During a rehearsal of a key confrontational scene in Eric Rudnick‘s Day Trader, teenager Brighid Fleming — playing 15-year-old Juliana Barlow — holds her own against Danton Stone, the actor who plays her 49-year-old father Ron. As Juliana, Fleming — probably the youngest actor ever to win an Ovation Award — is protesting the type of parental pressure children are forever being told is for “your own good.”
When Ron tells his daughter she’s a “well of disappointment” to her mother, the failed scriptwriter is really psychologically describing himself, even as he accuses Juliana of a crime while seeking to scam her. Fleming, however, is subtle enough to suggest that her shrewd character smells a rat — and won’t go gently into that good night.
Welcome to the morally compromised universe of Day Trader, a thriller that boasts more twists and turns than Maui’s fabled road to Hana. Ron Barlow is a failed scriptwriter facing the big 5-0. Playwright and co-producer Rudnick believes many aspiring artistes in Hollywood’s milieu “will recognize themselves” in the characters on display in the premiere of his play, on Thursday at Bootleg Theater.
While economic survival often preoccupies hopefuls reaching for stardom’s brass ring, it isn’t Ron’s worry. He’s married — although unhappily — to a millionaire. Brenda, the so-called “Iron Lady of Hancock Park,” tightly grasps the purse strings and an ironclad pre-nup. Throughout the two-act play, Brenda’s offstage presence will be projected on the set as, literally, an ominous shadow. Although Brenda never actually sets foot on the stage, she looms over the proceedings by passing notes to Ron. It’s a writer’s wry way of lampooning (and harpooning) those suits who think they can tell scribes what to write, simply because they have money.
The bar has been set low for Barlow, whom, Rudnick stresses, “wants something of his own, something to call his.” To this end the increasingly despairing has-been (if, indeed, he ever was) scribbler turns to day trading. Ron commiserates with his neighbor Phil (Tim Meinelschmidt), another wannabe wordsmith.
During a rare night out on the town with Phil, Ron encounters the femme fatale Bridget (Murielle Zuker, who appeared as a droll Frida Kahlo in The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy at the Odyssey Theatre), who seems to be a would-be actress waiting on tables. Despite the fact that the first two letters of her name are the same as Brenda’s, Ron believes Bridget is the ticket to the fulfillment of his sexual yearnings and cravings for financial independence. But oh what a tangled web these dramatis personae weave as they proceed to practice to deceive.
From Nether and Dark to Day
Fleming relates to Day Trader’s Juliana, describing her as “very different, very edgy and very smart. She doesn’t really go by teenage rules [and] is very intuitive; she picks up on things really quickly. She’s really smart and witty and uses that to her advantage.” Juliana attends an elite private school and is a year older than Fleming.
Regarding the dad-daughter interplay that’s arguably at the heart of the play, Fleming says Juliana “has a kind of friend relationship with her father. They interact with each other as friends more than mother–” Catching her Freudian slip, Fleming laughs and continues: “Mother! Wow! Father and daughter, which is in some ways unhealthy. But in some ways it makes their connection stronger — in her eyes anyway, but maybe not necessarily his.” Fleming’s own father, who had been a scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories, died when she was seven, when the family was living in Albuquerque.
As for Juliana’s interaction with Ron’s onstage extramarital lover (Zuker), Fleming gushes: “I love playing with her! She’s fun to work with… because she goes along with my remarks and with what I’m doing with her. So she’s in her own way witty and smart, too, so I find her fun…” Fleming adds that by the end of Act 2, Juliana is “in charge” of the woman who is a decade or so her senior.
Rudnick believes the jury is still out on the precise nature of Juliana’s relationship with Bridget — which, the playwright says, “I leave up to the audience” to determine.
Fleming finds parallels between her current character and the role she played in her last theater outing. “Juliana is definitely similar to Gloria in Wait Until Dark,” which opened last October at the Geffen Playhouse with a decidedly film noir-like slant. Fleming portrayed a spunky neighbor who assists the blind Susan (Alison Pill) when she is besieged by murderous scamsters and schemers. Day Trader has a decidedly “Hollywood noir” vibe.
The acting bug bit when Brighid was three after experiencing Seussical the Musical during a New York trip. Fleming went on to move from Albuquerque to LA and study acting with David Wells. She portrayed a virtual character, the coquettish Iris, in The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s drama which opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre last March. That production scored seven Ovations — the most for any 2013 production — including Fleming’s featured actress award.
“It was unbelievable; I knew that I was nominated, but didn’t think I’d win,” confesses the 14- year-old, who learned of her accolade when the Wait Until Dark cast gave her a round of applause backstage during the Nov. 3 performance. Fleming explains that her Nether part “was an avatar of a 65-year-old man… It was great to be able to play such a good character ’cause there aren’t a lot of roles like that for girls my age. Especially child avatar prostitutes, which is definitely different! …I had Victorian garb, including corsets.”
In 2009’s action-packed movie Gamer, Fleming says she played a somewhat similar role in that Delia, “Gerard Butler’s daughter, had been kidnapped by Michael C. Hall, who put a kind of drug or virtual thing in me that made me completely brainwashed, like an avatar. Completely straightforward, no emotion, until the end.” Her current big screen role is as Eleanor in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day. Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Tobey Maguire co-star in the convict-on-the-lam drama.
“I got to meet Kate Winslet and she hugged me — it was like the best moment of my entire life!” proclaims Fleming, who blushed after the embrace with the Titanic star, which made her feel like, well, “king of the world.” The day following her interview for this piece at the Day Trader rehearsal, the busy young actress — who was on school break — was scheduled to appear in an auto insurance commercial.
Danton Stone’s LA stage debut
The teen thesp calls her Day Trader adult co-stars “hilarious, so fun to work with. It’s really encouraging to have actors that are so good to be working across from.”
The artist Fleming matches wits with has formidable stage and screen credits, and this is not the first time Danton Stone has played opposite a fair-haired ingenue. When Claire Danes was around Fleming’s age, Stone had a recurring role in My So-Called Life, the mid-1990s television series that launched Danes’ award-winning career. On the big screen Stone has also acted with Nastassja Kinski in 1984’s Maria’s Lovers, Daryl Hannah and Dudley Moore in 1990’s Crazy People, Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss in 1991’s Once Around. In the early ’90s Stone played Jerry Bowman on the Roseanne sitcom with Roseanne Barr, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf.
Although Stone has worked in TV and movie productions shot in Hollywood, the Manhattanite recently relocated to the City of the Angels — and Day Trader marks his LA stage debut. His roots are in the New York theater world, where he co-starred with Metcalf as the drug dealer Joe in Circle Repertory Company’s 1984 revival of Balm in Gilead. The Circle Rep-Steppenwolf co-production was directed by John Malkovich and written by Lanford Wilson. The Pulitzer-winning dramatist wrote roles specifically for Stone to play, including Wes Hurley, the composer in 1978’s Fifth of July and Don Tabaha, the half-Navajo medical student in 1982’s Angels Fall. Stone was also in Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, as well as Broadway versions of Fifth of July with Christopher (Superman) Reeve in 1980 and 2001’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Gary Sinise.
The Washington, DC-born Rudnick was raised at Massapequa, Long Island. After attending a community college in upstate New York, he studied acting with Richard Pinter at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which follows the Sanford Meisner tradition. Then at the Atlantic Theater Company, Rudnick sat in on a class taught by David Mamet. He also worked at Playwrights Horizons, the Harold Clurman Theatre and Ensemble Studio Theatre in LA, where Rudnick relocated in 1999 and continues to pursue both acting (he is the understudy for Day Trader’s Ron Barlow character, who is roughly Rudnick’s age) and writing for the stage and big and little screens. In 2003 he wrote and appeared in Edge of Allegiance, a political spoof of the Bush presidency; the play, which ran at the Met Theatre, is now a web series helmed by Day Trader’s director Steven Williford.
Hardly a lounge
During the three-and-a-half-hour rehearsal this reporter observed one December night, at the Lounge in Hollywood, Fleming and Stone went over three different father-daughter scenes full of Rudnick’s thrust and parry dialogue. Still early in the experimental stage, the actors had a good-natured, free-flowing interchange with each other and their stage manager Ash Nichols, who sat behind or beside a table facing the stage with a computer on it.
At various points during the rehearsal, Williford joined the thesps onstage to work on the blocking with them, taking the actors through their paces as he hit upon a way to further dramatize the parent-child confrontation. Suddenly Williford exclaimed: “Oh, fuck me! I just had an idea!” His brainstorm not only justified Juliana’s sudden physicality (which isn’t in the script per se) but explains it, as he expands the mise-en-scène to include Brenda’s shadowy offstage presence.
Rudnick calls himself “the kind of person who enjoys collaboration. So there’s already been moments during the rehearsal process where the actors or director have come up with ideas that change meanings or heighten things. I’m all for it — because the script is a blueprint, as much as the script has gone through changes and I’ve had 12 readings over the last five years… This part of it is so much fun, because you get to decide with great actors and a fantastic director… The way [Williford] works with actors is so good and he brings out the best in everybody. Having this winning team is the best — the rehearsal is such a fun process because who the hell knows what’s gonna happen by the time we get done.”
Day Trader, Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., LA. 90057. Previewing now, opens Thursday, January 16. Thu-Sat 7 pm and Sun 2 pm. Through February 16. Tickets: $25. www.bootlegtheater.org. 213-389-3856
**All Day Trader photos by Ed Krieger.