Larry Coen :: balancing comedy and Kafka in ’The Understudy’

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Tuesday Jan 18, 2011

In The Understudy, Theresa Rebeck's delightfully cynical backstage comedy, a committed New York actor has been hired to be an understudy for a hot Hollywood action hero in a Broadway production of an unproduced Kafka play. The actor - named Harry - must swallow his pride as he runs through a rehearsal with the movie actor (named Jake). Making matters worse is that the play's stage manager (named Roxanne) is his ex-girlfriend whom he jilted at the altar.

Since it first appeared in Williamstown in 2008, Rebeck's comedy has found its admirers, if only because Rebeck channels the frustration of theater professionals at the influx of Hollywood stars on Broadway. "The primary object of Ms. Rebeck's comic scorn - the corruption of the American theater by the public's and the industry's obsession with celebrity - is certainly both dart-worthy and timely," wrote Charles Isherwood in the New York Times. Proof of this can be seen in that when the play opened off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company, the hottest ticket on Broadway was A Steady Rain, a two-hander that featured Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. Without them, it wasn't likely that this little play would have ever made it to Broadway.

This season productions of The Understudy are turning up throughout the country. Here in Boston the Lyric Stage Company gave its local premiere in a production featuring Christopher James Webb as Harry, Laura Latreille as Jake, and Kelby T. Akin as Jake, directed by Larry Coen.

Whether onstage or (as he's doing here) directing the action from a seat in the orchestra, Coen is one of Boston theater's ongoing success stories. He's a successful playwright as well, having co-wrote Epic Proportions, another play with a Hollywood connection, that played on Broadway in 1999 in a production that starred Kristin Chenoweth.

Coen has won Elliot Norton Awards for both acting (for no less than four performances over a single season) and direction (for staging the Gold Dust Orphans' Phantom of the Oprah last year).

But it was The Understudy, which runs through January 29, 2011 at the Lyric's Clarendon Street home, that we spoke to him about last week.

A no-brainer

EDGE: When you saw the script to The Understudy, was it a no-brainer that it was something you wanted to direct?

Larry Coen: I loved the play from the first time I read it. It felt very adult. It’s about things in your life that simply didn’t happen, for no defining reason; relationships that ended, career success that never soared as high as you thought; opportunities that never appeared. The question for the characters becomes, can I forgive myself for where I am, as opposed to where I dreamed I’d be?

I said "yes" to directing it right away, in spite of the fact that rehearsals would overlap with my last week of performing in the epic Nicholas Nickleby. I knew I would be tired. I just never knew I could be THAT tired. But all worth it!

EDGE: As an actor, have you been an understudy?

Larry Coen: No, actually. I don’t think my skill-level is high enough to be a good understudy. The ability to memorize a role cold and to be prepared to give a performance with very little rehearsal is something I just wouldn’t be good at.

But I’ve been in plays where understudies have gone on in other roles. I have always been wildly impressed with how great they were.

Worst acting experience?

EDGE: What was your worst acting experience?

Larry Coen: I was in a rehearsal with a director who made me come through a swinging door more than 100 times. (My castmates ended up counting.) The director gave me no direction on how to come through the door and would say things like, "That was even worse than the last time!" I tried coming through the door "happy," "confused," "looking for something," "fearful," everything I could think of to try. When I asked the director, "What do you want me to do?" he replied, "Anything, but what you’ve done so far because it’s been aaaaaawwwwful!!!!"

Through the whole rehearsal I kept my calm and kept pushing through the damned swinging door while silently thinking, "You will NOT break me!!!!" In my head, I was secretly being all Captain Jean Luc Picard in the "Chain of Command" episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

You know. "There are four lights!!"

EDGE: And your best?

Larry Coen: Soooo many. Doing Shakespeare on Boston Common for Woodstock-sized crowds; performing in the recent Nicholas Nickleby at Lyric Stage; getting to perform in 2 World Premieres by Tennessee Williams at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival; Doing Shear Madness at the Charles Playhouse is always a blast!

So many of the roles that I get cast in are primarily comic, that I relish the times I am asked to play more serious parts. In Dirty Blonde at Lyric Stage, I had a moment when my character learned that someone he loved didn’t love him back. This very sad moment was wordless for me. I just had to stand and take it all in. I adored hearing the audience start to sob. A guy stopped me on the street after that one and said, "You made me cry! My wife can’t even make me cry!" Talk about Job Satisfaction!

I love working with Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans for many reasons (including the incredible audiences.) But Ryan always pushes the envelope with what he asks me to do. I was a psychotic Santa in Silent Night Of The Lambs; a sly idiot of a young girl in The Plexiglass Menagerie; a woman teetering on the edges of madness and suicide in Death Of A Saleslady. Good times!

And many more. Acting is physically pleasurable to do. I feel more alive during a performance than almost any other time.

EDGE: The play continually makes references to actors as being pretty low in the scheme of things. Do you find this true?

Larry Coen: In Boston, stage actors are treated with respect. But in New York there has been a change. With the advent of the super-long-running hits that started in the 1980s, actors are expected to bring less individuality to performances. Instead of a script, they are now handed a "track," which maps out every detail of a performance for them. i.e. "Eyes on the balcony exit sign on this line. "Put your hand on your heart as you cross" etc." The goal is that what the audience sees at performance #3840 is exactly what they would have seen at performance #1. Lord knows that the approach "works." But I know many actors who would give their left arm for the chance to be in a rehearsal hall with a director, shaping a performance that comes from their hearts.

Why acting?

EDGE: In lieu of the difficulties in being an actor, why did you become one?

Larry Coen: Because living a life where I was less than joyous about my work would have been too hard. Someone recently said that actors live the most "American" life. Meaning that we are constantly hustling for work; creating our own opportunities; living with only short-term plans ahead of us; little security; and we are our own product. Each time the economy goes through a downturn, I always think, "Thank Heavens I’ve done what I wanted to do! Wouldn’t it be awful to get laid off from a company that I hated working for, but only did so for ’security."

EDGE: Aside from it being a play about acting - in a way a penultimate play about the acting profession - what is it about Theresa Rebeck’s style that you like?

Larry Coen: I love that she only tells you what you need to know to enjoy the play. There is not a lot of background exposition or explanation. She writes for a grownup audience.

EDGE: Did you have to brush up on Kafka when you started working on the production?

Larry Coen: You betcha! About all I knew about "Kafka" I had learned from my days performing improvisation when someone would call that out as a style. I had to read his works and his biographies. He was much, much more interesting than I had thought he would be.

EDGE: Do you see a relationship between the Kafkaesque universe of the play-within-the-play and the world of the actors rehearsing it?

Larry Coen: There is (in both worlds) an inability to name yourself. For example, can you call yourself an "actor" if you’re not also a "celebrity?" Can you call yourself a "Star" if you make less than $20,000,000 per movie? Can you be someone’s "ex" if you’ve never finished breaking up with them?

EDGE: Yet despite the dark undertones, the play is a comedy - and one really about two guys falling for each other in a non-sexual way. How do you keep the tone light?

Larry Coen: Rebeck’s script really does that for us. First of all, it’s really funny and that keeps things light. Secondly, all three of the characters are committed professionals, there to do a job (have an understudy rehearsal.) None of them are looking to make trouble, even though trouble happens. The fact that the characters keep trying to make the best of things and keep things moving along helps a lot.

EDGE: Do you find the trend of movie stars taking on short-term acting gigs on Broadway a problem for the theater?

Larry Coen: Not really. I admire anyone who wants to try acting for 2 hours a night, 8 times a week, in front of paying crowds and snippy critics.

Theater has treated many movie stars rather harshly over the years. When one of them succeeds I think, "Good for you."

EDGE: As a culture, are we too obsessed with celebrity?

Larry Coen: We are too obsessed with Celebrity that isn’t linked to achievement. In the old days, you used to have to have talent. You had to sing a song, or tell a joke or act, or dance or make something.

So-Called-Reality Programming has given us a new type of celebrity. I know all of their names. I just can’t name what all of them do.

EDGE: The play ends with a dance that’s oddly touching after the cynicism that comes before it. Was that what you were trying to achieve for that moment?

Larry Coen: Acceptance. Dignity. Fellowship. Grace. One of the first things I did when I was hire as Director was to request that the wonderful Yo-el Cassell be brought in as choreographer. The dance is the final moment of the play and I knew that Yo-el would be able to make it a culminating end for the journey.

EDGE: Will you be reprising the role of Big Daddy in Pussy on the House? with the Gold Dust Orphans next month

Larry Coen: I will be returning as Big Momma in Pussy On The House! Can’t wait!

EDGE: Ooops, sorry Big Momma.

The Understudy continues through January 29,2011 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. For more information visitthe Lyric Stage Company’s website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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