Discussions and debates about the craft of acting on TV compared to the stage fill the script of The Country House, Donald Margulies' new drama currently in performance at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. For Eric Lange, a seasoned TV veteran making his Broadway debut with the production, the conversations mirror reality in many ways.
Lange, who appears in the recently released film "Nightcrawler," and who has been featured in the TV series "The Bridge," "Once Upon a Time," "Cult" and "Victorious," had not performed onstage in seven years when he received the script for The Country House. He had been looking for the opportunity to return to the stage, he said, and after reading Margulies' script, he told his manager, "I don't care what I miss out on. I want to do this play.”
In playing Elliot, the embittered, unsuccessful son of stage star Anna (Blythe Danner), Lange makes many enemies throughout the first act. Upon entering the stage and seeing the newly grown moustache of family friend Michael (Daniel Sunjata), he greets him with, "What the f*ck is this?" Conversation only goes downhill from that line, which the actor contributed to the script.
"There was no reaction, and I thought if he hadn't seen him in a while, he'd make fun of him for it," Lange said laughing. A failed actor who has turned to writing, much to the dismay of his family members, Elliot spars verbally with everyone gathered at the spacious house near the Williamstown Theatre Festival in memory of his late sister. The sparring becomes physical when he and his brother-in-law Walter (David Rasche), a successful movie director, enter into a heated discussion about TV and film compared to theatre.
"I think there's a lot of truth in it," Lange said of the debate between the two men. "I think some of the best TV that's ever being made is being made today, especially on cable. There is real artistry being done on TV. But there's a lot of TV that aren't the best scripts. But ultimately with the structure of things financially, you do end up having to do these kinds of things, because it pays, in short order.
"I love doing theatre. It's where I started, and it's so nice to be doing it," he continued. "But I don't know how people do it out here, living here and just doing theatre. It would be really hard to make a living. We have to supplement with TV and film. And in that regard, you just try and work with the best people you can and get involved in the best projects you can. And I've been really fortunate all in all, I think, in what I've gotten to do on TV and film. But there are times when you have to go to work and you're not exactly looking forward to it, because you sort of know what it is and so does everyone else. But it pays the bills, and you live to work another day on something you're more excited about."
Having starred in the original production at the Geffen Playhouse before the Broadway transfer, Lange noticed the change in reactions from the audience as The Country House moved from the West Coast to the East Coast. The difference is most apparent when Anna says, "There are no Broadway stars, dear. Not anymore. Oh, there are stars on Broadway, but they’re not Broadway stars." The line, Lange said, inspired no reaction from the Los Angeles audience, but laughter and applause from Broadway theatregoers follow it every night.
Lange, who says he is fascinated by and drawn to damaged people, found himself immediately attracted to the character of Elliot, who, he said, suffers from the fame his family has achieved and that continues to elude him.
"This is a guy who's waving his arms in the air, saying, 'Will someone please tell me that I am special, too?'" he said. "It's heartbreaking, and I think there's something so universal about that. I don't care who you are: I think we've all wanted that from someone at times in our lives.
"I think that's sort of why people tend to like that character," he added. "And I honestly think that's something Donald does well. In the first act, he's easy to not like. He's sort of a disagreeable guy. But by the time the show is over, you sort of rewind and go, 'Oh, that's why he acts like an ass, and he's looking for attention all the time.' I love his damage and his search for love from his mom."
Elliot's insecurities are something Lange said he can relate to, remembering a childhood of being teased for having ears that stuck out. "It sounds so silly when I talk about it now, that it was even a thing," he said. "But they stuck out and I got razzed for it on a pretty regular basis. I remember thinking, 'I wish the people would take time to get to know me.' I've always had a soft spot for people who are marginalized or are bullied. I just really feel for those people because I remember what that felt like. Although I have no issue with my mother, I do understand what it can feel like to seem invisible or not appreciated. And I think there's some beautiful stuff in all those people that many people will miss out on because of these judgments. So that is the part of him that I do really feel for and relate to. And I think that carrying that through my life has dictated a lot of choices that I've made in terms of how my friendships operate and how I love people. I'm proud of that old war wound has allowed me to feel very close to the way he hurts."
His performance seems to be striking a chord with many audience members, who, he said, approach him saying, "I was you in my family" or "My brother is you."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)