by Les Spindle – Feb. 21, 2001 backstage
Controversy and compelling theatre frequently go hand in hand. Case in point: the Odyssey Theatre’s holdover production of writer/director David Beaird’s 900 Oneonta, which in its U.S. premiere continues to draw large and responsive audiences, following a critical reception that was largely rapturous but scarcely unanimous. The harrowing play, set in 1979 Louisiana, is a vitriol-drenched, Faustian-tinged Southern drawing room comedy about the members of a Machiavellian clan scrambling to secure the financial legacy of the family’s dying patriarch.
Prior to a recent performance at the Odyssey, Back Stage West met with actors Jon Cryer and Ben Daniels to gain their viewpoints on the unique appeal of this pitch-black comedy, which seems to be adored by some and denigrated by others. Cryer and Daniels (who play combative brothers), along with Leland Crooke as the deranged family patriarch, are the three exemplary actors imported from the Olivier Award-nominated 1995 London production, joined by some local actors.
Cryer, son of actor David Cryer and actress Gretchen Cryer, is now studying film directing at USC. Audiences will recognize him from his many roles onstage (Torch Song Trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs), on-screen (Pretty in Pink), and in television sitcoms (The Fabulous Teddy Z). Daniels is a native of England, where he has performed in films (Madeleine, Wish You Were Here), onstage (Waiting for Godot, Entertaining Mr. Sloane), and on television. Two years ago, he made his first excursion to the U.S. to film portions of the film Passion in the Desert.
Ben Daniels: 900 is an extraordinary play, but I think it sort of frightens producers. Audiences just adore it. They sit there enthralled. I know when I first saw it, it just blew me away. I had never seen anything like it. I love it because it’s so huge. The way most theatre is being written at the moment is tiny. It could be seen on TV. This play has so much energy and size-levels of hugeness that an actor can go to and still retain the truth. As it’s written at the moment, you can only see it in the theatre. It’s a fully theatrical experience.
Jon Cryer: I also love the hugeness of it and its incredible urgency of emotions. Some people complain that it doesn’t present reality. They say real families aren’t this messed up and don’t talk this way. But the great thing about theatre is that it shouldn’t pretend to be real.
Some people don’t like it on an intellectual level, because they feel like it’s influenced too much by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. However, unlike some of those works, it’s not long and never boring. This show throttles forward on plot. One positive comparison to Williams is that it includes a tremendous amount of lyricism. Lyricism in a Southern dialect automatically ends up sounding like Williams, but I’ve never seen a Williams play that remotely resembles this. I think of some of those criticisms as sort of an intellectual buying out, finding a reason for something they didn’t like emotionally.
Ben: You’re always going to get some discomfort with work that explores areas that haven’t been tackled before. It’s going to upset as many people as those who love it. Disagreements over interpretation are the signs of a good play.
Jon: Even for those who don’t like everything about it, you can’t just dismiss it. It has amazing performances from everybody, including me.
Ben: [laughing] Especially you.
Jon: I’ve seen reviews that don’t mention that Leland Crooke portrays a 76-year-old man. For the hour and 15 minutes that he’s on, you don’t even realize that he’s nowhere near that age. He gives an amazing performance. Even if the play bothers you on some level, that has to carry some weight. And the audience reaction each night is overwhelming. Even in England, where I had been told the audiences will sit on their hands-that they’re very quiet, very intellectual people-they were wonderful. I’m about to make a big generalization about the British audiences… [glancing at Daniels].
Ben: Go ahead, Jon.
Jon: I think they listen more acutely. I went to see Arcadia in England and they responded to it on a deeper level than American audiences. It’s full of a lot of references that Americans might not get. Those looking for broad strokes won’t find them in that show.
Ben: I think we listen more carefully, because we have that tradition of Shakespeare. You have to listen to Shakespeare or you miss it completely. Also, all of my American friends who have seen 900 in London are kind of offended by how much the audience laughed, as if to ask, “Are you laughing at Americans?” But what they’re really laughing at is greed, and I think that’s universal. It applies to any kind of capitalist society. The play is powerful because it makes you laugh, then suddenly sort of punches you hard.
Jon: Dandy [Crooke’s character] is just this bulldozer of cruelty all through the first act. One reviewer said that you laugh a lot because it’s hilarious, but it doesn’t have a lot of wit. It’s not about wit so much. What’s funny is the ferocity of the characters.
Ben: And the audience response is so completely different from night to night. You can go out some times and it’s just so quiet, and you think-gee, they were just rolling around on the floor yesterday. It’s really strange how it happens with this play. I’ve never been in anything like it at all.
Jon: There are also differences between this production and the British one. The nice thing about the production at the Old Vic was that they just used everything they possibly could in the theatre. The theatre has this huge space. We had projections on the walls so that when the sky was thundering, you saw the thunder heads gathering, and then it rained. What you have here is an intimacy with the characters. It’s a little more threatening for the audience, due to the close proximity.
And I know my character has changed. In the British production, it was always about how frantic my character was. And what I’ve come to sort of do in this production is to vary the levels a lot more than I used to. Frantic works, but with this approach, the relationships are not always strained.
Ben: It’s much more detailed. I know that I’m certainly a million times more varied than I was in London, as well. Gitlo [Cryer’s character] seems nastier in some ways. All of the characters are somehow nastier than they were. I feel less likable here than in London. I think Tiger [Daniels’ character] is much harder to take in a smaller space.
Jon: Yeah, that’s true. In London, as a viewer, I could forgive Tiger’s fucked-up-ed-ness, because I saw him in the context of the family’s problems. And here I find him less easy to forgive. You seem to revel in Tiger’s screwed-up state. It’s not just a side effect of who Tiger is. It’s now him. The reason I think Gitlo comes off nastier is because I’ve taken him down some. It makes everything he does seem kind of planned, like he has two different faces.
The great thing about getting to do a new production is that all of a sudden, things that you didn’t hear the first time become clear. Once the lines become a part of you, you sometimes realize that they mean something completely different from what you previously thought.
Ben: That also happens within the run of a show. There’s that weird thing that happens the last show or two shows during a run when you say, “Oh my God, I could have said it like that.” When I did this show, it was a compete departure for me. David had seen me in a production of Waiting for Godot. I met him afterwards and he said “Please come and see my play” And then I got this call from him out of the blue when it was going to the Old Vic. So I never read for it. I thought, Wow, how am I going to play this? But fortunately David is so similar to Tiger that I watched him do it to get the essence.
Jon: When I first did the play, David asked me to help him out by just doing a reading of the play. No one really thought I was right for the part because Gitlo was supposed to be 40 years old. That’s why he was so pissed that the inheritance was going to Tiger-he was the oldest son. I had so much fun in the reading, I said “Can I please stay?” and David agreed. He didn’t have to rewrite it, just re-imagine it.
Ben: One thing I’d like to say about the play is that it’s actually very European in style-more Elizabethan or Jacobean, sort of bedeviled. Like those plays, it’s huge, yet painted with colors of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Tiger is sort of flying in the face of God.
Jon: David’s style is unique. The first time I read the script, it was the size of a phone book-about 500 pages at that point. But I couldn’t put it down. It bothers me that some people try to dismiss it as derivative. It’s really a singular voice. In my mind, they are not seeing the forest for the trees. Especially now, when the theatre is not at its most vibrant.