Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chistopher Evan Welch in "Our House" (and "Whatever Works")

Our House
Written by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Michael Mayer
Starring Christopher Evan Welch, Morena Baccarin, Katie Kreisler, Stephen Kunken, Mandy Siegfried, Jeremy Strong, Haynes Thigpen

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
Performances from May 15—June 21, 2009

Welch and Baccarin in Our House (photo: Joan Marcus)
Through his appearances in such disparate stage comedies as David Mamet’s Romance, Woody Allen’s Writer’s Block and two plays by former NYPD Blue and Law and Order writer Theresa Rebeck—the Hollywood satire The Scene and the just-opened reality-TV satire Our House at Playwrights Horizons—Christopher Evan Welch has become the go-to guy for intense, ironical, and exasperated comic interpretations.

In Our House, Welch plays Wes, the head of the floundering SBS network whose decision to make sexy newscaster Jennifer Ramirez (Morena Baccarin) the host of a hit reality show has real-life implications far beyond anything anyone could have dreamed of: specifically, the shocking act committed by mild-mannered TV junkie Merv (Jeremy Strong) on his unsuspecting roommates.

Welch spoke recently with about his appreciation for Rebeck’s writing style and why Wes is less a caricature than a real person, along with his recent work with Woody Allen, including narrating last summer’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona and having a small (but hilarious) role in Woody’s latest, Whatever Works, out June 19.

Kevin Filipski: This is your second Theresa Rebeck play. What about her writing appeals to you?
Christopher Evan Welch: The first play of hers I was in, The Scene, has very dark implications but was very funny. In her writing, she always goes “BAM!”—and then she goes even further. That’s what a playwright should be doing, in my humble opinion. I loved doing The Scene, but Our House is such a big leap for her stylistically—this is a big, bold satire where she swings a lot of machetes around very widely. It’s fun to inflict this on audiences, and it’s a thrill ride that’s endlessly surprising—when people are leaping out of their seats, there’s a Grand Guignol feel to it. By the time we get to the end, when the two sets meld together and we’re in that same place for the first time—I can hear Theresa saying, “let’s go there—why not?” She eliminates all questions of realism, and none of that matters except the message of the play.

KF: Do you enjoy seeing this play’s effect on audiences, which includes a couple of surprising shocks?
CEW: I think that Theresa is a very savvy playwright and I like the way her writing has a kind of lulling effect—it fools audiences into thinking that they’re comfortable with these characters, then she pulls the rug out from under them. And before you know it, you’re tricked into going into darker and creepier places—just when you think you’ve sort of got a finger on what’s going on, she gives you another, and far different, ride. Whether you like it or not, you’re stuck in this world, which is very dark. I love that she’s built in that sense of mystery right from the first scene: what’s real and what’s simply TV?

KF: The fact that Theresa Rebeck wrote for television, notably NYPD Blue and Law and Order, is in this play’s very DNA.
CEW: Yes, I think it’s a cathartic play for Theresa to write. And it’s fun as an actor to be part of that energy, since it’s also a very funny play. Let’s face it: if it wasn’t funny, it would be a chore to sit through. TV is lame, we all know that, it’s not news. But we do keep watching TV: it’s OK to say we watch reality TV shows with a sense of ironic detachment, but it’s something that bears repeating and Theresa feels like saying it. It’s obvious from Our House that she has mixed feelings about being involved in it at all, although I can’t speak for her. The over-the-top ending is not really that over-the-top: it’s frighteningly realistic. I think it’s great fodder for satire for these times, and I love that it’s done like vaudeville, it’s cheekily aware of its own silliness. The play takes itself lightly too—it doesn’t bog down into any kind of didactic lecture about television, but Theresa has many valid things to say about TV and about us. I’m very fortunate: this is the kind of play that needs to be done, and it’s very exciting to be on the front line of American playwrights—because what else should they be writing about?

KF: What is your take on Wes, the head honcho who’s only interested in ratings and profits?
CEW: Wes should be scary, not a simple laugh riot. I love the idea that he’s frightening, and I’ve always seen this play as The Tale of Two Sociopaths. Wes and Merv are ultimately destined to meet. Wes has money, power and situation, and Merv’s the opposite: he’s my audience with no means at all, except his remote, so they’re on a collision course. I really do love that last scene between Wes and Merv, the only time that Wes crosses over to the “real world.” Also, that first scene between Wes and Jennifer is so much fun to play because one of the first things he says is “Don’t be modest—I hate that,” so you know right away where you stand with him. That’s part of being a sociopath and a megalomaniac—that’s the way he is. His pants pockets are sewn shut, because he needs nothing. He’s had the world handed to him. He’s very easy to play because he makes sense to me. Personally, I’m horrified and appalled by the whole reality TV thing—since neither writers nor actors are needed any more—but I do understand it from the point of view of someone like Wes.

KF: Wes’s speech about how unfair it is that networks only get the airwaves for free if they show a certain amount of hours’ worth of news programming pretty much sums up his worldview.
CEW: (laughs) Yes, and the logic of Wes’s argument is completely clear, at least from his perspective. The bottom line is that he’s a fun character to play—whether you take him with honey or with vinegar. You’ll find yourself chortling at very gesture of his that Theresa’s put onstage. In rehearsal, we were doing these maniacal scenes and we would not be able to get through them because we’d keep cracking up. And Theresa told us that a lot of these lines were things she heard in actual meetings—it’s ridiculous but true dialogue spoken by the network heads.

KF: Talk about working with Woody Allen, with whom you worked in his play Writer’s Block, and his latest movies Vicki Cristina Barcelona and Whatever Works.
CEW: I’ve had a nice little run with Woody. He’s fantastic—he was so nice to call me out of the blue to narrate Vicky and ended up using my narration, which was really fun to do. It was just me in a room with him and no footage from the movie. I would basically do the narration for the whole movie every time he called me in. Then he’d come back and tell me that other things needed to be done—it was very rhythmic and musical, like he was a conductor. He knew what did and didn’t work. Not seeing any footage while doing it was very strange—but it worked really well. In Whatever Works, I have a great scene with Ed Begley, but I only knew the dialogue of that scene and nothing else. I was there doing that scene on the first day of shooting, which was also fun, because everybody’s in a great mood. I thought that scene was hilarious and was also vintage Woody. In person, he’s gracious and generous, and as hilarious as you’d imagine. He’s so iconic that everything he says sounds hilarious even if he’s not trying to be. I played the “Woody” part in Writer’s Block, but since I’m not a nebbish Jewish comic, I didn’t have to worry about imitating his cadence or looks or anything else. The greatest compliment I can give him is that he’s always truthful and honest—he’s putting everything out there for the world to see. That’s who he is. I’m thrilled to be on any part of the journey with him. And I hope I’m still in his Rolodex.

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