PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Robert Falls

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Robert Falls Director Robert Falls and actor Brian Dennehy first teamed up in 1986 for Brecht's Galileo at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where Falls in artistic director. Since then they have worked together three more times. Big men and big talents -- Falls is not known for the small gesture or Dennehy for small performances -- they do nothing by halves. Accordingly, the projects have been on the enormous side: O'Neill The Iceman Cometh and Touch of a Poet. Their latest, Death of a Salesman, which recently arrived on Broadway after a run in Chicago, may be their greatest achievement yet. Falls talks to Playbill On-Line about Death of a Salesman and the birth of an artistic collaboration.
Robert Falls with Brian Dennehy.
Robert Falls with Brian Dennehy. (Photo by Photo by Eric Y. Exit)

Director Robert Falls and actor Brian Dennehy first teamed up in 1986 for Brecht's Galileo at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where Falls in artistic director. Since then they have worked together three more times. Big men and big talents -- Falls is not known for the small gesture or Dennehy for small performances -- they do nothing by halves. Accordingly, the projects have been on the enormous side: O'Neill The Iceman Cometh and Touch of a Poet. Their latest, Death of a Salesman, which recently arrived on Broadway after a run in Chicago, may be their greatest achievement yet. Falls talks to Playbill On-Line about Death of a Salesman and the birth of an artistic collaboration.

Playbill On-Line: What is it with you and Brian Dennehy?
Robert Falls: It's hilarious. When I was much younger, I always entertained the concept of having a muse. But I thought a muse would be a willowy, gorgeous, 17-year-old girl. I didn't expect it would be big, lunky, 60-year old Brian Dennehy. But it's fitting. There's a chemistry there as collaborators where, from the moment we first worked together, working on Brecht's Galileo. For 15 years, we've worked together and I have to say everything we've worked on has been wildly successful. And over those 15 years, we've both grown as people and we've seen each other's personal growths and artistic growths and we've been able to capitalize on that with these big, rich, fantastic plays.

PBOL: Who decides on the plays? You, Dennehy or both?
RF: A combination of the two of us. He picked Iceman Cometh. I picked Galileo. Together, we picked Touch of a Poet as a continuation of our work on O'Neill. And then I came up with the idea of doing Death of a Salesman.

PBOL: Do you have a dream project?
RF: No. They just come up in time. I'd love continuing to work on O'Neill with him. I think that it's inevitable that we will probably do Long Day's Journey Into Night, with him playing Tyrone, Sr. The thing with Brian, is we purposely worked on these enormously difficult roles -- major mountains to climb. And I think that Long Day's Journey will probably be the next one. It's hard to work on lesser work.

PBOL: I think it would be kind of hard to put Brian Dennehy in a smaller play.
PBOL: It sort of is, I think. PBOL: Who is your favorite artist working in the theatre?
RF: A favorite? It sort of changes. Like, I couldn't pick a favorite food I enjoy eating either. Spalding Gray, for example, is an artist who've I've always enjoyed. I love the personal nature of his work and the fact that he's able to use himself in such a simple pure way on stage. So, for many years if someone asked who's your favorite performer, I would have said Spalding Gray. But, I like directors a lot. I like seeing the work of Joanne Akalaitis, for example; the work of Julie Taymor, Frank Galati, Liz LeCompte. I'm kind of easy. I like a lot of people.

PBOL: What was your embarrassing moment in the theatre?
RF: Oh my God. The fortunate thing about embarrassing moments in the theatre is I try to block them. I mean that genuinely. When they're really traumatic, I try to block them. The most embarrassing thing? [Groans] Anecdotal pressure, Robert, anecdotal pressure!

PBOL: Never mind, then. Don't force it. What credit couldn't you wait to get off your resume?
RF: I did perhaps the single worst production ever done of Shaw's Arms and the Man at the Asolo Theatre in Florida when I was a young man, because it was completely charmless. My work may have a lot of strengths, but one thing it lacks is charm. I think I'm sort of a charmless director. There's a lot of passion, a lot of power, there's going to be a lot of humor. But the high levels of charm of Arms and the Man escaped me completely.

PBOL: Both you and Dennehy are big men. If you ever got into a fight over an artistic point and it came to blows, who would win?
RF: He probably would win, because he was a Marine. I think he's tougher and meaner than I am. He spent time in Vietnam. I would prefer not to mess with Brian in a fight. I'm sort of a pansy by comparison.