How often are masks worn””literally or figuratively? The hidden hurts; the poker faces; the invisible, impenetrable layers that seemingly can’t be removed? Or the “putting on” of one’s face with makeup to cover flesh or whatever else is to be hidden? In the hands of playwright Andrew Dolan, who uses equal doses of theatricality and normalcy in his plays, the multitude of masks worn in That Good Night, presented by The Road Theatre Company, forces one family’s members to lower their guards while audiences see the costs of doing so.
It’s not often a playwright enjoys the fruits of his labor by having premieres mounted within weeks of each other. Such is the case with Dolan, whose powder-keg The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King opened March 17 at Ensemble Studio Theatre””LA and whose first written stage play That Good Night opens tonight.
Dolan shared much of his life story in a previous LA STAGE Times article, “Dolan and EST/LA’s Many Mistresses Tackle Race.” Apparently there is more to learn about this hungry creative, who feels he’s on top of the world with the good fortune of being double-produced yet wary enough to realize two plays don’t make a career or satisfy his own desires.
Connections of Another Kind
Dolan is speaking with LA STAGE Times via speakerphone in New York. Joining the interview in Los Angeles is multicreative taskmaster Scott Alan Smith, a member of The Road’s Artistic Board, who directs That Good Night. The lithe, relaxed-for-the-moment Smith leans back on a worn sofa in The Road’s back offices. It’s as if he relishes the break from long hours and preparation for opening, now able to banter with his good friend and fellow alum of American Conservatory Theater.
Dolan reminisces briefly about his Mistresses experience. “I was extremely proud with the production,” he says. “I came to LA to see the show a month into the run and had read most of what were really fabulous reviews.” Smith nods in agreement and gives a thumb’s up to Rod Menzies’ work as director at ESTÂ””LA.
“It was the first time I sat in a theater, watching a play I wrote that was given a full production,” Dolan continues. “I had only seen readings up to that point of Mistresses. It was a virgin experience for me, and I’m grateful to EST for taking that leap to produce the play.”
That Good Night earned him Marin Theatre Company’s David Calicchio Award for best emerging playwright. But if EST””LA had his first play in its hands, doing a reading of it, how did the play’s premiere production slip through the company’s fingers? Smith’s face beams, a smile gleefully crosses his face and he says, “The ACT connection.”
Dolan shares, “A couple of years ago, ACT had an alumni weekend. They asked graduates who had written plays to send them in, and they’d do a reading of the best. I submitted That Good Night. Scott submitted King of the Moon, which is a wonderful play.”
Smith bursts out with laughter. “Yeah, so wonderful you beat us! It made me want to immediately read his play.”
Dolan’s voice turns frank. “There’s a common language there [with ACT alums], and it really counts for a lot. I strongly suspected Scott and I would be on the same wavelength with the play. Here we are.”
Smith grins. “And here we are. We did a staged reading in October 2010 and decided to put it into our 21st season.”
Why That Good Night
What in the world was twirling around in Dolan’s head, making it so important to put fingers to the keyboard for the very first time as a writer? “Honestly I don’t know why, but I followed my instinct to write a comedy about death,” he says. “And it’s not autobiographical.”
Revealing more, “I liked the idea of adult siblings who have gone off and lived their own lives, being forced into a pressure cooker situation to come home. If I’m going to do death, let’s have them come home for an euthanization. To put dad to rest. The characters started speaking to me. It was as if I wasn’t writing them myself, and that’s the way it rolled forth. I started with the protagonist, who was a clown””only because I’ve always been fascinated by clowns, and I like the circumstance. Then I just started playing.
“Like with Mistresses, I want my theater to have a little theater in it,” he continues. “But I still love a story being told with characters who the audience can relate to. It was important to tell a straightforward story while throwing a few theatrical curve balls. I hope it’s funny but more than just funny. I hope people are entertained.”
Smith taps the coffee table with emphasis. “What we look for [at The Road] are plays that live in the language. That’s Andrew’s play. He has written eight wonderful roles for actors, and it goes along with our season’s theme which is “˜the dysfunctional family’””following The Water’s Edge and Finding Fossils, families struggling with long-held truths and secrets about each other.”
What makes That Good Night tick? “It’s the dynamic between the characters, the relationships between them, what’s said and isn’t said,” says Smith. “It’s very palpable in watching it. Andrew has absorbed this in a way that reminds me of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with elements of Chekhov and Williams and Shepard. There are other elements like the magic of realism. The audience makes an assumption about what they’re going to see, sits back and then they’re suddenly surprised. They lean forward and have no idea what this is, what’s going to happen next.”
How can they not with a clown? Smith concurs, “Our worst fear is the party clown who is a heroin addict. We have Matt Morgan [with Troubadour Theater Company] and our clown consultant. He’s been great in coaching Bernie Zilinskas in the creation of the clown and with movement.” Smith reports he has lost eight pounds directing this show but Zilinskas has lost almost 20. “That’s how committed he is to the role,” says the director.
Dolan apologetically bows out of the conversation. He has work to be done on his next play, as well as fleshing out on a musical””a political farce, which he’s very excited about.
There Are No Small Men
In the room with Smith, one quickly realizes within his slim frame beats the heart of a lion. He admits acting pays his bills, along with his ongoing position since 2008 as adjunct professor of theater at Pepperdine University. His screen roles include the upcoming The Newsroom (Aaron Sorkin’s new series on HBO premiering June 24), in addition to many more. He has appeared onstage regionally and in New York, but his Los Angeles stage work has included
The Dinosaur Within (Theatre @ Boston Court), Apollo, Richard III, King of the Moon, Kindertransport andThe Memorandum.
Smith is no slouch director. His résumé includes the West Coast premiere of New York Mets by TJ Edwards, which was nominated for an ADA award; Bus Stop at Spokane’s Interplayers Theater, where it won a 2006 people’s choice award; the 2007 production of The Adding Machine for Circus Theatricals (now known as The New American Theatre); and The Road’s West Coast premiere of Lady, by Craig Wright, which received four Ovation nominations and five LA Weekly Award nominations (including one for Smith), with two wins.
Most recently, Smith directed The Petoskey Stones by Elizabeth Sampson, also known for her talents as an actress and additional role as Smith’s wife. “I met her on stage in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton,” says Smith. “We both attended ACT, which set our course together; she’s directed me [in his co-authored play King of the Moon, which ran off-Off-Broadway], she’s assisted directed for me with Lady; and now I’m directing her in That Good Night. We’ve been together for 23 years and married for 21 years. That says something.”
Smith, newly named associate artistic director of The Road, happily mentions there will be no rest for the weary once That Good Night opens. He’ll be helping to put together The Road’s Third Annual Summer Playwright’s Festival, a fundraiser for the company, Aug. 5 through 12. The festival will consist of staged readings of scripts entirely new to LA, bringing in new and established playwrights, according to Smith.
As the clock nears time for rehearsal, Smith confesses a life mantra: “When you find something good, you run with it. Time is too short.” Drop the mask along with all that other “stuff” and make it happen. Theater reflecting life.
That Good Night, presented by The Road Theatre Company. Opens June 1. Plays Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through July 21. Tickets: $25. Economic-stimulus tickets are $10 on June 10 and 17. Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (866) 811-4111. www.RoadTheatre.org.
***All That Good Night production photos by Deverill Weekes