Monday, July 12, 2010

Underestimating O'Neill...

Eugene O'Neill.

Sometimes plays and scripts don't translate so well upon first reading them.  That happens a lot with my work.  It happens a lot in general, but I especially think it happens with my work.  For one thing, there aren't too many people that want to take a couple of hours and really read something.  I mean read with a discerning eye and sweeping imagination.  And what sometimes happens is even when a reading is given, the actors still don't quite grasp the scope of what they're reading.  This happened, for example, with a reading I held in my front room of my new play From the East to the West.  One of the actors I invited was an old friend from Chicago.  We read the play (this is when I discovered what a remarkable actor John Schuck is - he read the lead role of "Harry" in that sit-down") and discussed it a bit and then I went back to work on the second act.  A few months later I mounted a three-day, full-performance benefit for the theatre with the play.  I directed it and played "Harry" myself.  It went well, generally speaking.  Anyway, she came to see the play and afterwards talked to me a little bit.  She said, "I had no idea how dense this play was at the reading.  I didn't get it.  I didn't realize how many levels it worked on."  That's the way it goes sometimes.  It happened a bit, even, with Praying Small.  Some involved with it didn't have a clue as to the depth and scope of the piece.  This became readily apparent as rehearsals progressed.  It's maddening to the playwright, but not unexpected, I guess.  I think some of this comes from directors and actors working on scripts that don't have much depth or scope and consequently they feel the need to add depth and scope.

It's happened to me, in fact, as an actor a couple of times.  I was asked to perform Jamie Tyrone some years back in Moon for the Misbegotten, the Eugene O'Neill play.  It is a sequel of sorts to Long Day's Journey Into Night, his masterpiece.  Actually, not so much a sequel as a continuation of one of the character arcs.  After doing Long Day's Journey, I swore to myself it was the last O'Neill I was ever gonna do.  Just too much angst and depression and bitterness involved with old Eugene's work.  It's hard stuff.  And it took a lot out of me.

So I was asked to play Tyrone again.  My first instinct was to say 'no.'  I read the script a few times.  I found it to be self-indulgent and, yes, even boring.  But the deal was too sweet; name above the title, great money, great housing, and a chance to get out of Chicago in January and February.  Once we started working on the piece I once again discovered what a deceptively good playwright Mr. O'Neill was.  Talk about your levels.  It's easy to perceive his work as 'accidental' writing.  It doesn't seem at first glance to be so terribly important, mostly just a lot of regret about earlier behavior.  Long Day's Journey shares that aspect, too.  Moon for the Misbegotten turned out to be a devastating piece of theatre.  Very moving stuff.  I had been wrong.

This is one of the reasons I'm very, very selective about who gets to read my stuff before it is put on it's feet.  And also one of the reasons I'm very leery of 'workshopping' a play.  Mostly because, and I know this sounds just awful but it's true, people just don't 'get it.'  So when I have a new piece, and I have one now called Heavyweights of the Twentieth Century, I have maybe a handful of people I'll allow to read it out loud and then hear what they have to say: John Bader, Jim Barbour, John Schuck, Rob Arbogast, Brad Blaisdell, Michael Moriarty, Jeff Wood, Michael Colucci...that's really about it.  And Angie, of course.  She has a surprisingly good eye for scripts, I'm learning.

It happened to me again as an actor when I did Run For Your Wife, the silly British farce.  I was traveling down to Florida to play it.  The AD called me a few weeks earlier and asked me what role I'd like to play.  I read the play, was quietly appalled at how stupid it was, and called him back and said, "Well, the whole play sucks.  But I guess the role of Stanley sucks the least, so I'll play that one."

We went into rehearsal.  Nothing improved in my mind.  It still sucked.

And on opening night what was originally an hour and forty five minute play lasted nearly two and half hours because of all the time we spent holding for laughs.  I was flabbergasted.  Agog.  Beside myself.  Bamboozled.  This thing simply ate up the stage.  Audiences were gasping for breath.  I had been wrong.

So it happens.  Happens to me, happens to lots of people.  I like to think I have a pretty good eye for writing for the stage.  But I've been wrong on a few occasions.

We have one more week of Praying Small and it would appear it ends there.  We haven't been able to secure an extension or found anyone interested in re-mounting it.  Disappointing, but not terribly so.  After this experience I'm sort of done with live theatre for awhile anyway.  It was simply too stressful and angst-ridden.  Theatre should be, optimally, a joyful experience, both to rehearse and perform.  It should be, ideally, a cathartic and explosive process.  I lost a lot of sleep and spent way too much time arguing with this one.  It wasn't fun.  Oh, well.  It happens.  Just the risk one takes when birthing something new.  Sometimes it turns out to be amazing and sometimes it doesn't.  The milk is spilled.  Crying is pointless.  Move on.

So we'll do the last week and do our best.  Last night was another full house and the performance was genuinely felt by all, I think.  Tremendous audience response.  I was very pleased.

Today a meeting with a new agent.  A lot of computer work on the play (it's being submitted to Sam French, finally).  A long walk with Angie and the puppies.  A nice breakfast.  A soothing nap in the afternoon.  Reading a new novel.  Things could be a whole helluva lot worse.

See you tomorrow.

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