PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Michael Cerveris

By Robert Simonson
19 Nov 2009

Michael Cerveris
Michael Cerveris
Photo by Joan Marcus

With his latest assignment, Michael Cerveris continues to be arguably the most versatile leading man on Broadway.

He is perhaps best known to fans for his musical performances in shows like Titanic, LoveMusik, Road Show, Sweeney Todd and Assassins, for which he won a Tony Award. But between those tuneful turns, he spoke Shakespeare in revivals of King Lear and Cymbeline, and Ibsen in Hedda Gabler. Now he has added another play to his resume. He's back in Victorian times, as he was in Hedda, but the work, In the Next Room or the vibrator play), is original, the latest by playwright Sarah Ruhl. He plays Dr. Givings, whose mission is all about curing (ahem) female "hysteria" with the very specific, and private, use of electricity. Cerveris talked to Playbill.com about his character's good intentions.

Playbill.com: How did you get involved with this play?
Michael Cerveris: Sarah [Ruhl] had sent me this script some time ago. I did a workshop of her Passion Play and did a reading of Dead Man's Cell Phone. I was a big fan, actually. We've actually had some other projects that we were thinking of working on together. ...This play was set to come to New York, I went to talk to [director] Les Waters. That's how I came to it.

Playbill.com: So you're familiar with Ruhl. How would you describe her work?
MC: I would say that she is especially adept at finding the complex beauty in seemingly quotidian things, all of the day-to-day interactions between people that reveal more universal truths. I think she's also very interested in trying to find immediate ways of getting real life and human beings onto the stage. Her language can have the feeling of poetry, but without the self-consciousness or preciousness. It's deceptively simple and requires a lot of work to perform it in a way that's not sentimental or unnatural.

Playbill.com: You play the doctor treating women in the play for "hysteria." How did you play a character like that, whom we see through our knowing, 21st-century glasses? Do you play him as someone who honestly believes he's doing good?
MC: Yes. You always try to play a character with as little judgment as possible. Even the most evil characters seldom think of themselves as evil. I think it's one of the challenges of the piece, for all of us working on it: to let go of our contemporary sensibilities and try to imagine a time when a lot of these things weren't as loaded with opinion and understanding as they are now. ...Electricity was a new and almost magical thing. What was going on in our bodies and the bodies of other people was far less known and understood. I think Dr. Givings is entirely convinced that what he is doing is helping people, although not necessarily in the way he believes it is. And a great deal of this is based on historical fact.



Playbill.com: Did they have you do research into the era to prepare for the role?
MC: There's a book that was a jumping off point for Sarah when she began writing this called "The Technology of Orgasm" by Rachel Maines. That kind of catalogs the treatment of women's "hysteria" using vibrators. It kind of goes back to the Greeks in their understanding of female anatomy and sexual responses. Although, I think it could be argued that men still don't understand a lot of the subject. And they certainly didn't know what the hell they were doing in the 19th century.

Playbill.com: Your character has kind of a loaded name, doesn't he?
MC: I'm sure that's not unintentional.

Playbill.com: Your co-star is Laura Benanti. You've talked in the past about how you try to strike a balance between plays and musicals in your career. Benanti is best known for musicals, but has lately been seen in plays. Do you two talk about that dichotomy at all?
MC: A little bit. It's more sort of recognizing someone with a similar sensibility and we also comment how exhausted we are. But then, it could be worse. We could be doing a musical! We'd be that much more tired, and that much more concerned if one of us got the sniffles.

Playbill.com: Speaking of music, you have a band and perform from time to time. Is anything going on with that?
MC: It's been on a long hiatus because I've doing so much work, in between the shows and the TV series ["Fringe"] and a film I did last year. But I've been really itching to play again, especially since I've been in New Orleans [where the movie was filmed]. There's music everywhere you turn down there. I did bring my band down to New Orleans where the film opened down there to play a benefit for a foundation that buys instruments for high school kids that don't have them. That's when we realized we hadn't played for about two years. I'm hoping to start playing again. I do have this other record that has been ready to go for some time. We just have to find the time and the money. It's called "Hinterlands." It was actually recorded before my first album.

Playbill.com: Do you write your own music as well?
MC: I do.

Playbill.com: Do you ever think of writing a rock musical?
MC: I do. In fact, bunch of my songs were used in a musical a few years ago, History of Tears. It was fun having other people sing my songs, reinterpreting them. Actually, Sarah Ruhl and I have talked about trying to collaborate on something at some point.