Classic Stage Company in New York offers more stars than the newly remodeled Hayden Planetarium. Last season, John Turturro, Tony Shalhoub, and Christopher Lloyd clowned their way through Waiting For Godot, then Uma Thurman strutted across the stage in its modern-dress Misanthrope. And now, in a rare revival of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, opening February 17, the title role is played by a performer of global renown, though one heard more than seen -- as the voice of TV's Homer Simpson, and Springfield residents Grandpa Simpson, Krusty the Clown, Barney Gumble, Groundskeeper Willie, Mayor Quimby, Sideshow Mel, Hans, Salesman Gil, and the character known only as the squeaky-voiced teenager, too.
Dan Castellaneta enters The Alchemist with a burst of flatulence - certainly one way to make an impression in your New York theatrical debut. This antic production, directed by Barry Edelstein, keeps its foot on the gas right from that opening moment, hurtling a 400-year-old play into a new millennium with props like Coors beer cans and a blow-up sex doll, a smattering of show tunes, and a whole lot of running up and down a staircase. The chief scamperer is Castelleneta, who, as the anything-but Subtle, the leader of a trio of con artists, pretends to be an alchemist, the better to fleece London's lustful, lovelorn, and avaricious.
"I've got on my red longjohns and my big purple robe and let me tell you, I sweat pretty good in them," the actor laughs. "Thankfully we hemmed up those longjohns, otherwise I'd really have a problem with those stairs."
Castellaneta says that once he licked the "initially worrying" Old English, The Alchemist began to cast its spell. "We got off book as soon as possible; Barry helped us through the language and the meter, and we started moving around it with it, to the point that it's totally exhausting," he chuckles. "But I'm very happy to be doing it, and to live this dream of mine about New York theatre."
The actor has had the good fortune to see a few of his dreams realized. "I remember watching episodes of 'Taxi' back in the 70s and thinking, 'I'd love to do something this good with these people' -- and it's those people, Jim Brooks and Sam Simon, who did 'The Tracey Ullman Show,' where 'The Simpsons' originated in short vignettes, then [`The Simpson'] show itself. And it has been wonderful." And not without drawbacks. Though he has won two Emmys for his Simpsons contributions, it is not his face that adorns T-shirts and other hot-selling merchandise. "I've had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm amazed at the success. I knew we would have a cult following based on Matt Groening's popular 'Life in Hell' comic, which I was a big fan of, but whether that would get us through four or five seasons -- or just four or five weeks-- was a mystery to me. I had no idea that it would have such worldwide appeal, that it would continue to be such a great show, and that we would ever be celebrating a 10th anniversary on the air."
"On the other hand," Castellaneta continues, a slight coolness in his tone, "I am the voice of an international superstar, without the benefits that an international superstar has." "D'oh!" has not necessarily translated to dough, and the vocal cast's compensation issues, recently spoofed on the show, have been well-aired in the media. And he only "does" Homer or other Simpsons characters for fans if he's in the proper mood: "I do not voluntarily do the voices," he says, flatly...then sneaks one in anyway, without being requested.
Being unseen, whatever its quirks and inconveniences, still has its distinct advantages. "Our schedule for the show is March-November. After that, I do pickup lines and looping, sometimes right up to the airdate, but it's very flexible, and I can do them from a place like this," says Castellaneta, who talked to Playbill On-Line from a Manhattan recording studio. "Plus, I can walk down the street, and no one knows who I am. By the same token, whenever I do something else, especially something in the theatre, it's a great way to get people to come."
Alchemist audiences may have seen Castellaneta in roles on "The Drew Carey Show," "Murphy Brown," "Friends," and "Everybody Loves Raymond," and in films including "The Client" and "The War of the Roses." Those who haven't should not expect a 3D carbon of his roly-poly cartoon character. "Really, about the only thing we have in common is our hair; I have maybe two or three strands more than Homer does," he kids. He doesn't sound like Homer, either; the Chicago native was part of the Second City improv troupe from 1982-1987, flipping in and out of accents, and for The Alchemist this man of many voices says he was inspired by a spin Peter Sellers put on one of his Goon Show characters.
Don't bother to tempt him with Homer's beloved pork chops and "Duff beer" if you see him at the stage door -- Castellaneta tries to maintain a vegetarian diet ("it's a hard road to hoe; in L.A. I'm just too lazy sometimes to drive to a store that has a decent salad bar, but here Zen Palate, one of my favorites, is around the corner") and is largely a teetotaler. "Homer is very much my id," says the trim actor, who in his wizardly robe suggests, if just fleetingly, John Carradine or George Zucco in a Grade Z horror movie from the 40s.
Another difference between the two is that while barfly Homer wouldn't be caught dead in a theatre, and may only dimly remember actor Ben Johnson from his roles in "The Last Picture Show" and "Mighty Joe Young," Castellaneta enjoys stage work and was eager to tackle a lesser-seen work from the author of Volpone. "I was sent the play in December, then hit the ground running with Barry and the cast on January 4. By doing The Alchemist I'd like to remind people that I do theatre, and that I'd like to do more."
On the west coast, the actor recently won a Dramalogue Award for his performance in Rick Cleveland's darkly comic Tom and Jerry, about two sparring hit men. In a nod to Alec Guinness, Castellaneta played the hits, who ranged from an old Mafia don to a blonde in a bed. "It was my 'Kind Hearts and Coronets,'" he says, fondly, of the play, directed by actor Saul Rubinek. Earlier this month, he took a few days off from The Alchemist to perform his one-man show, Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?, concerning artists, aliens, and actors, at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. With Story Theatre members Paul Sand, Hamilton Camp, and Valerie Harper, he would like to bring a production they have developed, based on 16th century Persian poems, to New York, possibly in the fall.
Through March 12, however, there is sorcery afoot. "It's been so long since The Alchemist has been performed in New York -- 34 years -- that it's practically a world premiere of a play dating back to 1610," Castellaneta says. "Right now, I'm working on making the chemistry work. Alchemy, I found through reading, takes all your time and money if want to really get into it, but we're basically using a kid's chemistry set and hoping the vinegar interacts properly with the baking soda. What we are striving for," he concludes, in a mock lecturer voice, "is better theatre through chemistry. And there's one thing I've learned about the alchemy of acting: Never, ever appear as if you don't know what you're doing, even if you really don't."