Great Moments in New York Theater -- Burn This
Lanford Wilson had, long, been a favourite writer of Pat’s. I only knew his work because, as a young boy, I had caught an episode or two of a TV sitcom called HOT L BALTIMORE. I never forgot it and in college I found and read the original play. Then I was exposed to more of his plays when I met Pat, who cast me in a college production of the Lanford Wilson one act Home Free that he was directing. It was while we were doing this play that we fell in love. So Lanford Wilson, as you can imagine, has a very special place in our hearts.
We had read that Mr Wilson had a new show on Broadway and were anxious to see it, even though the original stars had left the show. We would not be seeing Joan Allen or John Malcovich. At the time, it meant nothing to me, as I had not yet been exposed to the genius that is Joan Allen; and her replacement Lisa Emery was really wonderful (she has, since, become one of our favourite New York actors, whose work we venture to see whenever we can). In the male lead we were both excited to see a man whose work we have loved a long time: Mr Eric Roberts.
I wish I could describe for you what that night in the Plymouth Theater was like. It was so long ago, I don’t think I can remember, in detail. The curtain went up and there was this SET, this amazing set..it was a New York City loft apartment and it was HUGE (living here, now, I don’t know anyone who lives in places like this – just by the way). There was this MUSIC by Peter Kater that was simply electrifying. There was this language, this language, this language – it was as though Lanford Wilson had got inside of my head and written down things that were floating there, waiting to be plucked from some cocoon like place, then handed them over to the most glorious orators he could find. I loved these actors. They were raw and edgy and sophisticated and common and honest. They were real. They were the people I wanted to be around, to be. I loved the story and the way it all unfolded, I loved; well… I guess I just loved it. When it was over, I wanted to move but I couldn’t breathe. It was like I had been electrocuted.
That’s how Burn This became my favourite play.
I went round to Triton Gallery the next day and got the poster for the play and a silver pen and went back so I could get Eric Roberts’ autograph. He was simply extraordinary in that play. He breathed life into a character that I felt that I understood, so much; in the years to come, I would understand him much more. His particular quirks and ticks worked so perfectly for the role, I felt it had been written for him. I have never been able to picture Mr Malkovitch in the part. Sorry, John. So I waited at the stage door after the Wednesday matinee and met Mr Roberts, only briefly, while he signed my poster. I did not meet Miss Emery but I did meet the wonderful Lou Liberatore, whose performance as Larry, the gay roommate, reached inside of me and hit an “On” switch. It was a performance so very nuanced and layered that, years later, when I played the part, I found myself struggling to create so exemplary a portrayal. I did not succeed. Nevertheless, I adored him in the role and I got him to sign my poster. It is hanging behind me in my office, as I type.
Burn This has been my favourite play ever since. Others have come along and joined my list of favourites; but Burn This is in the top spot, right next to The Lion in Winter and The Philadelphia Story. I have never forgotten that night in the theater. I even bought the Peter Kater cd so I could have the music from the show.
I mentioned that I had the chance to do Burn This. When it came time for the first Dallas production to be mounted, I caught wind of it and called the director (whom I had never met) and told him:
“I understand you’re doing my favourite play and I called to audition so I can be in it.”
“We aren’t having auditions. We’re just seeing actors that we know.”
“Well I will take you for coffee so you know me; then you can let me audition so I can be in it.”
He didn’t want me to audition but I pushed and pushed, the way I always have when I wanted something. Eventually, the director yielded, if only to get me to leave him alone.
During my days as an actor, the only time I ever got a part that I really wanted was when I wanted it so badly that I went to the audition completely performance ready. That is how I got the role of Larry in Burn This. I read my ass off. I read rings around everyone who walked in the door, be they competition or actors coming in for one of the other three parts. I gave a fully realized performance each time I spoke lines, from memory, without script.
They didn’t hire me.
The director called to tell me that they were hiring someone else, a friend of mine, because they wanted to cast a black actor in this role. I said ok. I said ok because I knew that my friend had just taken a job in another show. I said ok because I knew that, the next day, they would call and offer me the part. They did. I said yes. And though I didn’t give the inimitable performance that Lou Liberatore gave, I had the time of my life and I walked away from the production with one of the best friends I have and will ever have.
My journey with Burn This does not stop there, though.
When I was working on The Sweater Book, Lanford Wilson and Marshall Mason (director of the original Broadway production) came for their photo shoots together. They saw the poster from the original production, signed and all, hanging in the living room. Lanford pointed and said “Oh LOOK! They put that there because we were coming!” Pat told them, no; it’s always been there.
I was happy.
Burn This has always made me happy, from the first moment til that moment.
Only it doesn't stop there.
Years later, I was in Hollywood working on The Sweater Book. I worked with Conchata Ferrell, one of the loveliest people you would ever be lucky enough to meet. It turned out Conchata is an accomplished, a well loved and well respected acting teacher; turned out one of my dearest friends was studying with her. I went to class with Sean to watch him act and Conchata welcomed me with open arms, having remembered me from our photo shoot several months earlier. I sat at the back of the class and observed and, at the end of class, I asked if I could come again next week and be a student. She said yes, of course, please bring me a monologue.
During my years as an actor, I did two monologues from Burn This. One was a Larry monologue. I had played Larry, the gay, wise cracking roommate. The other was a Pale monologue. I had never played Pale, even though that is one of the characters written for the theater that is so like me that it might as have been written for me… that is to say: that is me when I am drinking, which I don’t anymore. Had I remained in the business, though, the chances that I would ever be cast as Pale were slim to none. I’m far too gay. I simply would never be able to pull it off. I can’t dial back my gayness enough to make it work. Too bad.
The following week I went in with the Pale monologue
I waited until the entire class was done and Conchata asked if I would like to do my thang. So I did…
Did I mention that Lanford Wilson and Conchata Ferrell are, like, best friends? Have been since the 70s? He wrote the part of April in HOT L BALTIMORE for her?
So here I was, doing a Lanford Wilson monologue, written for a character I would never have been cast in, for Lanford Wilson’s best friend.
I started the monologue. “LOOK. Don’t leave messages for me.” I was comfortable on the stage, comfortable in my skin and in the scene. I was only marginally aware of my audience – only to the point that I kept them in mind for the sake of technique. I never wavered, I gave the piece my all. When I was finished, I was seated. I waited. I turned to look at Conchata, who was leaning forward, elbows on knees, hands in prayer position and up to her mouth. I waited. I waited.
“Why on EARTH did you stop acting?”
She turned to her class.
“THAT was a perfect Lanford Wilson performance.”
She turned back to me.
“I have no critique for you. I just want to know why you stopped acting.”
“I found something better.”
In that moment, I won my Tony.