When Jason Alexander agreed to replace Larry David in David's hit comedy Fish in the Dark June 9, he didn't realize the date missed the 25th anniversary of the last time he appeared on Broadway — by just one day.
"I lose a little bit of chronology around that time," Alexander explained when he learned that his last stage performance in New York was June 10, 1990. "The potential Seinfeld pick-up was happening right in there…I didn't know which end was up."
"He was very gentle with me," Alexander recalls. "It was my first time." He pauses a micro-second, then adds, "I can't say it was his first time." "Seinfeld"'s impact is so huge it's easy to forget that Alexander was among Broadway's most successful actors in the 1980s. While still a student at Boston University, he landed a role in the premiere of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, which led to parts in Kander and Ebb's The Rink, Neil Simon's Broadway Bound and Jerome Robbins' Broadway, which earned him a Tony Award. Along the way, he did a one-year stint in Forbidden Broadway, imitating Yul Brynner, Richard Burton and Kevin Kline. "Then one night, when one of our girls was really ill," he adds, "I did Merman."
That gift for mimickry caught the attention of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who were casting the now-legendary sitcom.
"If you can imagine what a Seinfeld script looks like when you only have three or four pages — it's unknowable," Alexander explains. "Funny, but unknowable. And it read to me like a Woody Allen film. So, without having any clear idea what to do, I thought, 'Why don't I just go whole hog Woody Allen?'"
Alexander dialed back the imitation to actually play the part, but it took nearly ten episodes before he found the key to the role.
"I didn't get the style at first — it just didn't compute," Alexander says. "Larry would write George to a fever pitch conflict with somebody and, in the next scene, it was as if it had never happened." After one particularly frustrating table read ("I wish I could remember which episode it was") he went to David and said, "Larry, please help me here. This is a ludicrous situation. It would never happen to anybody. But if it did, no one would react like this."
Alexander then switches to an uncanny imitation familiar to anyone who's watched "Curb Your Enthusiasm," sputtering, "W-w-w-waddya talkin' about? This happened to me and this is exactly what I did!"
"It was like a lightbulb went off," Alexander says, "and I thought, 'Oh. My. God. George is Larry. George is LARRY!"
The actor started observing his boss for some physical trait that would help him understand how David's mind worked. The result earned Alexander seven Emmy nominations and nine years of steady employment — plus residuals.
For Fish in the Dark, Alexander also looked for physical traits to build the character of Norman Drexel, a Los Angeles urinal salesman. While Norman is something of a cousin to the character of "Larry David" in "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Alexander parses out the differences. "George is Larry, but Norman is closer to Larry on 'Curb' than he is to George…[But] Larry on 'Curb' is not Real Larry, he's Larry Unleashed." Alexander believes his interpretation differs somewhat because David comes at the character as a writer. "Without being disrespectful to Larry," he explains, "as an actor he never thought anything beyond: 'The words will take care of that.'" Alexander, on the other hand, looks for "the life that lives underneath the words," even in a light comedy.
"It's impossible for my DNA to look at this play and not treat it like it's Long Day's Journey Into Night," he says. "I have to look at this character and ask what's going on with him?…What is his experience here? And then, how do I get all the laughs?"
For instance, while theatregoers heard from Larry David that Norman has acid reflux, they'll witness Jason Alexander (who knows from the real thing) "working the valve to get it under control." While that's not same as Mary Tyrone tapping a vein for morphine, Alexander doesn't apologize for Fish in the Dark being a throwback to the kind of comedy that once was a staple on Broadway.
"When I saw it, I thought 'Neil Simon would be having the time of his life right now.'" So what took Alexander so long to come back to Broadway? "As soon as 'Seinfeld' went off the air [in 1999] my first instinct was to come back to New York," he explains. "At the time, my kids were four and eight years old and my wife said, 'You know what eight shows a week is like. You know the life. You know the schedule. On your deathbed, do you think you'll remember your greatest nights on the stage or the nights you tucked your boys to sleep?"
With his sons now grown, Alexander says, "I'm actively trying to put New York and theatre back in my life," mentioning Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers as overdue for revival.
"Of course, a musical would be great," he adds. After all, he can do Merman.
Watch Alexander imitate David below.