PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Wallace Shawn

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Wallace Shawn "Why put him in a 'Wallace Shawn' role?" Hurlyburly director Scott Elliott said about casting the actor known mainly for his idiosyncratic character turns.
Wallace Shawn in Hurlyburly
Wallace Shawn in Hurlyburly Photo by Carol Rosegg

"He's an amazing artist. And knowing him as a person, he has incredible depth and I thought it would be really interesting to see [the role of Artie] handled by somebody like him. He brings a lot of heart to the play," Elliott told Playbill.com.

For the record, Artie is described by playwright David Rabe as "slick in appearance, dressed very California; a mix of toughness and arrogance; a cunning desperation."

That's a far cry from Shawn's memorable turns in a number of Woody Allen flicks (from "Manhattan" to his latest "Melinda and Melinda"), "The Princess Bride," "Clueless" and (in voice) on "Toy Story" and "The Incredibles." Shawn is also known for his appearances in the films (both with Andre Gregory) on "My Dinner With Andre" and "Vanya on 42nd Street" as well as penning the plays Marie and Bruce, A Thought in Three Parts, The Fever, The Designated Mourner and Aunt Dan and Lemon.

The latter work's recent New Group revival is how Elliott developed a relationship with writer-actor Shawn.The duo will also team on the Roundabout Theatre Company's commissioned adaptation of The Threepenny Opera for Broadway next season.

Following a shift in venue to Off-Broadway's new 499-seat 37 Arts, Shawn spoke with Playbill.com about the Hollywood-set Rabe play and his own work, both in Hollywood and on stage. Playbill.com: Were you surprised when director Scott Elliott approached you to play the role of Artie?
Wallace Shawn: Well, I was very very surprised. Let's say I'm not taken seriously as an actor in general. People don't think that I am like a human being, so I have played toys or animals or ghosts — of course I've been a Ferengi if you know what that is, on "Star Trek." I'm not seen as the guy next door I suppose. So, this is — at least, in theory — a very realistic, naturalistic play which is exactly the sort of thing that I wouldn't be considered for. So, it's quite apart from whether people think that I can act at all, even as an animal or creature. So, yes, I would say I was shocked because this is a serious play even though it is quite funny and it's meant to be believable. But the truth is reading the part on the page, there's really no reason why I shouldn't play it.

Playbill.com: What is at the heart of Artie for you?
WS: I suppose that Artie, ultimately quite desperate, like many people in Hollywood, tries out exploring many deals at the same time, hoping that once every few years, one of them will actually come through. Kind of irrational optimism. But clearly, occasionally he does get a deal. You could say that he's doing better than the other people in the play. Obviously, long divorced, lives by himself, probably likes it that way.

Playbill.com: Had you drawn on your own Hollywood experiences for the role?
WS: Yes, I've tried to get various deals together and I know something about that. I have had better luck in Artie in various ways, but it's not hard to imagine being Artie at all.

Playbill.com: With all the cursing you do, the role is a departure from your recent kid-focused animated works.
WS: All of the characters speak in a very rough way which, I think, kind of expresses a kind of desperation and even anger because this is also a play about men and what they're like when no women are around. Sometimes anger can feed on the presence of other angry men and the violence that comes out of those rooms full of men we see on the front page of our newspapers as well as in Hurlyburly. So that kind of language is a form of male bonding in which men are showing each other that they're all properly angry. It's like a symbol of anger that the men show to each other, like you don't have any credibility unless you show how nasty and angry you are to the other men.

Playbill.com: You were recently commissioned to translate and adapt Bertolt Brecht's musical The Threepenny Opera for an upcoming Broadway revival. What was the process of translating like for you?
WS: Well, Brecht was not kidding. He actually meant what he was writing. Often translations can lack the passion of the original and you could feel that they were written by someone who doesn't actually mean it and that it's sort of half-hearted. This is the flaw with a lot of translations. So, I tried to write one that isn't kidding either. There's nothing silly, or cute, about The Threepenny Opera. And so, I tried to do a translation that would have nothing silly or cute in it. It doesn't even have silly rhymes in German; every line is something that the author actually meant. There is no line that is put in simply because it is a funny rhyme with the previous line or an amusing way of rhyming. Brecht makes you think that he says the thing that absolutely has to be said and by chance, and by magic, it happens to rhyme. So, I did my best to imitate that.

Playbill.com: What excited you about the work?
WS: The play is, first of all, from an aesthetic point of view, has an incredible vitality and I happen to share Brecht's belief that the way the world is organized is unacceptable. It's unacceptably organized to benefit the rich. And so I share the anger that he felt.

Playbill.com: The work underwent a December workshop, are you continuing to refine the translation?
WS: I think if you really were to try — and I am trying — if you really want to make every line of the lyrics absolutely what you would write to say exactly what you would want to say without considering whether it rhymes or not, but then you have to make it rhyme, you could really devote your life to translating those lyrics. I mean, you can keep improving them to remove the last trace of what is not really believable as what you wanted to say or is silly.

Playbill.com: You appeared in the workshop which also featured slated stars Alan Cumming, Edie Falco and Nellie McKay. Are you planning to reprise your role?
WS: I don't think that I'm going to be doing it. It was really fun to sing, but it was really hard to be in it and work on the script at the same time.

Playbill.com: You also recently adapted your play Marie and Bruce for the film version starring Matthew Broderick and Julianne Moore. It debuted at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, will it see a wide release?
WS: I have the greatest confidence that it will appear. We had an incredibly great experience working on it with Tom Cairns, the director. You learn a lot really seeing how film and theatre are different. It's an expensive education. Fascinating. The trouble is that it's all horribly expensive and distributing a movie, in some cases, is more expensive than making a movie.

Playbill.com: Marie and Bruce was also set for an Off-Broadway revival a few seasons ago, but never came to fruition. Are any of your plays being revived soon?
WS: I don't have anything definite to announce on that score. It's a somewhat pathetic exercise to speak of things that might happen. It's better to wait until they're really happening before you boast about them.

Playbill.com: We haven't seen a new Wallace Shawn play since 2000's The Designated Mourner, can we expect a new work anytime soon?
WS: If I were doing something, that would be my secret.