Thursday, May 12, 2011

The First Read.

Had the first table read for this new piece I'm involved in as an actor, The Interlopers by Gary Lennon, last night. Directed by Jim Fall. Feel free to google both of those names and you'll see for yourself the level of talent involved.

First readings are always kinda interesting. Sort of the 'first day of school' feeling for everyone. Hard to make any firm conclusions about anything at such an early juncture but it does give an idea, scant to be sure, of the level of competence in the room. One impression I got last night is undeniable; there are some really fine actors involved with the piece. Michael Testa, who served as casting director for the piece (and, incidentally, also cooked an amazing dinner for everyone last night) told me afterwards the casting process for this play had been over two months. That's a lot for a play. And I can see it in the choices, actually. If ever there were a gaggle of actors that fit their roles like a glove it's this bunch.

Once I got home I was telling Angie all about it, as is my habit, and the one thing I kept coming back to was, at first impression anyway, how damn good the actors were. As I understand it, the script will undergo some cutting and rewrites, as always happens with a brand new piece, and then rehearsals will start in earnest.

The first readthru is always an exciting time. For one thing, it's the first time the playwright gets to hear the words out loud from pros (although as I understand it, this piece was subject to a staged reading in NYC last year). For another, and perhaps more importantly, it gives everyone - playwright, director and actors - an idea of the flow and ebb of the piece and a chance to sort of visualize where one fits into it all.

I've had, over a long career, some fairly interesting first reads. When I did 'Lost in Yonkers' in Chicago some years back, the entire cast had done the play in other venues and everyone came in off book. When the director said, 'okay, let's read it,' no one at the table opened their script.

Olivier, of course, was legendary for coming into the first read off book, even for the big ones (Othello, Lear, Hamlet, Richard).

One of the things I've learned over the past century of doing this kind of stuff is to be wary of the actor that gives his opening night performance at the first read. This happens more than one might think. It doesn't happen all that often, to be sure, but it does happen. Sometimes what you get at the first read is what you get...period. The actor has made all of his choices already and will stick to them come hell or high water. This is not always necessarily a terrible thing, but it's not the way I, personally, like to work.

A buddy of mine, a very fine actor who has since left the business, would come in at first read and do the entire thing in a monotone. The first time I worked with him it scared the bejesus out of me. Happily, it turned out he was a wonderful actor but simply chose to do that so as not to dig a ditch for himself too early.

Other actors I know and admire come in and just let it all fly. No holding back, top volume, energy cranked, deadly serious. That's more in line with the British tradition and there's certainly something to be said for that, too. I tend to do more rather than less at a first read myself, not so much for my own exploration but so the writer (if he's on hand) and director can get a better feel for the piece as a whole.

This play, The Interlopers, delves deeply into the one area of mystery, the proverbial 'undiscovered country' of the stage world, the final frontier of live theatre, and that is sex. The two leads (both wonderful, incidentally) are two transgendered people; a male wanting to become a female and a female wanting to become a male. The play follows them as they fall in love. As one might imagine, the complications of romantic love and physical sex gets very complicated, indeed, and in fact, this might even be the overwhelming thesis of the play. Albee explored a similar theme in 'Sylvia, or, The Goat' and lesser playwrights have certainly taken a swipe at it as well, but all in all, it's a taboo subject for stage. One reason is because film does sex so much better. Film has been grappling with the issue as far back as Bertolucci's 'Last Tango in Paris.' Americans, even today in the year of our Lord 2011, are mired in a Victorian era of exploring sex, both physically and in the mind, where it actually counts. This is primarily the reason I took the gig, even though frankly it's not a very large role, because the subject matter fascinates me. Even last night, knowing the script as I do, I was hard pressed to keep it all straight in my head: a girl who is waiting to become a guy but likes girls is falling in love with a guy who is becoming a girl but likes girls...the mind reels. As one character says late in the play, "Jesus, you need a flow chart to keep up with you people." But that's the fascinating part of this whole thing. Where are the rules that say one can't love whoever one wants? And who, exactly, wrote these rules? It is most definitely a hot button right now in the political and social arenas in this country, exacerbated by our morally entrenched Tea-Party right.

Gary Lennon, who penned the piece, is clearly a smart guy. And he doesn't pander with this complicated and revealing subject matter. In lesser hands it would be easy to let the piece slip into the genre of soft porn. This is not the case here, I'm delighted to say. Instead, like GB Shaw at his very best, the play asks questions rather than supply answers. I like that very much.

It's all very exciting and on a purely selfish note, I'm beside myself with the fact that, like the last two outings on the stage for me, I don't have to carry the piece. I have a small role. And I'm happy with that. And I'm equally happy with the fact that the actors who do have to carry it are apparently more than up to the task.

See you tomorrow.

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