What does a hot-headed major league baseball player with a predilection for racial and homophobic outbursts have in common with a giant, talking sea lizard? An acute ferocity and, now, actor Frederick Weller. Nominated for a 2003 Drama Desk Award for his turn as a John Rocker-esque ballplayer in Richard Greenberg's Tony Award-winning play Take Me Out, Weller is currently playing the reptilian role in Seascape, the first Broadway revival of Edward Albee's whimsically absurd drama since it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.
Despite the ferocity shared by the two parts, Weller insists that prowling Seascape's sand-dunelike set as an oversized amphibian (in a role originally created by Frank Langella) is unlike anything he's ever done before. "Unless animals are your niche, a lizard is going to be a departure," quips Weller, sucking on a lozenge in a rehearsal hall at Lincoln Center after a particularly grueling session. "Even though it's not a human being per se, you still have to find the humanity. And this character has a strange animal naiveté and curiosity like no part I've ever played, because the world is completely new to him. It's always fun to play a character with basic, instinctive drives. And I don't think there can be any character with more basic, more instinctive drives than a lizard."
Sporting jeans, sneakers and a baseball hat, the 35-year-old New Orleans native is a lithe, handsome actor with small, piercing eyes and a Ginsu-sharp jawline. As he talks, he thoughtfully chooses his words before they tumble from his lips. In a career that spans TV and film but appears to be more focused on theatre, Weller seems to have cornered the market on supporting characters who require a laserlike intensity. He's portrayed the swaggeringly abrasive best friend in both the stage and film versions of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, the drug-addled Brian Wilson in the ABC miniseries "The Beach Boys: An American Family" and a cold-blooded sales-office supervisor in this year's star-studded revival of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway.
Despite the sense of danger with which Weller must imbue the reptile, the play itself begins benignly enough. An elderly retired couple (played by Tony winners George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen) are lolling on a quiet, windswept beach, talking and arguing over a lifetime's worth of fond memories, bitter regrets and hopes for the future. When the couple encounters the two lizards, who have decided to leave the sea behind and make a go of it on land, the foursome plays out a strange, tentative, frustrating yet funny dance in which the humans and the amphibians seem more and more alike as the play gathers steam. Weller's anthropomorphic other half is portrayed by that darling of the downtown theatre scene, Elizabeth Marvel, who has wowed audiences with her own ferocious turns in Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire.
The biggest challenge, says Weller, is trying to find the line between his character's human and animal nature. "It's very tricky because he speaks English and it's not explained why or how, yet there are many human concepts that he doesn't understand, such as decency, love, friendship, grief. The most difficult part is trying to locate where that median is, trying to decide how human to be." Seascape is Weller's second Albee play. At Hartford Stage last year, he performed Peter and Jerry, an expanded version of Albee's classic one-act The Zoo Story appended with an illuminating new first act. Weller believes the two plays are alike in their themes.
In [Seascape] there is a character who has lost his desire to live, really — to do anything. And the lizards come in and are the counterpoint to that. Similarly in The Zoo Story, you have my character, Jerry, trying to wake up Peter and prod him out of his comfortably numb stupor."
Albee, he observes, wants people to embrace their reality, not become mired in false illusions. "If we're not in touch with our fundamental instincts and our vitality as humans, then we're running against the grain of our true nature and the nature of existence. It's a very bracing way of looking at the world and a very bracing theme to encounter in a play. It gives you that satisfying sense that someone is telling it like it is. And Albee's personality embodies that. There's a frisky kind of push-pull, tough-love quality to him."
That feisty spirit seemed to be on full display at the playwright's Christmas party last year, which Weller attended. There, the actor overheard Albee saying to a friend that Peter and Jerry would be his next Broadway project after the revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "So later, he comes up to me and asks, 'What are you doing right now?'" recalls Weller, rocking his best Albee-by-way-of-Brando impersonation. "And I respond, 'Well, Glengarry Glen Ross is starting in a couple of months.' And he says, 'When is that done?' So I say, 'End of August… Why, do you have a job for me in the fall?' Now David Harbour, who was about to go into Virginia Woolf, was standing next to me and we had been talking. So Albee points to David and says, with a slight grin, 'Depends on how he behaves,'" recalls Weller, laughing at the memory. "So that's his sense of humor. It's kind of soldierly, almost. He likes to sort of talk trash and keep you guessing — much like his plays. They're funny yet they keep you off balance."