Unlike her play The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’sÂ The Autumn Garden doesn’t teach tales of morality; rather, it depicts the way we cling by the skin of our teeth to the last vestiges of youth. Our own middle ages are settling upon us and there is little comfort in that, particularly when we’ve developed certain unhealthy tendencies.
As is common for Antaeus Theatre in North Hollywood, this production of Hellman’s play is double cast. The group recently accomplished an acclaimed run of King Lear with two casts led by kingpins Dakin Matthews and Harry Groener. It makes sense to double cast when the actors are so strong: too often an actor must bow out for a better paying gig or an audition that can lead to one.
Two of Autumn Garden‘s central characters are Nick and Nina. The walls of their marriage are so close there is barely elbow room. A tidy marriage, it is not.
Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle, Raising the Bar) is Mrs. to Stephen Caffrey‘sÂ Mr. “I cannot believe how well the doubling goes,” she says. “By the time we reach this age, maybe competition just goes away but there’s a camaraderie among these actors that’s just unbelievable. Maybe it’s because we’re in Los Angeles too where people aren’t as theatre-focused but this is a group of actors all at the top of their game, who come in here because they enjoy doing this so much and to share ideas.”
Referring to Caffrey and the other Nick, Jeffrey Nordling (24, Desperate Housewives), Kaczmarek points out, “These guys walk to their cars together. I don’t want to say they direct each other but they’ll offer up ideas that are taken so well.”
Nordling agrees. “I think that’s fair, not in a ‘do it my way’ sense but ‘what do you think about this because what I’m getting from what you’re doing is this’ and I think it’s the difference between 10 degrees of anger and 70 degrees of anger – we can check each other [and weigh in].”
These are actors whose two decades of shared experience and friendship enhances their approach to the characters.Â Â When asked how this long friendship affects his characterization, Nordling says, “Well, if I had to pick an actor to work off of, it would be Steve because he’s very good, first of all. There’s complete trust and no competition or ego with either of us. We’re there for each other. We give each other room – I give him room to do it his way then I do it my way and we just kind of work that out.”
When Groener and Matthews were leading separate casts inÂ Lear, the question arose of blocking and props: were both actors tied to the same movements and items so as not to confuse the actors who occasionally popped into the other cast? And were these issues ultimately decided by director Bart DeLorenzo?
In the case ofÂ Lear, most movements and props were similar, if not identical. And inÂ Autumn Garden, there is room for invention. Caffrey, who portrayed the Fool opposite JD Cullum inÂ Lear, says of director Larry Biederman, “Direction tends to be the same for both camps. But this is basically an actor’s theatre so I think Larry’s a great overseer for us and we’ve been let loose on the playground.” What’s more, “We call each other and have conversations in the lobby so we’re always working things out between us.”
Nordling hasn’t seen much difference in the use of props, “but there have been a couple of times with Jeff, whose stature is different than mine, when he’s decided to approach something from an angrier place and I went, ‘okay, that’s great, I’m going to cherry pick a little piece of that but I’m not going to go the exact way you’re going.’ I think Larry’s followed each of our leads because, as he’s said, everybody is good. He can’t say ‘Do it this way’ because both of our choices are viable. As long as we stay in the same room we can block differently.”
“One of the biggest rules in acting,” says Kaczmarek, “is listening. In my case of working with either Nick you have to listen to different interpretations of the same character and respond differently. As an actor, that’s what’s really fun. You hear the analogy of tennis for example and you’re used to getting a backhand over and over from someone and then you’re in the court with someone with a good forehand, you’ve got to respond that way. That’s really fun.”
The word “fun” triggers something in Kitty Swink, the other Nina. “We have a little too much fun, giggling and stealing – ‘Oh, I’m going to take that if you don’t mind.’ I started doubling at the Matrix Theatre where, every night, it was different people. But that’s part of the fun for me, all this shifting and listening.”
That each actor respects the other is palpable. Caffrey says competition is nonexistent; rather, “It’s ‘Oh, you’re illuminating a whole corner of something, Jeff, that perhaps I hadn’t seen’ because he’s approaching it from a completely different tack. I might be inspired by it.”
“It’s very hard to flat-out steal,” Nordling adds. “It’s totally legal but I’ve tried it and it’s hard because, like a certain comic moment Steve comes up with that brings the house down, I think ‘Okay, I’m going to try that’ and it’s not organic so it’s hard to pull off.”
“And even if they do exactly the same 100% interpretation,” notes Kaczmarek, “being two different human beings it comes out completely differently. There’s that game Scattergories and there will be the category of cars and the letter is C and everyone has to write down one car that starts with C and you’re sure that everyone’s going to write down Cadillac.”
Everyone chimes in with their off-the-cuff responses: Chrysler, Cougar, Chevrolet, Citroen. She continues, “You can’t believe what you thought was the standard wasn’t the way everyone would see it. You can be given a very finite character, a finite set of lines and direction, but what goes through different human beings come out very differently.”
“And when you do the double casting,” Caffrey adds, “it’s very funny because it could be another 10 or 15 years before you see the play again, especially a Lillian Hellman play, so it’s pretty wild.”
For these actors who have known one another for so long, it’s natural to notice when they’re on and when they’re off, and who falls prey to a crutch or certain technique.
Nordling finds that, “As we get older, you see much less technique in actors. It all tends to meld into a salad bar of all the things you’ve learned. When you’re in your 20s, performances can stink of different techniques. That said, I think we all have a bag of tricks and I’d pay a lot of money for Dakin Matthews’ bag of tricks. If you know Dakin really well, you see them but they still work. I’m aware of most of my tricks and [wife, actor] Francia [Dimase] will catch me and say, ‘You’re doing that thing again’.”
Swink nods. Her husband, Armin Shimerman, who is well known as Quark in the Star Trek franchise, “does that with me. Isn’t it great being married to another actor?”
“I don’t remember who said this quote,” Caffrey adds. “Every great actor does three things really well. And a great director’s job is to keep them from doing it.”
Perhaps it’s the respect born of performing in play and play together but Nordling finds it’s the job of a good director or actor to “take the risk and say to someone, ‘Stop it. Stop it. You’re doing that thing again.’ It can get lazy where an actor will rely only on his voice or a certain bearing he has or a manipulation of words and you just have to tell him to stop. Be quiet and listen.”
Swink finds Autumn Garden “requires us to take really big risks and if you’re laying on your technique you can’t take the big emotional risks you have to take.”
Kaczmarek remembers a risk she once took. “I was in a production of Long Day’s Journey into Night playing Mary Tyrone. Everyone on opening night gave gifts of bourbon because everyone drinks bourbon in the play. I had a long time off, sitting in my dressing room and I thought, ‘You know, I wonder what it would be like to have a drink and go on stage… Well, let’s try it!’ I had a couple snorts of bourbon and it was the mad scene at the end of the play for Mary Tyrone. And I thought this is fabulous! I’d never felt as connected to a character; I’d never felt as loose and I came off stage and said to myself, ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’ You always want to think you can do this stone cold sober because that’s what you have to do for the rest of your life – once you start thinking you’re a little bit better when you have a couple of shots in you… ay, ay, ay.”
It does raise the question of the risks an actor takes when playing drunk. The actors compare notes:
Nordling: “He’s a fun drunk up until Act II, scene 2…”
Caffrey: “And he goes a bourbon too far…”
Nordling: “A little too far and gets really ugly. He thinks he’s funny and charming but he’s really quite ugly.”
Kaczmarek: “That was something we were talking about early on; does he continue to get drunk or drunker?”
Nordling: “It happened a lot in rehearsals. I’d hear Steve say I was too drunk and I need to bring it back about three drinks for a certain moment. You not only need to map it out in terms of how the character goes through the play and how it intensifies but it’s hard to play a convincing drunk without coming across like [the late comedian] Foster Brooks.”
Swink: “Jane and I found there’s a scene where we come in drunk and they (the Nicks) are such cretins it sobers us up. But Jane and I are the leaners. We chew up the scenery. There’s that weird sofa, love-seat thing which already has some teeth marks in it and it only showed up yesterday.”
Use your imagination.
The camaraderie the four actors share in this room at Deaf West, where Antaeus mounts its shows, is as palpable and intrusive at rehearsal. “I missed every single entrance last night because I was talking,” jokes Kaczmarek. “What, I have to pay attention? I don’t pay attention! I’m used to a PA [television production assistant] coming and saying, ‘Miss Kaczmarek, they’re ready for you now,’ and I say, ‘Get me a diet Coke and tell them I’ll be in when I finish with my phone call!’ (Laughs) Here, it’s back to what you love – acting, like in high school – without the PAs. It’s why we got involved in this in the first place: it’s the story telling, the community, hanging out with a bunch of actors, and learning to listen to your entrance cues.”
Swink laments the end of joint rehearsals. “The four of us are like this little club and we’re always off in the corner and it’s so much fun. The Nina scenes are pretty much contained with the Nicks. And now we’re getting to the place where we have to split and I’m getting bereft because I won’t see Steve and Jane as much. They’re my buddies and my troublemakers – mostly my troublemakers.”
The Autumn Garden, produced by Young Ji for Antaeus Theatre Company, has four gala openings Oct. 28-31.Â Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 4 pm. Beginning Nov. 4, it plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2:30 and 7:30 pm; through Dec. 19 (no performance Thurs., Nov. 25). Tickets: $30 (Thur.-Fri.); $34 (Sat.-Sun.); $40-$75 (opening weekend includes a post-show reception). Previews $20 (Oct. 22-27). Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Bl., North Hollywood. 818.506.1983 or antaeus.org.