“I still believe there can be happiness in life. Brief, but a moment or two.”
As is always the case, it seems, whenever I take on a new role I find there is something of a life lesson to be learned. Both the character I play and the story seem to come to me as a gift at just the right moment in my life. It’s become routine now for me to ask when I get cast, “why this role at this time in my life?”
Why did the role of Beethoven come along last year in 33 Variations? And why am I now so blessed to be working on the role of Merv in The Sisters Rosenzweig, (running October 17-26 at South of Broadway Theatre in North Charleston)? The answer, as always, is probably far more self-revelatory than most celebrity actors would ever agree to admit. But since I don’t expect to be inundated with paparazzi, or stalked by any of the six or seven people who may take the time from their busy day to read this blog (thanks, BTW), I don’t have a problem revealing the answer.
The character of Merv is part of a long lineage of clown-like characters and personas created throughout history that tell us about a particularly fascinating aspect of the human psyche. At first glance Merv, at least the Merv I’m playing, is a card, a fun loving buffoon. He’s a person many would typically not take very seriously. But like most clowns, Merv has a very deep serious side. Merv is on a mission, a very serious quest to pass on his Jewish identification to future generations. Why? Because he views the Jewish tradition as a vehicle for a loving, just and more tolerant world. Merv is all about connecting people and ideas. He is filled with irony and has lots and lots of love in him, ready to burst forth whenever the opportunity arises.
I think of Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, wearing his heart on his sleeve, his pure soul using every once of his wit to win the love of his life and keep his family intact during the Holocaust. I think also of the story of Pagliacci, the tragic Clown, who loved so deeply but could never be taken seriously because he was only a clown. The fable of Beauty and the Beast also comes to mind along with a thousand characters played by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Gleason, Woody Allen and any number of clowns since the beginning of theatre.
The clown is always a little too playful, too insecure, too loving, too sensitive, ironic and absurd for his own good. He doesn’t shy away from the truth; he just happens to see it with a bit more irony than the rest of us. He is usually thrust into our midst by circumstances beyond our control, the uninvited guest, and is NEVER to be taken seriously. Often his/her humor is contagious, but more often, he is merely an annoyance to those into whose lives he has inadvertently crashed; he is someone taking us away from where we think we should be. Very often the clown doesn’t take himself very seriously either.
Then something happens. Suddenly, often without warning, the truth catches everyone unaware. There is a moment when the heart is suddenly laid bare and we realize that we are the clown and he is revealing who we are at our deepest and best. Somehow, often despite his own best efforts to sabotage his relationships, someone takes a closer look and sees the diamond in the rough. The pining is over. Love has redeemed itself and everyone lives happily ever after, with a deeper knowledge of both our frailties and our strengths.
What makes this so personal and timely for me is that I am describing myself. I was the class clown and class flirt in junior high. I was, and still am, not taken very seriously by those who first meet me. The clown is a persona I wear out of a desire to add beauty and light, rather than darkness and despair. What started as a desperate response to circumstances too absurd to process, has evolved into a way of being that allows me to relate to my fellow humans and express my unique world view. I wear my heart on my sleeve, but my sleeve has a hidden squirt gun under it. I make it my goal never to use this tremendous power to harm others. Underneath all the buffoonery, is a deep understanding of human frailty and the true power of love. I believe in redemption, just like Merv. I believe love is something that comes finally to those who work hard on creating the most positive meaning on the circumstances in their lives.
I can relate to Merv very easily. I like this character a lot. I love his audacity, his open-heartedness, his bravery, his belief in himself and his humility. He comes along at a time in my life when I have discovered true love. Cate came into my life in 2012, almost to the moment when I finally accepted myself, with all my flaws, as worthy of love. It took me all of 52 years to prepare myself for her arrival in my life at that particular moment. I see her sometimes as the reward for all those years of hard work on myself to become the man I am today. I really believe her presence in my life has allowed me to transform myself from the tragic buffoon into the enlightened inquirer that I have become. I have never been happier or motivated in my life. This role is dedicated to Cate, the love of my life.
And for those of you who believe theater is some kind of elaborate trick played upon you by a highly skilled actor, I can tell you that at least for me, it is an extension of my personal journey through life. It’s not therapy, but rather a celebration of the process of becoming. There’s a cynicism among directors and actors who believe the audience is too stupid to notice the things that are missing from their performance, namely the human experience. For me acting is not simply the process of moving from beat to beat, reciting lines, like a mindless animal. It is always about an actual human experience that plays out a little differently from one performance to the next. It is always a work in progress.
I hope you can come and share one (or more) of those experience with myself and the talented, passionate actors working hard to bring the wonderful characters and story that is The Sisters Rosensweig to life.
In closing, I want to pay my highest compliments to my director and friend, Mark Gorman, who shares these same values and who has created a safe place in which to explore the human truths underlying this extraordinarily nuanced play, written by Wendy Wasserstein.