An actor’s richest performances often arrive late in a play’s run. And an actor’s truest insights offstage often come when he or she is nearing the finish line of an engagement. I reaffirmed the truth of this statement the other evening when I sat down with Stephen Plunkett and Alex Hurt to speak about their wonderful Dada Woof performances and their characters: Jason and Scott, respectively.
Scott, a banker married to Jason, is described in Peter Parnell’s script as “buttoned-down.” The tag may refer only to his work attire or may also indicate his demeanor – he’s uptight. “I don’t experience him as uptight,” Plunkett said. “I can imagine other possible scenes in the play, when you wouldn’t think he was uptight at all.” He added: “He’s trying very hard to be generous in his attitude toward Jason.”
As for Jason, who is a painter, Hurt said that the character is driven by his desire for happiness. “His attitude is: gay people fought hard for their rights, so why can’t I have all of them?” What’s more, Hurt said, “Jason likes being a father, and he’s smart enough to recognize that it can be hard to be a father if you are thinking primarily about yourself.”
If Scott is calling Jason out for some of his behavior, Plunkett said that it may stem from the character’s own developing self-awareness. “Maybe Scott has never had to articulate his own needs before. He wants to be generous, but he also wants commitment. There’s a conflict, and it freaks him out.”
I asked Plunkett and Hurt about their approach to developing roles in general. “I don’t need to know every detail about a character,” Plunkett replied. “But the character has to make sense to me. I ask myself: If this were my situation, how would I behave?” He added: “To figure that out you use pieces of your own story. But you also use your imagination.”
Hurt said that he likes to be “very specific” about his character-developing approach. “I use what’s in the script and what I sense is the life of the character.” To play Jason, he continued, “before every performance, I ask myself how he would have felt when his mother died and when he met Scott and when his children were born.” Even this late in the run, Hurt explained, such an exercise always brings insights. “That’s what I enjoy about doing theater,” he said. “Every night, I learn a new thing.”
What have Plunkett and Hurt learned from informal audience feedback about their characters and about the play itself? “The comment I get most from people,” Plunkett said, “is how universal the play’s issues are. Trying to be happy while trying to be responsible is something that everyone is dealing with.”
“People connect with the play regardless of whether they are gay or straight, or whether they have children or not,” Hurt said. “Your child can be your dog or your cat, or it can be your work, or it can be your actual children: anything that requires you to balance what involves you alone with what involves something outside yourself.”
In the words of an audience member that Plunkett and Hurt’s costar, John Benjamin Hickey, encountered post-show at a Lincoln Center-area restaurant: “We’re all the same now.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.