If you’re the kind of person who can easily spend an hour in Home Depot, marveling at all the materials, perhaps you can understand why my first question to John Lee Beatty, the designer of Junk’s hall-of-mirrors set, was: What’s it made of?
“Technically speaking,” he told me, as we sat in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont, “the set consists of a rear screen and silver black semi-metallic sheer gauze. The floor itself uses high-tech gloss paint. And the mirrors on the set are not glass or plastic; they’re polished metal.”
Why does metal matter? Beatty replied: “Most people don’t realize that a mirror has a double surface – a glass surface in front and a reflective surface behind, which doesn’t work well in theater. And plastic substitutes like Plexiglass mirrors warp horribly. Plus, people are terribly afraid of broken glass.” A final reason to avoid glass mirrors: “It drives many actors crazy to see themselves reflected on stage.”
With the basics out of the way, I was free to ask Beatty, who won one of his two Tonys for The Nance, his previous Broadway outing for LCT, what inspired Junk”s design.
“The building I first thought of when I read the play was a shiny one on the 405 freeway, in L.A., on the way to Disneyland. Another inspiration, because the play is set in the 1980s, was Trump Tower.” Beatty remembered going into that high-rise monument for the first time “and being struck by the confusion of glass surfaces and shiny surfaces. There was gold everywhere.”
Originally intending to make Junk out of gold-tone mirrors, Beatty realized that it was too literal a comment on the drama’s material. “And,” he added, “Cathy Zuber, the costume designer, wasn’t too keen on gold. She said that for her it wasn’t terribly flexible.” Doug Hughes, the production’s director, didn’t want the designs to be too over-the-top 1980s, anyway. “The conception,” Beatty explained, “resembles the way many directors like to do Shakespeare: in-period, without getting hung up on doublet and hose.”
Junk was produced last year at the La Jolla Playhouse, near San Diego. What changed trans-continentally? “The big difference,” Beatty answered, “is that La Jolla is a proscenium and all the entrances were from upstage. In the Beaumont, which is a thrust space, entrances and exits can also be downstage, as if the actors are disappearing into the seats.” Beatty said he remembered watching a similar effect when, as a boy, he saw a Shakespeare play at the Old Vic, in London. “I was so impressed by that. Whether I realized it or not, it may have been my first exposure to the fact that the stage is a precipice. And precipices can be dangerous.”
Beatty has worked in the Beaumont many times, starting with Abe Lincoln in Illinois, in 1993. “Some people thought of the Beaumont as a difficult space,” Beatty said, “but Gerry Gutierrez, who directed, thought the opposite. He took the curse off the place for me.” Although Junk concentrates the action on the lower, thrust portion of the Beaumont, the vast upstage has also drawn Beatty’s favor. “You have the wonderful ability to bring in a unit from far away – the ability to float something forward magically out of the dark.”
The Junk set didn’t immediately evoke in Beatty comparisons to many of his past designs, which on Broadway alone number 112. “I know that as a designer I’m typecast for these yummy interiors and back porches,” he said. “Junk doesn’t remind me of those. It reminds me of a few of the musicals I’ve done. Like Chicago” – the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.
Beatty has devised so many shows for Broadway and off-Broadway that it’s tempting to think of him as a lifelong New Yorker, but he grew up in southern California. His father was dean at Pomona College. “I am a firm believer,” he said, “that all designers are extremely affected by where they were as children. I grew up in an old house – old for California, that is – across the street from an orange grove. Before the smog moved in. There were fragrances and flowers everywhere.”
Another childhood legacy: intelligent women. “My mother was unquestionably the smartest person in the household, which helps account for the fact that I tend to hate plays in which the women aren’t as bright as the men. Luckily, that’s not the case in Junk. One of the big jokes in the play is that Merkin’s wife” – Robert Merkin is the high-flying financier at the story’s center – “is actually smarter than he is.”
Only after the interview was over did I think that Beatty’s Junk design fits so well at LCT not only because of the entrance-and-exit flexibility provided by the thrust space but because the institution in general is spiritually friendly to notable women. All three LCT stages, after all – Beaumont, Newhouse, and Tow – are named after them.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.