PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Ethan Hawke
By Harry Haun
Ethan Hawke, ever passionate about the theatre, returns to the New York stage in The New Group's Blood From a Stone.
If you're a sucker for Christmas plays, best skip Blood From a Stone, which director Scott Elliott installed Jan. 6 for The New Group at Theatre Row on West 42nd.
Tommy Nohilly, the actor and first-time playwright, isn't kidding about the blood. Quite a bit is sloshed about during the three days of rain that hammer away at a Connecticut clan that comes completely unglued during a particularly chaotic Christmas. Even the cheapjack kitchen ceiling gives way from the driving downpour.
Ethan Hawke stars as a slacker/prodigal who chucks his job and comes home for the holidays before striking out for parts unknown. The Grade-A ensemble consists of Gordon Clapp and Ann Dowd as his parents, Natasha Lyonne and Thomas Guiry as his siblings and Daphne Rubin-Vega as the tarty (and married) girl next door.
Still wired from the histrionic workout he'd just been through, Hawke arrived for his Brief Encounter interview at the West Bank Café across the street from the theatre a tad tardy — but with a good excuse: Jack O'Brien had dropped by backstage, and "every time I have his attention I need to grab it and suck every piece of knowledge he has." He's the director who got Hawke in the Tony running for The Coast of Utopia. You can't top that, so you applaud his priorities and get on with the task at hand.
You're sorta the star here, passing as a member of the ensemble, aren't you? I'm sure that must agree with you.
Was the ensemble angle the reason you were attracted to this project?
And there's something about this guy that's worth fighting for. He's a voice, and part of an actor's job is to help playwrights find their voice.
I have to say, that first scene with you and your mother going through all that explosive exposition about the family's recent history — it was like you were bowling strikes. Boom boom boom. It really lifted the play off, and you were gone…
The dialogue is almost like an aria for actors. I'm not surprised that the playwright is an actor — like Mamet…
I love your scene at the top of the second act with your father. It's the first time I really see your character trying to reach his father…
Have you ever worked with these actors before?
I ask because not only is there chemistry on stage between actors, you all seem like a family as well.
In rehearsing this, how did you get that family feeling going? I kept thinking, "That's a real family there. I understand that." It just really communicated to me. How do you, as actors, rehearse that?
EH: Of course, I'm glad I had that experience. In many ways, what we have going with The New Group now is some kind of rebirth of that community. One of the plays I directed for The New Group, in fact, was Jonathan [Marc Sherman]'s play, Things We Want. Josh and Jonathan were founding members of the Malaparte Theatre Company, along with me and Robert Sean Leonard.
You and Robert were part of the "Dead Poets Society," Class of 1989. Do you have any plans, or hopes, of working together again?
Would you ever want to be an artistic director again, or have you cashed in your chips?
I even loved the curtain calls for The Coast of Utopia. It was like rolling waves of the sea reaching the shore.
If you did have a season as an artistic director, what would you have in terms of product?
You're one of the few people I know who actually has an award for your theatre commitment [the Michael Mendelson Award for Outstanding Commitment to the Theatre in 2008]. You've earned it, too. You have a wonderful film career, but you keep coming to the stage all the time.
There's a beautiful Milan Kundera quote in his new book where he talks about the birth of a new art form called cinema. It was completely usurped by big business. Basically, now, it's big business. It's not cinema as art. What qualifies as an art picture is not what qualifies as literary fiction — and what a shame that is.
As people start watching "The Godfather" on an iPhone on the subway, the theatre becomes more and more relevant, and you realize that this ancient art form is going to survive all of this. It's funny, with rock music, music is cheaper and cheaper…but a live Bruce Springsteen concert is still priceless. A great work of theatre is priceless. It can't be repeated.
There's a great Meryl Streep quote I heard recently. When she was younger and really into theatre, they were saying, "Movies are immortal." Now that she's older, she realizes, "God, all the movies are dated." The only thing that's immortal is her production of The Cherry Orchard 33 years ago. The people who saw it love it and remember it. That hasn't dated, whereas even "Silkwood" is dated. Theatre lives. When I meet somebody who says to me, "I saw you in Jack's Henry IV," the first thing that comes to my mind is "What night?" They say, "Oh, Christmas," and I say, "Was my voice hurting?" "Yeah, your voice was really ragged." "I know. I was having such trouble." It hasn't aged a day. That's the beauty of theatre. You can't buy it on your iPod. You can't download it on iTunes. That makes it more special now.
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