A Friend In Court

A Friend In Court For his Broadway debut, David Schwimmer has chosen The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a drama that taps into his sensibility, his ethnicity and his love of ensemble acting.
David Schwimmer
David Schwimmer

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Let the record show, please, that David Schwimmer hits Broadway a whole seven months before he hits 40. It's been pretty upstream, splashing about in the regionals - Los Angeles, Chicago, Williamstown, even London of late - during his annual downtime from a decade-long "day job," never with enough time to stick his big toe meaningfully into New York theatre. Such is the price (i.e., the restriction) of small-screen super-stardom.

For ten years (1994-2004), he was one-sixth of a pack of prime-time pals - NBC's "Friends" - a nest of newbies making it in NYC. He played Ross Geller, the geeky paleontologist - an incurable romantic, despite the hangdog look and the three marriages - who was eventually cured by Jennifer Aniston, and the two faded away into happily-ever-aftering, child in tow, in one of the most-watched series finales of all time.

Now, Schwimmer is almost two years down the road from that happy ending - and, like the majority of successful series drop-outs, he is exploring greener media pastures for new and different identities. "I don't think I'm deliberately choosing roles that are different from the character of Ross, but I naturally want to grow as an actor and challenge myself," he explains. "I'm less inclined to take a role that is too similar to that character because I played that guy already. I'm drawn to great material and a great story and, often, subject matter that moves me or has some sort of social relevance."

The result of his quest is now conspicuously on view on two fronts. On movie screens, he is "Duane Hopwood," a divorced alcoholic whose life spirals out of control, in what Roger Ebert calls "one of those performances that transform the way we think about an actor." Says Schwimmer: "You never know with these small films, but I'm definitely proud of that." And, on the Schoenfeld Theatre stage (in previews beginning April 14 and opening May 7), he is Lt. Barney Greenwald for the defense in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, the classic 1954 courtroom drama that Herman Wouk adapted from the trial portion of his own 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Caine Mutiny." "Being a Jewish man, several things resonate for me about this play and this part," admits Schwimmer. The irony is that Greenwald, here the principal repository of the Jewishness that pervaded Wouk's writing, first materialized onstage with Henry Fonda's Protestant punim, and then on screen with Jose Ferrer's Puerto Rican one, both in '54. Not till the play's second Broadway coming in 1983 was the role restored to ethnic correctness (via John Rubinstein), and Schwimmer reprises this in the current Broadway revival.

"For me, personally, the role is a way to honor the memory of my five [great-]uncles, who all fought in World War II and were Jews from New York. I'm not going to get on a soapbox right now about the prejudice of racism that I feel still exists in this country, but I do think about it a lot, and there is an opportunity in the play, through this character, to tap into it."

Semitisms aside, Schwimmer was pretty much born to play this part, being the offspring of not one but two lawyers. "My parents' practices are very different," he says. His father was an appellate lawyer usually involved in malpractice suits. His mother specialized in family law - divorce and child custody cases. Both are now retired. "I grew up soaked in legal dialogue and debate. Our dinner-table conversations were really a great legal education."

Also, his ingrained sense of ensemble well qualifies him for Court-Martial duty where the accused, the accuser, their respective attorneys, assorted witnesses and the military board sitting in judgment all conspire to make a collective assault on the audience. It was, after all, teamwork that got Schwimmer a supporting-actor Emmy nomination for "Friends" and a Golden Satellite for "Band of Brothers," and here - under the direction of Jerry Zaks - the team consists of Zeljko Ivanek, Tim Daly, Joe Sikora, Geoffrey Nauffts, Ben Fox, Terry Beaver, Tom Nelis, Murphy Guyer, Brian Reddy and Tom Gottleib.

"Ensemble has been just how I grew up, from high school on," he says. "It was the word that was imprinted on me and just made sense. It's analogous to any good sports team. You have to work together to win the game - and, in a way, my company in Chicago is kinda based on that premise. There is no ego in the rehearsal room or onstage. There is no individual star. Everyone's equal. Everyone has the same pay. Everyone gives 110 percent."

That's right: he has a company in Chicago - The Lookingglass Theatre Company, which he co-founded with seven other Northwestern graduates. "The day before Valentine's Day, we had our 18th birthday." A shock comes with that thought. "I can't believe it has been 18 years since I graduated college, and our troupe has survived the ups and downs."

Of course, a decade of those 18 was spent among his high-profile "Friends," doing what comes naturally - ensemble acting. "You miss the process," he admits. "The first year away was probably hardest because you're still missing these people you worked with for ten years - the crew, the cast, the writers - and, although we keep in touch, it's still difficult because the sheer joy of rehearsing was so much fun with those actors and those writers."