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Interview

'The Escort' Report

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'The Escort' Report
Photo Source: Michael Lamont
Playwright Jane Anderson cuts to our deepest, most personal thoughts, fears, and actions. The scribe of "Looking for Normal" and "The Quality of Life" has delved into our ability to overcome biases and our attitudes toward death. With her new, world-premiere play, "The Escort," she takes on attitudes toward sex workers, as escort Charlotte enters the lives of ex-spouses Rhona and Howard and their 13-year-old son.

Polly Draper ("thirtysomething," "Closer" on Broadway) plays gynecologist Rhona, divorced for 10 years and trying to keep her son away from Internet porn while she is being persuaded by Charlotte to spend an evening with a male escort. Rhona then persuades Howard, a urologist, to give an escort a try. James Eckhouse (the original "90210," "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" in Los Angeles) plays Howard and various other characters; Gabriel Sunday ("Taking Woodstock") plays their son and the male escort; and Maggie Siff ("Mad Men," "A Lie of the Mind" Off-Broadway) plays Charlotte.

The play opened April 6 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, directed by Lisa Peterson. The actors and playwright spoke with Back Stage the afternoon before their first tech rehearsal.

Back Stage: How did each of you get cast in this play?

Gabriel Sunday: I was the only one to audition. I had been wanting to get back on the stage ever since I came out here, six years ago. This was my first theater audition in L.A. I'd been going up for film and TV, and then my agent let me look at [this script]. I read it and I was gritting my teeth because it was so perfect. It was so funny. And so terrifying. There are so many things in the script that I find Freudian. And I worked really hard on the audition and came in. It was a bit of a crazy audition, finding the real peaks in the scenes of my characters and the really intense moments.

Jane Anderson: The reason Gabriel's audition was so wonderful, he was clear and clean. What happens, a lot of young actors will come in and will complicate the words and try to fit too many things into a beat to prove they can do it. Gabriel came in, he knew his objective, he knew his character, and he did it with such ease and grace that we knew were in good hands. I'm always looking for an actor who isn't looking for my approval when they walk in the door. Nor do I want them to walk through the door in a state of arrogance. Our friend here, as with everyone in this room, is a theater artist. His focus was on the material and not on himself. And that's what gets an actor the job.

Maggie Siff: James and I did a reading of it.

Anderson: I didn't know them personally, but [Geffen casting director] Phyllis [Schuringa] said these were wonderful actors. I knew Maggie's work through "Mad Men." Her work in that show was exquisite and tasteful and subtle and deep. And during the read-through, I turned to Lisa and said, "We have to have these actors," and I said to Phyllis, "Get them for us."

Polly Draper: We met [on vacation] in Hawaii. Our kids became friends. And then towards the end we got to know each other. And then [Anderson] called me when I got home, and I was so excited. I called her after the first act and said yes. And she said, "Read the second act, because there's a whole thing with an escort."

Anderson: In the meantime at this vacation, we were having a really hard time casting this role. And I remember you and I were walking down the path and bitching about our wretched sons. We love our sons dearly with all our hearts, but as teenagers they're just horrible to us. And I would just watch Polly from a distance, and I actually imagined her in a white medical coat, and I said, "I'd go to her as my gyno." She's tall and gracious and lovely. We need someone who's a wonderful actor but someone you could imagine would be a medical practitioner you could trust with your life. So I was stalking you secretly. And I called [playwright] Donald Margulies, because Polly was in "Brooklyn Boy," and Donald gave Polly a high, high recommendation. I do ask. You have to, because life is short.

James Eckhouse: I had been brought into the readings not thinking I would ever have a chance to play the role. But I had this horrible experience where I hadn't heard and wasn't even expecting anything. I was sending [Phyllis] a note about something completely different. She emailed me back saying, "We're so upset that you turned the role down." I was freaked out. I said, "Turned down what role?" And she said, "Playing Howard." She said, "We were really heartbroken." My manager had quote-unquote accidentally turned the role down, unbeknownst to me. And luckily I had emailed Phyllis.

I seriously feel like I'm back to 22, when I realized this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. I feel like I've come full circle.

Back Stage: What initial work did you do to develop your characters, and what layering have you been adding on?

Siff: I've been reading a lot, about sex workers and escorts and sex. I tried to make myself as familiar with the world and the practices as I could so I could get over my own sense of modesty and shyness that I carry pretty naturally. My feeling from the beginning is that the character thinks she is an artist and she doesn't believe in shame. I think much of this play, especially as we've evolved it, centers on shame.

And so, my starting point was, I need to focus on how to rid myself of feeling any shame at all in talking about the most explicit things, and instead infuse myself with a feeling of expandedness and graciousness and generosity about these things. For her, sex is an act of generosity and healing and a lot of things; it's not just about being a lucrative business, and it's not about being a f---ed-up person. It's like a spiritual act for her.

That was my starting point. And as we progressed, there have been body suits and adjusting to physical change and what needs to happen with this incredibly well-endowed body. And again, not feeling any shame around that, instead being able to celebrate having that kind of a body—all things that have not been easy in my own life. The character is lonely and troubled in certain ways, but she has a really big heart.

Eckhouse: I find this play just remarkable in the layers of it. It's a deeply personal journey for me, to allow myself to go down that trail. Aside from Charlotte, the three [characters] have a lot of dealing with shame. I find that dealing with my own wonderfully healthy shame-based upbringing has been an interesting personal journey

Back Stage: Is there anything you consciously brought to the reading or are bringing now?

Draper: My initial reaction was that it was just me. There was nothing about it that felt false; there was nothing that felt I would have to do any stretch. There is a scene Rhona has with her son that's so brilliantly written, and my 13-year-old read it with me, and afterward he said, "Mom, I feel so bad for you." And then we read the other scene. The first scene, he's totally manipulating me. The second scene he catches me in a lie, and when he read [it] with me, he said, "I don't even want to look at you; I'm so mad at you right now." Those scenes are so true. The scenes with Charlotte are so me, because I'm a person that if someone has no boundaries, they just absorb me.

So, to me, it was a perfectly natural progression that Charlotte would talk me into this sexual revolution. The discrepancies were, of course, [Rhona] is divorced, she's feeling like she might never have sex again. But a woman gets to a certain age, and you just feel, will anyone find me attractive anymore, especially as an actress. She wants people to think she's in control, but there's this deep part of her that she has to face. So when I read it, it was like, I can't believe this person understands me. It was like getting an incredible gift.

Back Stage: What has your director, Lisa Peterson, done that has helped you most?

Sunday: She's got the best bullshit detector.

Siff: She has such a clear understanding of the way notes stick to an actor. If a director gives an actor a note too early on or is too forceful or says too much, then no matter how comfortable you get in the role or inside the play, it will always jangle you until the last performance. She understands that as an actor you have to nose your way into things, and it takes time. And when she says something, it's the least amount she has to say so that it doesn't stick in a way that's ultimately destructive.

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