In show business, irony tends to rule the roost. A case in point is comedian and actor Rob Bartlett, a teddy-bear type with a walrus moustache who turned his early experiences into the Broadway comedy, More to Love. Alas, critics fell over themselves finding more to hate about that innocuous piece, which closed in a week and left Bartlett extra-lucky to have his day job: a writer and sidekick on the morning show of radio’s famed but deliberately unlovable Don Imus.
But now it’s two years later and Bartlett has been getting love letters from the critics — for playing one of the most hateful bosses seen onstage in ages. In Tabletop, transferred from Off-Off-Broadway to a commercial run at OB’s American Place Theater, Bartlett plays Marcus, a director of television commercials that specifically concentrate on luscious-looking product shots for food ads. As if the deadlines and competition weren’t pressure enough for Marcus’ employees, they must contend with their boss’ tantrums, insecurities and mercurial insults. Many of the critics who dismissed More to Love now lauded Tabletop and singled out Bartlett’s performance in doing so (with John Simon offering an especially potent rave). Call Rob Bartlett the guy they hate to love but love to hate.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: So are you feeling a bit of whiplash the way your reception as a stage performer has turned around?
Rob Bartlett: There’s a reason the expression goes, “that’s show biz.” These things out of your control. Some shows the critics weren’t kind to raised money till word of mouth kicked in and ran anyway. The frustrating thing on More to Love was that we had a show people enjoyed and loved. After the reviews came out, [director] Jack O’Brien warned me not to get freaked out, because traditionally after he had a comedy that received bad notices, all the laughs were gone. We never had that problem. The laughs actually got stronger...
Okay, it was not really a play; it was really more centered around my stand-up act. And the perception was that it was a play, and it was in a Broadway theatre, so the expectations were more lofty. But the offer was there, and we hadda go with what we had. We tried to keep it afloat and get enough capital to get a direct-to-the-people campaign. I received hundreds of pieces of email by people surprised that we had closed. But at that point we closed the book on it. It was a melancholy and disappointing time. It was my baby for a number of years. But you move on... I took time off from performing (I hadn’t booked any standups because of the show). And I just got back to work. Plus I still had my radio job. The hardest part of the whole thing was all these tremendous people I’d worked with. Four days after we opened we were closed, and they were back out looking for work. I took that the hardest and felt kind of responsible for that.
PBOL: So no hard feelings for the reviewers, especially now that most of them are giving Tabletop the thumbs up?
RB: You try not to empower the critics when they slam you. Of course, they were totally wrong about More to Love and totally right about this! Maybe one or two were the same critics. (Laughs) Maybe they just don’t remember seeing More to Love! But it was very gratifying. A vindication. When you’re a standup comic, there’s a bias in terms of your ability as an actor. I’ve maintained that some of the best actors we’ve got were standups (Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin). But it’s nice to get that kind of notice, and of course, I love the critics now.
PBOL: Did you ever have a boss like your character, Marcus?
RB: Pretty damn close. I had a guy when I worked in an office building. He owned the building, and he showed the same kind of disrespect for people in general. There was not an altruistic bone in his body. Miserable, insufferable. I’ve blotted his name out completely — I wish I remembered it, it would be the ultimate revenge!
But people in the business of shooting commercials — they all have worked for a Marcus. Apparently he’s not necessarily unusual. That said, I’ve done some commercials, and I’ve had wonderful experiences. Bill Hudson on the Wendy’s shoot runs it like a family. It’s a joy to shoot those. Or Patrick Kelly for Dunkin’ Donuts was like going for a party. But some gaffers and camera people and prop guys who’ve seen the show come up to me and say, `Man, I’ve worked for you.’ and then they rattle off a name, `it’s gotta be him.’ I’ve heard that said about 15 different people. PBOL: So did you pattern Marcus after this wretched fellow you used to work for?
RB: Not exactly. I simply had a gut reaction of who this guy was. I could hear [Marcus’] kind of voice in my head. We’ve all had experiences with people like that; I’ve had people working for me who were like that. They didn’t work for me for very long. I hired a contractor once with that attitude — and after awhile I said, `Wait a second, I’m paying you!’ So there may be pieces of business that I might pattern after someone, but Marcus is really a creation of my own. And I’ve listened a lot to [playwright] Rob Ackerman about the various pressures of Marcus’ type and used those. He’s been really perceptive in helping me shape the character. Parts of Marcus I pattern after various movie characters - Alec Baldwin in `Glengarry Glen Ross’, a little of Kevin Spacey from `Swimming with Sharks.’ I borrow from various pieces of art.
PBOL: So...as long as we’re on the subject of difficult employers. Hint hint?
RB: No, Don Imus hasn’t seen it yet. I’m hoping he sees it soon. He’s been real [sic] supportive of the whole thing and expressed pleasure at it being received so well and the great reviews. I feel like I’ve gotten rid of the curse of the last foray. Imus has been fabulous. He knows the play’s about the work place and about real scumbag of a boss, with no redeeming qualities. Which is why Imus is different. He may be a self-proclaimed world-class prick, but there is a part of him that’s... Well, I can’t see Marcus starting up a ranch for kids with cancer, like Imus did.
That said, Marcus feels trapped. That little bit of fear in him underlying it all. He’s afraid of the guys who are coming up. But then again, there’s no soft white underbelly, either.
PBOL: Do you remember the moments you realized loved theatre and had to be a performer?
RB: The first show I remember seeing was in elementary school. P.S. 208 in Brooklyn - second or third grade. They drove us to the high school to see Annie Get Your Gun highlights. I remember feeling that thumping in the chest. Pretty galvanizing. I was a TV baby, and I was pretty blown away by the experience. Then in junior high, we went to see with Mrs. Burks, the drama club teacher, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in the-Moon Marigolds with Joan Blondell. That was pretty amazing. I also remember the `Peter Pan’ with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard on TV. That had a huge impact on me. My parents got me the cast album for my sixth birthday and I wore it out. The pirates and the fighting and the boy who could fly — I loved that whole thing. Plus play-acting. I’d tie a diaper around my neck and imitate Batman or imitate the Beatles with a tennis racquet.
My first performing experience was in kindergarten. I imitated a Pat Cooper routine I’d seen on TV the night before. It was an Italian wedding bit that my father was laughing hysterically at. That started me on the path of class clown and drama club-ism. I became an English and theatre major at Alfred University in Alfred, NY (southwest of Rochester). The theatre department was slowly crumbling, with fewer majors. So I decided to be an English teacher. But I got sick in my sophomore year. My grade point average dropped, and they took away my full scholarship. At that point I took a year’s leave to save up enough to go back. But I never went back.
PBOL: What might you have done if the acting and stand-up thing hadn’t succeeded?
RB: I never really looked back. I never thought, `what if this doesn’t work out?’ One thing I’ve learned is to adapt. After years doing stand-up, I became very tired of being on the road yet with a family. I was playing in Jacksonville, FL, and I remember a phone call to my manager. I was in tears because I had a year-old son, and I was miserable because I hadn’t seen him. It hurt so much to be away from my wife and son. So [my manager] tried to find a place in the City. I did a one-man version of More to Love at Club 1407 for a couple of years. While that was happening I stumbled into the Imus thing. I got more and more work out of that show, and they asked me to come on as full-time staff with a contract. At that time, the comedy boom had started to wane. A lot of guys I came up with in the clubs had a hard time. But I had a mix of acting, standup, commercials radio — a lot of things I can do. I’m the luckiest guy jumping.
[Editor’s Note: For more on Rob Bartlett, please search our features section for the 1998 story, “Rob Bartlett Brings His Past To Bear On Bway's More To Love.”]
-- By David Lefkowitz