Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Aaron Sorkin...

Watched A Few Good Men last night. The movie, that is. Hadn't seen it for quite a few years. I was struck again what a fine, fine writer for actors Aaron Sorkin is. To tell you the truth, Sorkin has been an inspiration to me for a long time.

I first saw A Few Good Men on Broadway when it was playing at The Music Box, I think it was. The original cast consisted of my old friend, Tom Hulce, in the Tom Cruise role and Stephen Lang, in a remarkable performance, in the Jack Nicholson role of Col. Jessop. Tom had gotten me a couple of comps to come see it in previews. Actually, he'd told me the day before that he didn't think it would be a hit because the script was "just too complicated for theatre audiences." Fortunately, he couldn't have been more wrong. It was riveting.

Lang, an actor with eccentric sensibilities if ever there was one, did an interpretation so odd and effective as to be mesmerizing. Tom told me later that Lang had spent hours observing the alpha male gorilla at the Brooklyn Zoo in preparation. When I think back on his performance it is easy to see that. He played Jessop so Marine/gorilla-like that at first I thought the role had been woefully miscast. But then I realized what he was doing. And I suddenly realized it was brilliant. Now, a couple of years earlier, Lang had done his Hamlet in New York. It was a barking, commanding Hamlet that, again, was a dilly of an interpretation. I had a couple of friends in that production, too. They told me that Lang had it IN HIS CONTRACT that no actor on stage could "touch" him. Literally. Very odd. Nonetheless, his Hamlet was fascinating. Not the best I'd ever seen by a long shot but certainly intriguing.

But back to Sorkin.

At that time, of course, he wasn't yet THE Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame. He was just a guy who'd written a good play. I've always been a huge fan of West Wing but I hadn't seen a whole lot of the episodes. When Angie and I finally decided to move in together it turned out she was fan, too. So for the first couple of months in L.A. while I was trying to find my footing we would watch old reruns of the show at night. Night after night I was astonished at Sorkin's writing for the show. And he was always the sole writer. No collaboration at all. Later, long about the sixth season I think, Sorkin left the show and other writers started taking a stab at it. The difference is palpable. The Sorkin episodes are breathtaking. The later shows only good.

I've told Angie a number of times I can't wait to meet him. She knows tons of people out here. Tons of actors and celebrities. She's close friends with a few: Richard Dreyfuss, Hal Holbrook, William H. Macy, some others. As a midwestern boy I'm still impressed with all this. So now and then she asks, "Who would you like to meet? I'll set it up." And my answer is always, "Aaron Sorkin."

The West Wing is, in my opinion, the finest network show ever. It's incredibly smart, adventurous, compassionate, interesting and most of all, just flat out great writing. It is cast perfectly. Martin Sheen is my idea of the perfect President of the United States in my mind. In fact, if you ever get the chance to go back and watch The West Wing all the way through it is positively uncanny how it parallels the Obama administration. Bleeding heart liberalism? Yes. But I'm a bleeding heart liberal, so I love it.

Later in my career I did the stage version of A Few Good Men twice, the first time as Dr. Stone, a smallish role that Christopher Guest did in the film, and a year later Jessop himself. Although I was sorely tempted to imitate Stephen Lang's performance I understood it was simply not for me. I instead played it very slyly and full of charm. Much closer to Nicholson's performance although by that time the film had come out and was hard pressed to find a way to handle the line, "You can't handle the truth" without making the entire audience thing of Jack. In the end I decided to throw it away, say it casually, and hit the following line hard.

As you know, Gentle Reader, I just finished a production of my play, From the East to the West, a three-day benefit performance for NoHo Arts. The play is chalk full of overlapping. That is to say, two or more actors talking at the same time. Although I didn't actually steal this device from Sorkin (actually, if anything, I stole it from Lanford Wilson), I used it quite often. In fact a few of the comments following the performance were along the lines of, "Why did they all talk at once all the time?" Because I wanted them to. And it's my play. So there.

Someday I hope to meet Mr. Sorkin. I have a lot of questions for him. All good ones, mind you. But mostly I hope to meet him and simply shake his hand and look him in the eyes and say, "You're really, really good at what you do."

See you tomorrow.