Saturday, March 6, 2010

On Playing Tennis...

As the Oscars approach, acknowledging actors for their superior work on film (allegedly), I'm thinking back on some people I've worked with over the years that exhibited superior work. People you will never see at the Oscars or for that matter any other awards ceremony. Just working actors, schlepping from one job to another, that have, on occasion done truly superior work. Actors that have pushed my game up a notch. There are only a few. But they deserve mentioning.

The first time it happened was in college. My good friend, now deceased, Robert Feidler, did the role of Brian in Shadowbox, a finely written play about a group of people dealing with Cancer. It was the first time in my young life that I had seen what I considered "real" acting. There were plays being done everywhere when I went to college - one-acts, mainstage shows, musicals, serious drama, scenework in acting classes - just everywhere. But deep down I knew it was all just pretty bad academic-level work. Then I saw Robert in Shadowbox. And I knew it was great work. He was much, much better than anyone with him onstage. Real, honest, amusing, cynical, gritty work. Sometimes acting teachers will say, "Acting is like tennis. If you play with someone better than you are, YOU become better." I wanted to play tennis with this guy.

A few years later I was doing a rather pedestrian farce called Playing Doctor. One of my first professional plays. The two leads were an actor by the name of Steve Schaefer and myself. He was funnier than I was. Up to that point, in my youthful arrogance, I didn't think that was possible. I couldn't figure it out. How could he be funnier than I was? Steve was in his late thirties at that time and I was twenty three, I think. He had mastered the art of wrapping an audience around his finger and making them wait for the next laugh. I learned TONS of comic "tricks" from working with Mr. Shaefer. I have used them for the length of my career.

Some years later I worked with an amazing actress named Katherine Kelly in The Glass Menagerie. In fact, she is the actress pictured to the right. The single most honest actor I had encountered up to that point. I think I was thirty one. I had gathered a lot of tricks in my work by that time. But with her, for the first time, none of them worked. I was forced to go back to the basics: say the lines, be honest, react accordingly, don't do too much, be real. She made me do all that because to do otherwise made me look like Jerry Lewis next to Meryl Streep. That dog just didn't hunt.

And of course then there was working with Michael Moriarty and Jane Alexander. Two actors so good it made me wanna slap my grandma. I worked hard on that one. I remember standing off-stage, in the wings, watching Michael work in front of an audience. I remember turning to a stagehand standing next to me and saying, "That guy does more with an eyebrow than most actors do with a career."

And recently I had the opportunity to work next to an actress in one of my own plays, From the East to the West. Nickella Moschetti. Again, like Katherine Kelly so many years before, I was forced to abandon my bag of tricks and play it straight out. No eccentric diversions. No little tricks. No pretending. She's that good. In fact, I have a new play, a big one, called Heavyweights of the Twentieth Century, that I will begin peddling later this year. It's a massive piece of writing and I honestly think my very best writing. I want Nickella to do it. To play one of the leads.

There are a few others, but not many. The truth is, this business doesn't HAVE that many good actors. I remember the later Howard Orms, my first acting teacher, saying in class one day, "90 percent of the actors in this country are unemployed. And 90 percent of THAT 90 percent DESERVE TO BE." How right he was.

I love playing tennis with people better than I am.

See you tomorrow.