"That 2010s Show": Topher Grace Makes His Off-Broadway Debut in Lonely, I'm Not
By Harry Haun
A funny thing happened to Topher Grace on the way to Second Stage, where he is starring in a — what's the TV word? — "dramedy" by Paul Weitz called Lonely, I'm Not.
Stardom happened. There he was back in 1996, his senior year of high school, at a boarding school in New Hampshire. "Because I sprained my ankle doing tennis that year, I got to try out for the lead in the school play, and I got it," he says. The lead was Pseudolus, Zero Mostel's part in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the rest is history — in rapid-fire double-time.
"The parents of the girl who did the sets were big Hollywood producers, so when I went to USC the next year, they called me about a Fox sitcom they were producing. 'That '70s Show' was my first audition. I took it as a sign never to do stage again."
Never...'til now. What prompted his NYC debut — his "theatre comeback" — is one of the 13 films he made during and after his six seasons of "That '70s Show." It was called "In Good Company," and he was indeed (with Dennis Quaid and Scarlett Johansson), playing a boss in love with his employee's daughter — a coolly rearranged cliché written and directed by Weitz.
So, when Weitz came calling for his Lonely, I'm Not, Grace answered, albeit reluctantly. "I love going to theatre, but I was nervous about doing it. I didn't want to, but if you've had a great creative partner like Paul, you realize that's why you do it."
His first beard hides one of the New Faces of the 2011–12 theatre season. "This is my just-had-a-mental-breakdown beard," he beams proudly. "Does it read — that I had a mental breakdown? I talked to Paul about it. He said, 'Go ahead. We can shave it.' I think it's good. This guy is hanging on by a thread at the beginning of the play."
He plays Porter Willis, a once-married, former million-dollar corporate "ninja" on the mend from a meltdown. Giving life another shot, he gets a hand up from a blind, ambitious businesswoman (Olivia Thirlby) with obstacles of her own. Trip Cullman helmed this comic journey, and Mark Blum and Lisa Emery are the pillars of support.
Movie-making is different: "You do a run-through for the actors and the director. Then the crew comes in and watches you pace through it once. Then you get in hair and makeup and come back and do it. You're maybe rehearsing on take one or two."
It's times like then — and times like now, at Second Stage — that he's happy he's Trainer-trained. Before becoming known for directing all 200 episodes of "That '70s Show" (1998-2006), David Trainer directed the original Playwrights Horizons production of The Dining Room and steered Jessica Tandy to a Tony for Foxfire. "He was a great teacher — the only teacher I've had — and I'm so lucky he was someone who came from the stage. He taught me a lot of habits I'd have to be learning now.
"I always thought that kids who arrived in Hollywood couldn't wait to get off their sitcoms to do films, and I'd get really mad when they talk like that because there's no better bootcamp-slash-graduate school for film or stage. For the kids on that show, that was all of our school. Basically, David had four or five of the six kids on 'That '70s Show' starting to act the day the show started rehearsing. I was not good at the beginning. I had, literally, zero training.
"There's a similarity to theatre — repetition and rehearsal time — that happens in sitcoms. It is a period where you have a shorter rehearsal, but you have a full week to rehearse, and then you got to do it on Show Night. You do do it in front of an audience — probably the same size audiences as here at Second Stage — and you get only so many takes until that audience is no longer responding, really. We tried to keep it to two takes. I can see now how David made it more like the stage than other sitcoms. 'How I Met Your Mother' doesn't have an audience. They add in the laughs afterward. But David fixed it so if we wanted to get a laugh, we had to earn it."
Coming east again, says Grace, has created "a weird flashback thing for me. It's been bringing me back before I started 'That '70s Show.' What that's doing is that I can't believe that any of this stuff happened. I can't believe I'm in New York and doing a show. Knowing people like Paul and Trip, being able to work with them in something Paul wrote — that seems like a daydream I'd have of my life. It's an experience everyone should have in the theatre — a play they believe in, and writing they really love."
(This article appears in the May 2012 issue of Playbill.)
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