PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Robert Sella

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Robert Sella In a few short years, actor Robert Sella has distinguished himself in a handful of productions in which you looked at all of the parts only as they related to the whole. Strong as his work was as Prior in the national tour of Angels in America, as Clifford in Side Man on and off Broadway and as the post-Alan Cumming Emcee in Broadway's Cabaret, the idea of "ensemble" was evident. It's also evident in his current project, Home of the Brave, playing Pvt. Coen (known as Coney), the Jewish soldier searching to separate his personal pain from the pain that every soldier feels during wartime. The Jewish Repertory Theatre staging, directed by Richard Sabellico, marks the first New York City revival of the 1945 play by Arthur Laurents (Gypsy, West Side Story, The Time of the Cuckoo). It was Laurents' first play, and, at 82, he is the revival's creative consultant. Sella talked to Playbill On-Line about Laurents, the idea of ensemble, and the little-known film he made at age 12.
Robert Sella in Home of the Brave.
Robert Sella in Home of the Brave. (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

In a few short years, actor Robert Sella has distinguished himself in a handful of productions in which you looked at all of the parts only as they related to the whole. Strong as his work was as Prior in the national tour of Angels in America, as Clifford in Side Man on and off Broadway and as the post-Alan Cumming Emcee in Broadway's Cabaret, the idea of "ensemble" was evident. It's also evident in his current project, Home of the Brave, playing Pvt. Coen (known as Coney), the Jewish soldier searching to separate his personal pain from the pain that every soldier feels during wartime. The Jewish Repertory Theatre staging, directed by Richard Sabellico, marks the first New York City revival of the 1945 play by Arthur Laurents (Gypsy, West Side Story, The Time of the Cuckoo). It was Laurents' first play, and, at 82, he is the revival's creative consultant. Sella talked to Playbill On-Line about Laurents, the idea of ensemble, and the little-known film he made at age 12.

Playbill On-Line: Because the Jewish Rep deals with plays by Jewish writers or plays with Jewish subject matter, I expected Home of the Brave to be more on the theme of anti-Semitism in the Army (which is how the show is marketed), but ultimately, that's not what the play is about.
Robert Sella: Coney is this person who is self-loathing and is not very likable in that way: "My pain is the worst, I am the only one who understands what it's like to be Jewish in the Army and to have pain." Some troubles are worse. There are other things going on. What [director] Richard [Sabellico] has tried to do, successfully, is to make every character have something they feel insecure about. That's been a great way to make the play seem more universal.

PBOL: The play is about the equalizing force of war: When faced with mortality, things such as race, religion, class, rank become insignificant. All men feel the same guilt, the same pain in wartime. I think there's a line in the play that goes, "We're all the same."
RS: War becomes that metaphor for living.

PBOL: You're aware, aren't you, that you're a part of theatre history, playing in the first New York City revival of Laurents' first play?
RS: I am a little bit. This whole experience has been restorative to me in a way. I have been fortunate beyond what I would've imagined: Getting to do Side Man, getting to do Cabaret. So many great things have happened to me. But both of those shows ended in a really difficult and a not very positive way. I was sort of shell-shocked, not to use a corny war metaphor. I didn't want to do any more plays. I felt a little cynical. When this play came into my view, I read it and re-read it. I thought about it, and Arthur Laurents has really meant a lot to me, as an audience member. His work has been inspiring to me. To me, Gypsy is the best musical theatre there is. I respect him and I thought just to be in a room with this man will be interesting to me. Either it will be a terrible experience and will put me over the edge and I will go to Eau Claire and open a Kinko's, or it might give me back something. I think the latter has happened. Plus, there were all these little signs to me: My father was born in Pittsburgh, as Coney was, I'm from Arizona, which is where [Coney's best friend] Finch is from, and Michael Gordon, who was the original [1945] director at the Belasco, was my directing teacher at UCLA. He was in his late 80s, and had spoken of it before.

PBOL: And knowing your background in ensemble plays such as Side Man and the tour of Angels in America, directed by Michael Mayer, I would see how you'd be attracted to an ensemble show. Do you ever long to go off and do some one-man show about Picasso?
RS: No. Actually, the opposite. I don't know what else there is. In many ways, the roles I've played are star turns for the people who originated them. The review I got for Cabaret said that because I wasn't doing a big star turn, you could see the rest of the play and see the gems that were there. That was the biggest compliment I could've gotten. It was not meant as a compliment, at least that's not how I read it, but that's also what I tried to do as Clifford, that's what I did as Prior. I wasn't trying to make it a play about Prior. I'm not up there by myself. It's a total experience. When you see Home of the Brave you don't walk out thinking, "Oh, that Coney!" It's not about me at all. I feel like I've been really lucky to be a part of plays where everybody is at the top of their game and it makes you better. So you all feel like stars. PBOL: In Home of the Brave, your character's legs are paralyzed, but there are no physical wounds, so a psychiatrist injects Coney with a drug to draw out his memories. What was Arthur's advice during the play?
RS: For me, he was instrumental in making the [hospital scenes] work. I had a real dreamy, sleepy quality in many of the rehearsals, and he came in and said, "No, no. Something happens in your mind that makes you more able to focus, things become strangely more clear." That's what narcosynthesis does: It doesn't pull you back from what's going on, it actually draws you into the story more. One of [Arthur's] only requirements, one of the things he said was a signpost he wanted me to find, was that there's a stillness and robotic quality that comes over you as the drug seeps through your system, and then there's a moment as if you're taking a breath after you've been under water for a long time. It might not have been something that would've come to me naturally. I wouldn't have seen the demarcation between being under the drug and then becoming clarifying: You're in this world where you're looking around wondering what to focus on, and then it becomes clear. I've never had any experience with drugs like that, so I had no idea.

PBOL: Did Arthur tell the company what the play was about?
RS: I think early on he trusted [director] Richard [Sabellico] and all of us to find out what we thought it was about. Richard said early on to Arthur that he felt there was an evident homosexual quality in the relationship between Finch and Coney, which, oddly enough, Arthur had never really dealt with or felt was there. He was very excited by the possibility that, even though he didn't want it to be some obvious thing, there is that love that may go a little deeper than just pals. And that's what it makes it more heartbreaking for Coney when the only man he ever felt close to and loved, even though it probably would never come to fruition given the time period, is lost. He's lost someone beyond a brother, beyond something special. Arthur was kind of excited how that might weave in and we've talked about that and played with it and downplayed it and up-played it. I think we found a pretty good balance.

PBOL: When did you start acting?
RS: I did my first professional job -- I was Little Jake in Annie Get Your Gun -- when I was 9. I made 35 bucks a week, at the Windmill Dinner Theatre in Phoenix. I was always in plays. I didn't care about being good. I just wanted to perform. I made a movie when I was 12. It was called "Survival," a Christian film dubbed into every language known to man. It was an evangelistic tool. It's one of those shock movies where something bad happens and only your love of Christ can get you through it. Ours was about this family flying in a plane that crashes over the desert. All the adults are hurt and the kid, that's me, goes across the desert to this little town they see in the distance, only to find it's a ghost town. He's chased by a rabid cougar and falls into a snakepit -- y'know, just like what happens to every kid. The parents find Jesus and pray that I'm found.

PBOL: Did your folks take you to the theatre?
RS: No. I mostly grew up on movies and TV. It was one of those weird, genetic freak things. Literally, at 4, I used to tape quarters on the bottoms of my shoes and tap dance in the basement to Fred Astaire records. [Beat.] Well, I was adopted. [Laughs.] I was singing my mother a song in the laundry room of our apartment complex in Arizona and this woman came up and said she played piano for a children's group, and invited me to audition for it. The name of the theatre group was the Live Y'ers, because we were at the Y. I got into a play and they made that first play into a [local] TV show. We made a record and sang. The record was called "Summer Love." We were called The Sunshine Machine. We would sing at store openings and trailer parks and state fairs. That all dwindled away as we moved into high school.

PBOL: You grew up watching TV. Did you want to be a TV star?
RS: Oh, yeah. I didn't know anything about Broadway. I didn't know anything about New York, I didn't come to New York until I was 26. I went to Los Angeles.

PBOL: After UCLA and other schools, you attended Juilliard. Was it clear you would be an ensemble player? What did your instructors say to you during your tenure there?
RS: Michael Langham was the head of the department at the time. We were doing a Moliere play that wasn't very funny and I begged him to come and watch one of the rehearsals. He said, "I don't know what you're complaining about." I said, "The translation is really stilted, it's directly from the French. I'm trying to make it brighter and funnier and clearer." He said, "Your problem is, you're a laugh whore. You're nothing but a cheap vaudevillian. That's your problem!" It was very hurtful at the time. [Laughs.]

PBOL: The cheap vaudevillian gets pretty good gigs.