Run Bob Run: Actor-Director Bob Balaban Sprints Through The Fall Season

Run Bob Run: Actor-Director Bob Balaban Sprints Through The Fall Season Eight AM on a rainy Tuesday in late September. Most Manhattanites are cramming in a few last winks before a groggy awakening, or gulping down a revivifying cup of java, or tussling with the morning hoards in the subway stations.
Bob Balaban in Mr. Happiness.
Bob Balaban in Mr. Happiness. (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Eight AM on a rainy Tuesday in late September. Most Manhattanites are cramming in a few last winks before a groggy awakening, or gulping down a revivifying cup of java, or tussling with the morning hoards in the subway stations.

Not Bob Balaban. Not this season. His rise and shine period ended some time ago, what with three stage projects happening simultaneously, and a very early morning appointment to keep with a reporter. Even earlier than the reporter had anticipated.

"I tried calling at 7:45," he says, with alarming vigor. "I thought, let's just get started if we can. It's hard doing all these things at once, but on the other hand, it's a lot more fun than sitting around." You can just picture him in the wee hours, endlessly twisting rubber bands like he did in the film "Absence of Malice," a bundle of tics full to bursting with nervous energy.

Balaban is, indeed, a speed talker, an essential skill when directing two plays and performing in a third. But over the phone, he is calm and collected despite the pace of his speech, a model of efficiency; much like the bureaucrats he has played, though with a wry humor that seeps through his concentration.

Through autumn, he needs to keep focused. "We actors know you can't be too luxurious with your time; you have to say, 'these things are coming up right now, I'd better do them,' because in the spring there might not be anything there. Also, now that I've been infected by directing plays (not that I want to direct a bad one), if something good is out there, I'd like to do it." He reels off the rest of his schedule for that particular Tuesday. "At 9 AM, I'm meeting with the set designer for Y2K, which I'm directing at the Lucille Lortel, to select an enormous painting that will dominate the space. It has to look great, but it also has to be something the characters could have in their house; they can afford to have a $3 million painting, but not an $18 million one. At 10 AM, I have a tech date for the other show I'm directing, Vick's Boy, for Rattlestick Productions at the Theatre Off Park, but I have to run out at 3:30 PM to appear on a cable access program to talk about the show, because it's Off-Off-Broadway and we don't have a publicity budget so I have to do anything I can for it. Then I rehearse David Mamet's Mr. Happiness at the Atlantic Theatre Company from 4-6 PM, though I'll be a little late and leave five minutes early (poor Mr. Happiness, but it'll work out). Then it's back to Vick's Boy for a few more hours." This after several days of junkets and interviews in Toronto for his previous most recent film, "Jakob The Liar"; his latest cinematic credit, "Three to Tango," opens this Friday.

Have Metrocard will travel. Balaban has been all over the map on the New York theatre scene; as an actor, his Broadway credits include Plaza Suite, The Inspector General (for which he received a Tony nomination), and a previous brush with Mamet in Manhattan as part of the replacement cast for Speed-the-Plow once Madonna & Co. had vacated. "I've directed here, before, too -- a show at The Public Theater called Girls, Girls, Girls about a million years ago and about a year and-a-half ago, a wonderful one act by Will Sheffer called Tennessee and Me at the Ensemble Studio Theatre."

Arthur Kopit's Y2K, a cautionary thriller about a well-to-do couple unhinged by a cyberstalker, reinfected Balaban with the desire to helm more theatre. "Arthur and his agent sent me it about a year ago, for me to act in, but I said, 'I don't think I'm right for the part. However, would you consider me as the director?'" Duly considered, he staged the show at the Humana Theatre Festival in Louisville, KY, this past spring and brings it to the Manhattan Theatre Company in November. "From there, it somehow got into the cosmos that I should be directing plays."

The cosmos (in the form of playwright Ben Bettenbender's agent) soon delivered up Vick's Boy, which, appropriately for a contemporary comedy full of tricks and treats, is scheduled to end a month-long engagement on Halloween. [In a parallel universe, Balaban directs offbeat indie films and episodes for off-center television shows like HBO's prison melodrama "Oz."] Vick's is a farce about office and bedroom politics, centering on a attempt by lowly male office workers to blackmail a powerful female corporate lawyer with sex, lies, and an errant videotape camera. Balaban was drawn to the play "because I thought it was very funny when I read it, something I rarely find when I read comedies. It has a Moliere-like quality about it. And it's a big thrill that Daryl Roth is producing it; How I Learned to Drive, De La Guarda, and the 17 other things she's doing are all so great."

The play's opening weekend was not so great for Balaban; while jogging in Riverside Park, he stumbled and fell. "Someone said that on Broadway you break a leg, Off-Broadway you break a foot, and sure enough I did." Fortunately, onstage as Mr. Happiness, he is seated behind a desk: "I leave my crutches backstage, wobble out, and you don't see my ski boot in the darkness."

The fancy footwork is in his delivery: The character is a Depression-era radio advice columnist, who very concisely dispenses pearls of wisdom to his lovelorn listeners that are very precisely spoken by the actor. The one act, directed by Karen Kohlhaas, is paired with the industrial intrigue of The Water Engine, which jump-starts a season of the playwright's works at the Atlantic, co-founded by Mamet 15 years ago. "Any shred of an opportunity you have to work with David, you take, and that this is an anniversary season of his work makes it extra-festive," Balaban says.

The reunion with Mamet, a long-time friend, is just one for the actor director this season. "Jakob The Liar" brought him together with Alan Arkin, who directed him Off-Broadway in a Jules Feiffer play, "The White House Murder Case," and Armin Mueller-Stahl, who Balaban directed in his coming of old age film "The Last Good Time." His relationship with Arkin, with whom he plays a mean game of gin rummy when the occasion arises, stretches back to the 1970 film "Catch-22."

He was in his early 20s then, and in college -- he didn't complete his studies until age 30, given that the likes of Mike Nichols kept hauling him off to movie sets. The secret of his success? "When I was 18 and in a play, this nice older actress took me under her wing and said, 'Anytime they need someone to play the part of an intelligent person, you'll work.' Which is not to say I am really intelligent, as I am always the first to point out, but I do get those kinds of parts."

"The first play I got in New York was the original You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, where I played Linus -- you can't get more intelligent than that." [Not long thereafter, playing the college student he sometimes was, he was smart enough to acquire the services of hustler Jon Voight in "Midnight Cowboy," then later endeared himself to moviegoers translating for Francois Truffaut in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."] Balaban plays another of his perennials, the smug, primly attired gatekeeper, in the upcoming film "Cradle Will Rock," Tim Robbins' behind the-scenes drama of Orson Welles' whirlwind theatrical staging of Marc Blitzstein's "red" play in the 30s. "I do get pigeonholed as nasty bureaucrats for some reason," he says, "maybe because I really am nasty and just don't know it."

Smart or starchy, Balaban has acquired the kind of "do I know you?" fame that follows veteran character actors around. "But only when I'm bearded," he says. "It's radically different when I'm clean-shaven, as in Mr. Happiness. No one notices me, though I feel exactly the same." His recognition factor typically spikes when he plays Lisa Kudrow's dad on "Friends," or when his turns on "Seinfeld" are rerun; he played the exec struggling with Jerry and George over how to turn their nothing concept for a TV show into something.

Balaban himself struggled with the notion of directing movies and plays. "I went to film school, but didn't learn a hell of a lot there," he admits. "An experience with Sidney Lumet propelled me to get off my ass and do something about directing. I apprenticed myself to him after we finished up "Prince of the City"; I hung around like a fly on the wall for five months. He went over the whole process of filmmaking with me. He has a reputation as an actor's director, and I must say on that film I really thought that all he did was help the performers. I then realized that Sidney was able to give everyone the impression that he was just dealing with them."

On his first film as director, "Parents," "Everyday, I thought, 'Oh my God, how do we get through this?'" But the horror comedy, which starred Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt as all-American cannibals trying to get their son to eat his meat, had enough bite to get Balaban some TV assignments and two more features to date, "The Last Good Time" and the teenage zombie movie "My Boyfriend's Back."

From the living dead to the mortified couple portrayed by James Naughton and Patricia Kalember in Y2K, Balaban prefers to keep his counseling straightforward. "If you're a good director, you don't have to be a good anything-else. I've worked with some wonderful people who would never think about getting onstage. As an actor, I don't know what I bring to the stage," he muses, then adds: "In the beginning, I think being a performer was a liability; I talked to the actors too much, and was too involved in their process. My goal now is to never say anything if I don't have to say anything, and keep my eye on the overall development of the piece." He and Naughton are, however, conversing about the rigors of directing and starring in plays all at once, as the latter is bringing an acclaimed production of Arthur Miller's The Price he directed to New York just as Y2K opens.

Describing himself as "a mild Internet person" who keeps mostly to e-mail ("I never, ever spend late nights in chat rooms"), Balaban is intent that audiences grasp the larger meaning behind the Kopit play. "The year 2000 itself doesn't frighten me, and the play isn't about computers. What concerns me is that people think there's something better about life, relationships, work, and art just because we have this tool that lets us reach people that more quickly. There are a lot of invasion of privacy issues that have been blossoming since the '50s that are coming to amazing fruition now. Hopefully Y2K can be restaged in the year 2200, with a guide that reads 'the Internet means...,' like Shakespeare is issued today."

Come what may in the millennium, a computer crisis isn't likely to do what an injury couldn't -- slow Balaban down. Contacted again in mid October, he has a fresh list of commitments to run down. For the theatre, he hopes to direct a revival of Wallace Shawn's Marie and Bruce; "I starred in it Off-Broadway with Louise Lasser and look forward to being on the other side of the stage." His development company, Chicago Films, has adaptations of two Anthony Trollope novels and John Fowles' "Daniel Martin" in the pipeline, and projects for HBO and Nickelodeon. A film version of Vick's Boy is a possibility. And, as opening night for Y2K approaches, and his foot mends, he will squeeze in a role in a Spinal Tap-type comedy directed by Christopher Guest, whose "Waiting for Guffman" featured Balaban.

He pauses just long enough to consider his nonstop schedule. "I'm seriously enjoying myself, which is a good enough reason to get up early and come home late," says the fastest hobbler on the New York theatre scene.

-- Robert Cashill