After an absence of a few years, one-time Gotham fixture Dylan Baker has returned to the New York stage with a vengeance, appearing, in quick succession, in Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing at Lincoln Center Theater, Jason Miller's That Championship Season at Second Stage, and, now, as the title hypocrite in Moliere's Tartuffe at Central Park's Delacorte Theatre. During his time away from the boards, Baker appeared in the film "Happiness," making his biggest impression yet upon audiences in the unlikely role of a suburban pedophile. Baker talked to Playbill On-Line about playing real and faux Moliere, and lechers past and present.
Playbill On-Line: You've gone from the clean-cut figures you played in Eastern Standard and The Common Pursuit in the late 80s, to the fairly deplorable characters you play in "Happiness" and, now, Tartuffe? Do you see a trajectory?
Dylan Baker: It's kind of funny. I always had to figure something out with the clean-cut characters, because the other ones were always more interesting. They took care of themselves. I started getting a bit of a pattern emerging -- I'd get myself cast in characters that looked on the outside like regular Joe's, but then on the inside there was something going on that was somewhat against the grain, something unexpected. And those were always the most interesting characters. One the first things I ever did, at William and Mary, was Moliere's School for Wives. I was way too young and I got cast in this lead. It was a great training ground for an actor; kind of being thrown onto the stage and, "OK, now do something for two hours." (Laughs.) "And come up with something different or people are going to start yawning."
PBOL: Is this your first Moliere since then?
DB: Yeah. Well, actually, I did do Tartuffe at Yale Rep in 1984. I played the young lover and Austin Pendleton played Tartuffe in that production. I must admit that Austin was so powerful in the role that it was difficult getting him out of my head. I think we're very different Tartuffes, but it was still hard getting away from his reading. He had one moment in the second act where he flipped a little switch in his room and over his bed flipped out this much more beautiful, almost waterbed looking thing with this huge cross on top that he sort of draped himself across seductively.
PBOL: What's the difference between playing this and David Hirson's modern, Molieresque verse play, La Bete?
DB: I guess the biggest question about La Bete -- and certainly everybody asked it and the producer asked it again and again -- was, OK, this play isn't tested and is it going to work? In early versions of it, it worked somewhat. But when we were in Boston, [producer] Stuart Ostrow was never happy with the third act. I think it ended up being two acts. But, the third act was always the problem, because that was where we [performed the play within the play], and the first version had the character La Bete doing it himself, acting and doing all these parts. Then David Hirson wrote it again, and it became La Bete directing the company doing the play. And then Stuart Ostrow finally said, "You're not done." And he locked David Hirson in a hotel room for about three days. And only when David kind of meekly opened the door and handed him the third act, was Stuart happy. And we all read it and realized, "Yes, that's it!"
PBOL: How do you like working in wigs and heavy costuming in the summer heat?
DB: Last night was the first night it was truly hot. That was tough. We all came off stage just drenched. But once you've spent a couple weeks out there you kind of get used to it. It's like football players going through pre-season. You just drink enough water and take a couple salt pills. Luckily, it's only two hours long. PBOL: Did the critical success of "Happiness" give you more leverage in choice of stage roles?
DB: Well, that's interesting. Since then, I've done a couple plays. I've been so happy about getting back on the stage. A year and a half ago, I was able to do Pride's Crossing at Lincoln Center with Jack O'Brien; then I did That Championship Season with Scott Ellis; and followed that up with working with Tartuffe and Mark Brokaw. They call that a hat trick. I worked with three of the directors I most wanted to work with in New York. Scott and Jack I had know socially, but never worked with before. Mark, we had worked together when we were both at the Yale School of Drama, but we hadn't worked since we graduated. So, I was terribly excited to work with each of them, and more than ever excited to be working back on the stage in New York. It had been quite a while. It's what I've always wanted to do. But sometimes you get on a roll in the television or film world. My wife [Becky Ann Baker] is feeling that right now. She's kind of horrified at not being able to be up for New York plays. She's doing a TV series called "Freaks and Geeks. " It's a Dreamworks series that's going to be on NBC on Saturday nights. She's out in L.A., going "This is crazy! I want to do a play." But they've guaranteed for 13 weeks so she's going to be doing that this year.
PBOL: Do you have any dream roles your career hasn't yet encompassed?
DB: I tell you, a lot of my dreaming right now is about directing. I've got the opportunity to direct a play for the Drama Dept., coming up in winter. I'm going to direct a play by George Kelly called The Torchbearers. I'm terribly excited about that. Otherwise, I have to admit, I was talking to Mark Brokaw back in the spring; when I heard he was directing Tartuffe, we were just talking about it, chatting about some of the difficulties of doing it out at the Delacorte. While I was talking to him, I had no idea that maybe at the back of his mind he was thinking of me doing Tartuffe. So, when he called me it was a total surprise. I guess some dreams are better left alone. Because that's one I didn't even know I was thinking about.
PBOL: What's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you on stage?
DB: Good question. I was at Williamstown, and we were opening a play -- a gem of a play called Love Gift. And it was this comedy thriller that started as this funny little thing, but turned into this bizarre psychological thriller. On opening night, the audience was really with us in this little 99-seat house up there. People were kind of riveting to this play. At the end of it, I was called upon to kill myself and the only thing available was this knife that we had cut the birthday cake with earlier in the play. And I picked that knife up and started going after this woman and then I turned around and decided I had to kill myself. And as I turned around, I whipped the knife right out into the audience. I didn't hit anybody. I could hear it go clink, clink on the ground, but all of a sudden I had to commit suicide with no available weapon whatsoever. I briefly thought about stuffing the birthday cake down my throat and choking on it, but I thought that didn't look too plausible. So, I ran offstage, and the poor woman who I had been chasing kind of came out of her hiding place and started calling my character's name. Earlier in the show, there had been a gun which I had fired offstage. So, I went to find that gun. I ran off and found a stagehand and said "Where's that gun! Where's that gun!" And she just looked at me, like "What?" -- had no idea what I was talking about. And as I went back on stage, there were stairs so I thought I'd throw myself down the stairs. And, miraculously, someone put the gun in my hand, so I started clicking it until it fired and I went onstage and grabbed my head and fell down the stairs. I had successfully shot myself in the head. I was so embarrassed that after the curtain call I went off. I didn't hear the audience. They were demanding a second curtain call because they had loved this play. I literally thought they were being nice, because everyone had known what an idiot I had been.
--By Robert Simonson