in the Park. I had success auditioning for the Compass Rose Theatre last year, but certain union matters prevented me from accepting the gig.  This time, it appeared the group had lost an actor, as they announced auditions for the role of Velasco only a few weeks before rehearsals began. I spent all of 2012 working in Showcase productions in New York, which are artistically satisfying but financially embarrassing. It was time for a real job.
Our table read revealed a nice chemistry among the actors.  I was asked to remove the gray from my hair, as one of Victor's quirks was his attempt to look younger than he really is.  I can't relate to that at all.
I was pleased to land the role of the eccentric neighbor to the central couple, young newlyweds moving into their first apartment.

The lovely and talented Brandon McCoy and Brianna LeTourneau played the central couple with humor and passion.

The play is very much of its time; written in the early 60s, the attitudes toward women, motherhood, marriage, and the like seem a bit jarring to today's audience. 
Written in 1963, the show's heroine has no interest in a career, and is concerned only with setting up her new household.
But the central relationship seems to be one to which everyone can relate, and our leading actors played the hell out of it. Perhaps it helped that they are planning to be married in real life, but I think they are both talented enough to bring sizzle onstage regardless of their personal life.
Brandon and Brianna had an undeniable chemistry together  as Paul and Corie.  It formed the backbone of the show.
The Compass Rose is a brand new company, Barefoot in the Park was only their 4th full production. As usually happens with such young organizations, budgets were small, so our design element was, well, elemental. But the performances overcame the minimalist designs, and people come to the theatre to see the acting anyway (at least, that's what I tell myself). 
Our director also handled the set and sound design.
We were confronted with our first challenge with the role of "the delivery man," a 15-second walk-on part with no lines but a great sight gag. Our producer, the lovely and talented Cindy Merry-Browne, was having trouble getting an actor to commit to such a minor role. I suggested that, instead of trying to find an actor who would take such a cameo, we auction off the chance to play the part to audience members (I had personal experience with just such an occurrence, when I played Dr. Einstein in a dinner theatre production of Arsenic and Old Lace decades ago; I wrote about that experience here). My suggestion was not met with much enthusiasm, and ultimately, we just cut the role out of the show. Don't tell Doc Simon.
Velasco's behavior would not be tolerated today.  He barges into strangers' apartments, climbs through their windows, and takes over their lives.  His clumsy attempts at seduction would be considered harassment today.  I hope I made him lovable enough that modern viewers would forgive his unforgivable behavior.
I loved working with our young director, the lovely and talented James Phillips, who attended college in DC but has since relocated to New York. He had a real feel for the comedy of the piece, yet was also keen on keeping the honest emotional thread.
After our first weekend, we lost Mother.
The weekend after we opened, we were dealt a serious blow when Cindy, who was playing the role of the mother as well as acting as producer of the show, slipped on the ice and broke her ankle. Three performances were canceled as we scrambled to replace her with the lovely and talented Sue Struve, who jumped in with both feet. It did not seem that the show suffered. 
I grew to admire and even envy Victor Velasco.  His spontaneous spirit was a counterpoint to my own cautious nature. It's always fun to play someone who's the polar opposite from yourself.  If you're attentive, you'll learn something.
We had a healthy run of five weeks, but did not as a rule have healthy audiences. The theatre is rather makeshift (in fact, it was a former McDonalds, located in a strip mall in a suburb of Annapolis), and holds only 50 seats. For reasons to which I am not privy, we rarely filled those seats, and I would guess our house size averaged around 20 or so. This was a shame, as the show was in great shape, and I am proud that we never gave a half-hearted performance, no matter who was (or was not) in the audience.
This bounder's accent was, well, indeterminate.  It was eastern European for sure, but geographically non-specific, which gave me the leeway to make terrible mistakes with it.  The comically Slavic accent would have no place in Sophie's Choice, but fit right into Neil Simon's world.
Well, there were a few of our houses which should not have been there.  Compass Rose labels itself as a "teaching theatre," with their educational component being very important.  Previous shows such as To Kill A Mockingbird and Oliver were well-suited for younger audiences.  Our show was sold to schools as well, and we had three matinees devoted only to middle schoolers. 
After an uproarious night on the town, our heroes discover they are mismatched, and real emotions and fears bubble to the surface.  It is a funny and somewhat painful climactic scene which was incomprehensible to a middle schooler.
There is nothing particularly inappropriate in Barefoot in the Park; there is no cursing and nothing overtly sexual (though our leading players did a lot to heat up the stage on their own), but I still wonder who in the world thought a 12-year old would find anything with which to relate in the story of young newlyweds setting up their first apartment.  As a result, the audience reaction during those matinees was pretty dismal.  Still, I was proud that our company delivered topnotch performances on those days, even in the face of silence from the crowd.
Despite critical kudos and strong word-of-mouth, our houses were disappointing.  Those who attended loved the show, but there seemed to be bewilderment at the theatre regarding the small attendance.  Our producer was sidelined by illness throughout our run, and there did not seem to be anyone else ready to publicize the show.  Compass Rose is in the midst of creating a new space for themselves, and in the scramble to get the new theatre ready for the next production, it sometimes seemed their current show had been left to fend for itself.
By the time we closed, we had earned a Helen Hayes Recommendation, awarded by the HH judges who attended, which was a first for this young company. And I loved performing the show, though I could have done without the substantial commute from DC (about 50 minutes each way). I started the project with a secretly snobbish attitude toward Neil Simon, especially early Neil Simon (this is his second play). Surprisingly, considering he is so popularly performed and I am so often cast in comic roles, Barefoot in the Park was my first experience in a Neil Simon play. 
Following a first act which dealt largely with character, our second act was full of incident.  It played like a dream.
Rehearsing this show up close and personal revealed to me that Doc is a strong structuralist. Surely he does not pass up the opportunity for a set-up/joke routine, but he is also writing characters of some depth. There are reasons he is so successful, and I think I discovered some of those reasons with my latest experience.
As I wrote last week when the show closed, it was a pleasure to play this enthusiastic hedonist with the geographically suspicious accent. Victor Velasco and I are not alike. ... While I bundle up, he enthusiastically walks barefoot in the park in February. He eats life. I nibble. He charges into the unknown. I hang back. He walks on the roof. I'm afraid of heights. He revels in spontaneity. I make a plan. He always says YES. I hesitantly shrug Maybe. I learned some unexpected things from you, Victor. Many thanks.