Welcome back to the Odyssey. You are a regular around here.
It works out that I either act in a play or direct a play at the Odyssey every two years. Ron Sossi [Odyssey Artistic Director] and I have known each other, personally and professionally, since at least 1980. My wife and I used to run a small theater so we all knew each other in a circle of small- theater advocates.
You were onstage at the Odyssey a few years ago in another Neil Simon play.
Yes, The Sunshine Boys with Hal Linden.
How many of Neil Simon’s plays have you done in your long, storied career?
These are the only two I’ve done in production. I’ve done scenes in classes, of course. But only these two. I love Neil Simon’s plays. Broadway Bound is one of his most wondrous plays. It’s so personal, and yet it’s universal and poignant and pertinent. There’s something about his genre and something about the milieu that just stirs in me right away. I feel like I know these people. I fall into his rhythms so comfortably.
But in all of your years working alongside so many of theatre’s luminaries, you must have crossed paths with him.
When I saw Neil—I think it was at a gathering during Sunshine Boys—I reminded him that he and his brother used my family gatherings in the Bronx to try out their jokes. I was a little kid then. That’s where I first knew Neil. His family and my aunt and uncle were friends, and Danny [Simon, Neil’s brother] and Doc would show up and practice their jokes.
Jason Alexander has said that he believes that Neil Simon is often left out of discussions about our great playwrights, that he is underappreciated. Do you agree?
Absolutely. I don’t understand why three or four of his plays aren’t done every year. They are so catching, so funny and moving.
Simon is thought of as a comedy writer, but he does not shy away from his “sad moments.”
He may call his plays sad—and I do share a lot of his grief over the state of most people’s lives— but his writing is so full of curiosity. It’s not packaged or formulaic. He presents wonderfully written but spoken thoughts that people have had for centuries. This is about a family where the two younger sons are about to leave the nest. That’s something that any parent anywhere in the world faces.
You have a lengthy, tortuous history with Broadway Bound.
I do. In 2009 I was hired to do the Broadway production. It was supposed to run in rep with Brighton Beach Memoirs, which, of course, is about the same family. But they ran out of money. Not enough people came to see Brighton Beach Memoirs to help support Broadway Bound. We were in tech, and it was, ”Sorry, it’s all over.” New York was a great time except it never opened. Then La Mirada was doing it last year. I auditioned for that and got the part. I knew Ron [Sossi] was interested so I invited him to see the show, and he was very excited about it.
How did Jason Alexander become involved?
Jason is one of the best friends of Gina Hecht, who was in Broadway Bound at La Mirada. He came down to see us, and he was completely congratulatory towards us about our work. Quietly on the side he told us that, if the play went any further, he’d love to take a crack at directing it. He had some terrific ideas about it. So I mentioned to Ron about the possibility of Jason directing it. They talked together about what kind of a production it would be and worked out a schedule.
Jason, of course, has his own history with Broadway Bound.
He was in the original Broadway production [in 1986]. Jason loves this play and the people in it.
What does he bring to the show as a director who is an actor and specifically as an actor with such affection for this play?
The third day of rehearsal, I went up to Jason and said, “In my entire career of acting, I’ve had maybe eight really good directors. Today I’m adding a ninth.” Line by line, scene by scene, we’re discovering so many layers and levels in the writing that the relationships have grown into far more than what we started with. Most actors and most directors that I’ve worked with don’t know how to rehearse. But Jason is superb. We all adapted to his process, and he re-adapted to ours. He says there is no conversation in this play. Every character wants something and is trying to do something. He said, “I’m asking you on your own to figure out what your character wants to do or needs to do.” To be put that way that bluntly made everyone work. Sometimes we’ll say, “I’m a little cloudy about what you’re trying to do here.” He’ll open it up, and sometimes there’ll be an answer, and sometimes he and the actor will say they don’t know so someone will make a suggestion. It’s a great way to rehearse.
As universal as Broadway Bound is, it tells the story of young men in New York in a certain era striving for work in show business. Do you relate personally to this?
Jason has a family history like mine. Our parents all struggled with being responsible, yet still trying to have a life. Fathers who had terrible jobs that were demeaning and repetitive. The lack of financial resources—his family lived through it, my family lived through it. We weren’t the lowest poverty level, and yet the struggles were large. We all went to the movies and thought about the lives that we could lead. There are some wonderful scenes in Broadway Bound where Blanche has to address her wealth with a father like me who says he can’t enjoy the benefits of a society that makes my daughter rich and starves half the people in the country.
And yet your character gets a lot of the laughs here.
He doesn’t mean to be funny, but he’s funny. His timing, his thoughts about things. I identify with him. I can’t say anything my character does is something I actively do. But the pieces of it that are deep inside me in my heart and in my brain, where the convictions are, have to do exactly with what he’s talking about.
You’ve worked with a good deal of preeminent talent in your career. How do you feel about this company of actors?
This cast is terrific. It’s hard to make comparisons, but Jason has gotten such rich and full work from them with so many shadings of character. This group of actors is wonderful for me in its curiosity about what could this be.
As an accomplished actor and teacher and director, do you ever find yourself giving pointers or advice to the younger members of the cast?
If they ask me, I am forthcoming with suggestions. I don’t put it out there, but if someone is struggling with something, I have not been too timid. We exchange stories backstage about our careers, and some are about things that the young people are too uptight about. Sometimes an anecdote about a time I went through something like that might be helpful.
What do they ask you most often?
They want to get jobs. “What do I have to do to get a job?”
And what do you tell them?
Walter Brennan once said in an interview, “For a long shot, you do it big. For a medium shot, you do it medium. And for a close-up, you do it intense. But you always do it.”
Do you believe, like some, that a lot of LA theater actors are just hanging out, waiting for that great film role?
When I came out to California in 1975, the actors wanting classes were completely different than in New York. In New York they were interested in how you act a part and bring it pulsatingly to life. Most of the people out here were just hungry to get a job. I fell in with some actors who had been doing a lot of TV and were thrilled to be back on the stage again. There’s a saying: “On any given night on stage, you’re the boss. There’s no one holding you back. You’re the boss.”
You’ve played so many wonderful roles on stage, on television, in film. Which is most dear or most memorable to you?
The one that mattered most to me was playing Abe Burrows in Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been . . . ? It just felt so movlngly clear to me what this guy was going through, and how he was trying to survive this onslaught of malevolence got me. That was memorable and gratifying in so many ways.
What do you tell people who may not know Neil Simon’s work–and who have so many entertainment options–to get them out to the Odyssey for this play?
Broadway Bound is a moving, funny piece of material in which people’s desires to live good, full lives get all mixed up—just like us. What is it you really believe in? What is it you think you want? What makes a relationship work over the years? It is very touching and funny, and I never think of the characters’ lives as sad. I think of them as full, rich lives, bursting into new places their curiosities and adventures can take them. It’s an absolutely marvelous play for anybody anywhere because it is so universal.
Interview with Michael Herring – July 14, 2014