There are three standout moments in any theatre gig: the offer, the first night, and… the last night.
The offer validates you as an actor.
The first night tests the work you’ve done in rehearsal.
And the last night…
In the days before a show closes you move from a temporary sense of permanence back to a semi-permanent sense of transition. The group of intimate strangers that assembled around this production and became a family for a while is going to dissolve. Some of us will meet again, maybe all but one or two will have a reunion dinner. But it’s unlikely that we’ll ever again see the whole company as it was when we did the show. In some circumstances this can be a positive of course. But mostly not. Mostly the parting of the ways is at least a little wistful, and often rather poignant. As is the familiar transition to uncertainty. Chances are all of us will work again, but not all of us know it for sure.
There’s nothing I know of to stop the forward march of time, but the way time passes onstage and over the course of a run, is odd. There’s the repetition. Every performance repeats the words and the moves, it’s both as exactly similar as you can make it, but also as singular as your experience of the present moment can be – at least it’s better when it is.
This being in the moment thing is important, specially in comedy. Say you’re playing a scene with another actor and there’s a possible laugh coming up. For the laugh to hit, both of you has to be aware of the comic possibility in the text; the pace, rhythm, and timing of your scene partner; and what the audience collectively can respond to.
Life of Riley, is a play about three couples, and our seven person cast (including the silent but telling cameo given by Rebecca Gold) was an expert group including, among others: Dana Green, Nisi Sturgis, Ray Chambers, and David Bishens – as varied a group of human shapes, types, and temperament as you could assemble – led by a skilled, deft, and graceful director in Rick Seer. I reckon directing is the most demanding job in theatre, but if you cast a play well and create a place that is fun to work in, where people can experiment freely, a lot of your work is done.
I played opposite the splendid Henny Russell, as gifted a comedienne as I’ve ever met on a stage. And as consummate a technician with all the awareness mentioned above in spades. I was predisposed to like her for having the good taste to accept this gig, and then delighted as we began rehearsals, and it became clear that we fit well together as a comic partnership. Comic chemistry with a scene partner is fun like no other. The sound of several hundred people all laughing at once is just so great, and for a couple of vocational comic actors what could be better?
Usually a laugh breaks like a wave. You can see it coming, and if the timing is reasonable (and the script is funny – let’s not forget the playwright), then the laugh will arrive, swell, and fade. How the right silence is held for the comic idea to be heard, how the words of the punchline are delivered, how the actors listen (or don’t) to each other, how they focus the moment; all this is technique, which is why comedy demands the most technical accomplishment from its actors.
And there are different kinds of laugh. Titters, ripples, swells, explosions… and occasionally… the comic bullseye, a rolling laugh. A laugh which arrives and peaks, but goes on to another peak, and another, an endless laugh lasting for a long long time in stage time, say as much as 20 or 30 seconds. Henny and I scored a few of these. They don’t happen often. Some laughs are reliable, so built into the show that if they’re not there something is wrong. But the rolling laugh arrives only when everything is right in the scene and when the timing hits the sweet spot.
And how did Ayckbourn, the quintessentially middle-class English playwright, play in Southern California? Mostly very well. The usual hazards (from the actors point of view) applied of course: oversize patrons with limbs spilling into the aisles where entrances were made, talkative patrons supplying live and loud running commentary on the show as it progressed, and of course those patrons who believe the theatre is the best place to take a refreshing after-dinner sleep sometimes complete with snoring. But mostly English marital dysfunction played well in these parts. And after all, all history tells us that issues in marriage do occur frequently in most times and places.
Ayckbourn specializes in bittersweet; shade with his light; a dark lining in the comic gesture of his plays. But the Checkovian darkness in this play was gently tempered with a subliminal message referenced but unspoken in the final graveside scene when the voice of an unseen vicar tells the story of the woman taken in adultery. The tag line of that fragment of the comedie humaine is: ‘who is without sin let him cast the first stone…’ living in times when public figures fall from grace with drumbeat regularity, because, of all things, sexual peccadillos, this value seems an excellent one to me.
And that, combined with an exquisite set and costume design, an invigorating sound track, a cohesive group of theatre folk wrangling and delivering a fun show including a series of comedy duets such as it was my great pleasure to play with Ms. Russell. All that goes to say that it doesn’t get any better than it got in Life of Riley at The Old Globe, in the vivid Jacaranda-blossom springtime 2011.