Rob Bartlett's new Broadway comedy went through several title changes before settling on More To Love , but the play's three-year evolution was more involved than any mere title switch. Reached by phone (Oct. 7), Bartlett told Playbill On-Line the idea for Love grew out of fifteen years of stand-up comedy -- not to mention a childhood troubled by a difficult father/son relationship.
The real beginning of the writing process started three years ago, Bartlett said, "when Mitchell Maxwell caught my act at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He told me, `I think you're 85 percent there to bring something to the NY stage.' His idea was to take the stand-up act to one of the Off Broadway theatres. But because of the promotion I have through doing [the syndicated radio show] `Imus in the Morning,' and my years in the business, another stand-up gig wasn't something I needed to do. I wanted a more theatrical version of it. Something with music and dancing, characters and costume changes."
The result became More to Love, by and starring Bartlett. Performances began at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre Oct. 1 for an official opening date of Oct. 15. Joyce Van Patten, who plays Bartlett's agent, also stars, alongside Dana Reeve. David Gallo ( Jackie ) provides the scenery, Ann Hould-Ward is the costume designer, and Michael Lincoln designed the lighting. The show is produced by Maxwell, his sister, Victoria Maxwell, Jim Russek, Mark Balsam and Barlett's manager, Gary Grant.
More To Love, which previously bore the working title The 'F' Word and then the title Have Nice Life, takes place in a garage on Long Island, where an overweight comedian (Bartlett) on the verge of 40, starts cleaning out his garage in preparation for a move to L.A. The chore soon turns cathartic, with the comic coming to terms with his life and riffing on various aspects of contemporary culture. Jack O'Brien ( The Little Foxes) directs.
Says Bartlett, "Originally, the play was a "Producers"-esque piece about a comedian who tries to bring his stand-up act to Broadway. But every time I would go through this, it was life imitating art imitating art, and the results seemed flat to me." "I first conceived of an attic," added Bartlett, "Since I was influenced by the old Jonathan Winters TV show. But the attic setting troubled me, so then it became the basement, and then , finally, the garage. It's such a suburban thing, it naturally pulled all the Long Island growing up existence out of me."
Which, according to Bartlett, wasn't a pleasant experience. "I was going through a hideous midlife crisis at the time, very dissatisfied with where I was. Despite success, the perception was that everyone was doing better than I was, and the clock was ticking. But that really had to do with my relationship with my father and my son. Before I knew it, I tapped into that and had this story arc that unfolded."
I asked Bartlett if he expected the More To Love experience to resemble John Leguizamo's happy, real-life finale of Freak -- wherein the comedian's abusive, truant dad came to the show and started patching things up with his son. Barlett replied, "My mom is coming to the show... I'm kind of estranged from my father. I've made my peace with him; we're respectful of each other's lives at the moment. We just don't want to encroach on each other."
"The more I talked to people about this story," adds Bartlett, "the more I discovered how universal the story was. We all have to come to terms with that parent..."
Structurally, Bartlett feels More To Love has less in common with stand-up comedy than -- of all things -- a Broadway musical. "Instead of there being songs in the musical, stand-up pieces took the place of those songs, but they still moved the story forward slightly. They became like little musical numbers, which is the way director Jack O'Brien approached it. The 11th hour musical number is a piece I've been doing for fifteen years: "The Night Before Christmas in Brooklyn."
Not that More To Love is O'Brien's very first play -- he just wishes it was. "I wrote stuff in college that was hideous, because it came out of who I was then, " admitted Bartlett. I was so introspective and used such heavy symbolism. I wrote this play called `Leo', and it was just SO -- it made No Exit look normal. Two characters, one was offstage for the entire play as a disembodied voice. The character I played was on stage the whole time in whiteface. If anyone ever sees that play -- I hope to God I've burned it."
Getting into the radio, Bartlett was soon drawn away from playwriting, but he found himself coaxed back in by taking Robert McKee's celebrated "Story Structure" class. "Anyone writing anything owes it to himself to take the class," said Bartlett. "It's a most liberating experience The class uses a film approach, but elements of a novel, screenplay, play, teleplay -- it's all the same story structure. And structure is everything."
Bartlett credits director O'Brien with keeping structure foremost among his concerns. "It was weird how it all kind of fell into place when he came on board. Just cutting a line or moving something here and there felt SO natural. Serendipity. And Jack O'Brien was able to help guide me through. The first time we met we spoke for fifteen minutes. Then I went home and wrote for 17 hours. He pulled out the cork, and it all flowed. He was the muse of muses, and that's 99 percent of the battle. I'd call him with a problem, and he'd have three possible solutions -- all of them great."
In recent years, Broadway has become a haven for comedians and their talents. Jerry Seinfeld and Colin Quinn recently played limited runs, while Sandra Bernhard is due at the Booth in mid-October. The forerunners in this trend are Jackie Mason, who has brought several one-man shows to Broadway over the past decade, and Rob Becker, whose Defending the Caveman played a total of 571 performances at the Helen Hayes.
"We're all living our own little stories," concludes Bartlett. "And I discovered that my material was closely connected to who I was."
For tickets and information on More To Love at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre call (212) 239-6200.