When the eleven-year-old daughter of popular actors and comedy team Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, appeared on the Mike Douglas show 27 years ago, she could come up with only a few "yes," or "no" answers. Although Amy Stiller still throws in a few yes's and no's, she has a lot to say about many things now that she has a life, a career and what sounds like a working philosophy.
Growing up in a house of talkers, Amy Stiller learned fast enough to make words count. And following in the tradition of her parents, she is offering her "no bullshit" philosophy as we talk on the phone prior to a rehearsal of the world premiere of her mother's second play, Down the Garden Paths, now at the George Street Playhouse. Whether it was the effects of the peanut butter on crackers she said she was eating, or the high that normally comes when an actor has a job, Amy's snappy responses clearly rang with the earthy resonance that marks the family style. She calls it the "no sham" sense of honesty.
Amy is giving her family's tradition a real workout at George Street Playhouse where she is not only appearing in a role that was conceived with her in mind, but working as a confident artist while still under the watchful eye of her mother, the playwright. Ironically, Amy's father is also in the play ("I'm Daddy's little girl"), but only in a special video taped segment.
The play Down the Garden Paths marks the second collaboration between Meara and George Street's Artistic Director David Saint, who directed Meara's first play After-Play at George Street last season. As with the earlier play, Garden Paths, deals with relationships, love, and family bonds, as it explores one special, extraordinary evening, when prize-winning author Arthur Garden and his family gather together to celebrate the success of his latest book, "Alternate Routes." But in a night filled with memories and dreams, the unexpected twists and turns will show the Garden clan what might have been...and lead to surprising new probabilities. Described as "a funny, profoundly moving story of a family's deepest tragedy and its greatest celebrations," the play is also the continuation of a new path for Meara as a playwright.
No one would deny Meara as an astute human observer. With the successful After-Play, she performed double-duty as both playwright and star. Meara doesn't appear in Garden Paths, but just to keep the family ties secure (or, is it insecure?) she can watch her daughter, whom she called the last time we spoke "a wonderful comic actor." While the famed married acting couple, and the Stillers' long-standing family friends, Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach are getting top billing; it is Amy Stiller's participation that sparks interest and curiosity. One has only to read through the credits to see that Roberta Wallach; the daughter of Eli and Anne, has also been brought into the act. This is what prompts me to ask Amy whether she thinks families who act together stay together. "Ask my therapist," is Amy's typically laugh-punctuated, first response. Then, she adds more seriously, "The experience is great. Acting is everything. It's what I grew up with. Everything is great." In the same breath, Amy reminds me that Hillary said there was nothing going on in the White House. "Am I being too dark?" she wants to know. There is no denying that Amy as grown up in the luminous shadow of her parents. With the spotlight thrown more recently on the upwardly spiraling career of brother Ben ("There's Something About Mary"), she digresses at length about her almost life-long search to affect an internal separation from their careers. But, perhaps even more than Amy's commendable, but less than stellar, theatre, film and TV credits, it is her recent success as a stand-up comedienne that has changed the way she feels about herself, her family, and people in general.
"It's all about learning who you are," says the comedienne who most recently performed her one-woman comedy show at the Toyota Comedy Festival at P.S. 122 in June. "It was the first time I did 45 minutes of my own stuff," she says remarking how important it was for her to keep silent and quiet about the material she was developing. "I haven't put this much pressure on myself since I was in my twenties and imploded. I don't know anyone of any sensitivity or spirituality [who] had a good time during the '80s." Perhaps this was why Amy didn't spend more than a year at Emerson College. "It was a hideous time for me," Amy recalls, referring to the emphasis at the time on status, and image. "I was so concerned with proving myself to people that I didn't know how to live my own life for me."
In the present, Amy will tell you she holds the reins, even though she was fated to end up in her mother's play. Although Amy knew that her mother had secretly wanted her for the part in Garden Paths, she was not sure it was the thing to do. Amy confides, "My mother and I are so psychically connected it's scary. So I resisted the play. I was actually trying to run away from it, to separate myself from the play. I wanted to go off to Los Angeles and work on my one-woman show. But six months of L.A., and all you want to do is get back to the bosom of theatre."
Meara wasn't going to put any pressure on Amy. After all, Cynthia Nixon was originally scheduled to do the first reading. Then her "Sex and the City" schedule made her cancel at the last minute. Amy wasn't even planning to go to the reading, but she did, and proved that destiny was playing a part. "Actually I play two parts in the play," reveals Amy reluctantly, not wanting to give too much away. "One is a control freak and the other one someone who has gone in and out of rehab."
What Amy says she finds most profound about the play is how it allows us to see how situations might have turned had the characters made different choices. That "we, all of us, have many personalities, other realities, and live in parallel universes," is how Amy understands the play. Do the things that happen in the play and the language strike Amy as familiar, or even a little unsettling or uncomfortable? "I'm very aware that many of the words are similar to conversations we've had at home," but, as Amy understands it, "like my mother, in my one-woman show I'm exhibitionistic that way. I like tapping into myself and sharing my experiences because it connects with other people and lets them know we're all going through the same thing. That's what I like."
Amy talks about how long it took for her to accept her humanness. She says she is still working on it and admits, "A few years ago I would have felt differently about the play."
"I don't know about other theatre families, but we are really connected. I've never felt luckier to have my parents than right now. This is a very unique situation. They are very wise people and I learn a lot from them," she emphasizes with a loud girlish giggle. While Amy sees many parallels between her family and the Wallachs, she feels that unlike the more theatre-focused careers of the Wallachs, her parents' considerable serious dramatic efforts haven't quite matched the success they have had as TV comics. "It's wonderful working with Roberta (Wallach) in this play, and it isn't the first time. Roberta directed me in a comedy showcase I did with friends a few years ago in New York. There are lots of similarities in our paths, and we're, like, the official truth-sayers in our families."
Amy is forthright about her life-long quest to make peace with the sadness that comes when you don't know who you are. But, in the best tradition of comedians, Amy gives this a comic spin: "It's called growing up." Also spinning in time with the Stillers and the Wallachs in Down the Garden Paths are Michael Countryman, Angela Pietropinto, David Wohl, and Ann McDonough. The design team includes James Youmans (set), Howell Binkley (lighting), and David Murin (costumes).
That I dared suggest (however prepared I was for the inevitable reaction) that nepotism may be playing a part in this production, Amy retorts with an expletive. In defense of this family thing, she makes an observation tinged with tenderness. "I feels very comfortable and safe," she says, even though bits of myself are revealed in the play. "I feel honored by this. I'm proud of my mom," says the "comic actor" who has grown up and, with just a gentle nudging, is able to say a lot more than yes or no.
-- by Simon Saltzman