Saturday, April 21, 2007

Life Upon the Stage

What do actors and directors do when reality like falling stage pieces, heart attacks, and cell phones in the audience break into the story?

Martha Plimpton heard a thud. When she turned and saw her “Coast of Utopia” co-star Richard Easton prone on the stage floor during the second preview, she presumed he had merely tripped. But Ethan Hawke, who had seen Mr. Easton collapse, said he “thought Richard had passed away.”

The two actors found Mr. Easton unconscious. “I never thought I’d say those words, but I said, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ ” Ms. Plimpton recalled.

The Lincoln Center audience that night in October did not respond, thinking that the moment was part of the show, especially since Mr. Easton’s character had just finished a fiery diatribe that ended with “That is my last word,” and since the house lights remained down.

“The audience just thought, ‘Oh, Tom Stoppard is getting all Pirandello on us,’ ” Mr. Hawke said, referring to the “Utopia” playwright. “Breaking the fourth wall is harder than you think.”

It is an oft-overlooked part of every stage actor’s life, that moment when something goes awry, and the performer must handle the external distraction while maintaining control of the show. Most events are far less dramatic than Mr. Easton’s collapse, yet any intrusions on this artificial world can be unnerving — and potentially exhilarating.


Of course these days there is one predictable disturbance: the ringing cellphone. “I hear it every three or four nights,” said Denis O’Hare, now appearing in “Inherit the Wind.” “It doesn’t do you any good to get mad. You just have to ignore them and soldier on.”

But playing off the unpardonable interruption creates extra satisfaction. While appearing in the zany “Pig Farm,” Mr. O’Hare said, he heard a phone loudly and repeatedly blaring a melody. “My God, that’s beautiful,” he said, still in character. “What is that?”

John Ellison Conlee, who was appearing with Mr. O’Hare, replied, “On a clear day chimes carry over the mountains.” The two men then set off on a two-minute improvised riff that ended when they both sighed and said, “Anyway …,” and went back to the script.

“Half the audience thought it was planned,” Mr. O’Hare said with a chuckle.

That reminds me of this famous Broadway anecdote:

During a production of Julius Caesar, two of the conspirators, played by Joseph Mahar and John Tillinger, were about to murder Caesar, daggers at the ready, when the stage manager’s phone rang just offstage. It was heard throughout the house. So was Joe Mahar’s low Elizabethan growl to Tillinger:

“What shall we do if it is for Caesar?”

The tragedy of the moment was drowned in mirth.

As you can see, I’m warming up for my trip to the Inge Festival.