Sometimes hit plays start or stay in L.A., but quite often they come from elsewhere—from London or New York or Chicago, or all the above. When they do make it here, awards and acclaim in tow, it's not unheard of for original or previous producers, cast, star, and/or director to be attached to the project's L.A. run. Side Man, Warren Leight's 1999 Best Play Tony winner (and Pulitzer finalist), reaches Southern California in a thoroughly local production at the Pasadena Playhouse.
In previews now and slated to open Sunday, it's directed by L.A. theatre maestro Andrew J. Robinson, known for previous work at the Matrix Theatre, South Coast Rep, and the Pasadena Playhouse, and its cast seems like an embarrassment of riches: In the role of Gene, a preoccupied jazz musician and emotionally absent father, is the fine and fiery Dennis Christopher; as Terry, Gene's long-suffering wife, is the transcendent Mare Winningham, who returns to the stage after a 13-year absence spent making a raft of TV movies and series appearances; the penetrating JD Cullum plays the piece's narrator, Clifford, looking back at his parents' troubled marriage and trying to make sense of it.
Back Stage West sat down with Christopher and Winningham recently, in the midst of rehearsals, to talk about their approach to playing a complicated married couple with just a three-and-a-half-week rehearsal period. After seeing their unlikely yin-and-yang rapport for this interview, which resembled the conversational patterns of some married couples we know, we're even more excited to see their work in Side Man.
Dennis Christopher: Three and a half weeks is a short time for a play like this—for any play. I think six weeks should be mandatory. But for the short period of time, there have been no corners cut as far as [director] Andy Robinson's steering of the ship is concerned. There's never been a moment when we haven't felt like we've had the luxury of time. I maybe came in with a little bit more anxiousness to move ahead and move fast and get stuff going, 'cause I'm more of a hyper person, and maybe it's because I've directed some stuff. I'm thinking: Three weeks, OK, let's get it together, let's mark places and props… And Andy kept saying, "Breathe! Breathe!" And I finally just started to really breathe. That, and I cut the espressos down from two to one.
Mare Winningham: After every rehearsal I go home and detox; I don't think about it. But in the evening, before sleep… This script is full of rich detail about the relationship—it spans 30 years of a marriage, there are clues in it. And then the things that you hear at rehearsal; you hear your husband say, "I'm not comfortable that I have to do this. I don't want to hear that right now." Or I'm saying, "You know, it's not right that I leave this conversation." You hear what the other actors are forming about the relationship.
Dennis: It's funny, you go in zeroed in and focused on your role, and the things the author tells you through your character. But if you wait and breathe, and let go of any preconceptions you have and start listening to the other people and the other characters, really listening, it sets off light bulbs in your head. Because a lot of times you learn stuff about your character in the silences, or in what other people say.
Mare: Also, to feel the marriage, I love to look at JD [as my son], since the whole piece is streaming from his head—it's his memory, it's his story that he's telling, which is what Andy is zeroed in on, never letting us forget that the storyteller is here, the storyteller is providing…
Dennis: …what's real and what might be from a perspective of the character. It's his memory of what happened rather than what happened.
If I may be so bold to say, and I probably shouldn't say it, but Terry comes from the one part of you that is a little insane. I always think that people who are—maybe insane is too strong a word, but there's more of a spiritual connection. Sometimes they can see below the surface. Sometimes they can see things that are happening that makes them look insane, because they can take more in and they can put more out than the regular people, who are just seeing the day-to-day stuff, y'know?
Mare: There's nothing off about her at all! She's completely reasonable!
Dennis: Spoken like Terry!
Dennis: I don't know why every actor doesn't do more plays. I don't know how you can live in this business for years and years and years, just doing the kind of work that you're forced to do on a television schedule. I really don't.
Mare: I'll tell ya.
Dennis: Aside from the money.
Dennis: You don't get paid a whole lot for theatre, but you know, I feel more like, Where could I buy this experience, and how much would it cost? Who else would give me this kind of focus and put me in a room with this kind of talent? It really makes the whole reason why you became an actor come back into focus, you know? And if you can afford it, it's invaluable.
You've got to come up with it so fast on television. It's cast, shot, and edited in the course of three weeks' time, and the closest you ever come to rehearsing usually is in the room when you're auditioning. I've had more direction in the auditioning than I've had on the set. And that's not to say anything bad about that, because that's what the medium is. I'm just saying, for the actor alone, this experience goes beyond class, beyond a workshop, beyond anything—the luxury of doing this kind of work with other talented people.
Mare: I haven't done a play in 13 years. There's no justification for that long a gap. It's a terrible loss. But I'm reminded during this schedule that it's easier now 'cause my kids are teenagers, so it's not so heartbreaking that I'm not going to be around for dinner for two months. Also this is grueling in a way. I've done so many television movies in the last two decades, and they are consuming, but this process, for me, somehow just feels incredibly draining. I really have to set time aside to just come down after these rehearsals. Like you say, I can't imagine how an actor could not do this. It is so fortifying. And yet I am struck by, Wow, is this ever intense!
For some reason, I'm able to detach more at the end of the day in filming and go back into life, but with this—it's rough when I go home. I really have to almost, you know, beat myself up a bit as I drive into the driveway: "Now come on! Get back here, in this life!" But it keeps creeping into my head. I can't tell you how many times my family has said, "What are you thinking?"
Dennis: I think it's like having a platonic affair with a bunch of people at the same time.
Dennis: This particular play for me has opened up the doors to let some ghosts in that seem to be talking. When you're doing stuff about parents and you see yourself ignoring your wife, that kind of unconscious day-to-day cruelty that might come in in relationships—my past comes in. My parents start whispering to me. Even though I happen to be a pretty harsh critic at times about my upbringing, I've also learned tolerance maybe, or more compassion.
But there's a trap there, too, because if you get too tolerant and too compassionate, you may start wanting to project that into your character, and you cannot do that. You gotta let the chips fall where they are: If you're a rat bastard, you gotta find your inner rat bastard and let it rat around, instead of saying, I'm a rat bastard but really feel sorry for me.
Mare: Somehow the structure of it, the way the playwright's laid it out, when Terry does communicate with her son, it's almost like she has tapped into his memory, like she has showed up in his head—maybe the way your parents might be showing up in your process. She just kinda pops in there every now and then.
Dennis: I have my opinions about the way my father was. But they are my opinions, not necessarily the truth, and they are certainly not the whole spectrum of what this man was going through. It's my young, selfish interpretation of that person. This man, Gene, could not have a wife and a child without it ever touching his heart, I don't care how cold you are. Whether you communicate that back to the people who are giving you that gift is another story. It doesn't mean that it's not happening.
Mare: It fascinates me to be in a play where the marriage is at the heart of the play and that it cannot be anymore. It ends, and yet, contrary to most ugly endings, somehow these two people are still magnets—even though they do not speak and they cannot see each other, they're still asking about each other. I'm really interested in that, to explore how, when the crash happens, rather than it leading to this void, in fact they keep returning to that thing. They will never get over it. BSW