During a chat before rehearsal the other day, I asked Michael Cerveris where his new movie, "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," was shot. And when he told me -- New Orleans -- I realized that there wasn't much chance that we were going to spend the session speaking only about "In the Next Room."
This has nothing to do with the beauty of the play. Cerveris has been a big fan of Sarah Ruhl's work for many years; he did a workshop of her "Passion Play" at Lincoln Center Theater a few years back. Nor does it have to do with his attitude toward his "Next Room" role, Dr. Givings, described by Ruhl as "a man in his forties, a specialist in gynecological and hysterical disorders." Cerveris is very excited to do the part, which is, it should be noted, the first new play he's ever done on Broadway.
No, the problem -- at least as it related to my ability to conduct an on-subject interview -- was that the circus-freak movie turned Cerveris into something else, a New Orleans freak, and since I am a New Orleans freak, too, I couldn't resist asking the actor about our shared addiction.
"The movie was a little other-worldly," Cerveris says. "I play a circus character called Mr. Tiny -- who weighs 400 pounds. And the city, I discovered, was other-worldly in a very different way. I fell in love with the place." The film took more than four months to shoot, and Cerveris stayed on for a month after that. He's been back several times, sometimes to volunteer building houses with Habitat for Humanity, and sometimes to pitch in more informally.
I've met newcomers to New Orleans who are attracted to the place because of its can-do, post-catastrophe spirit, and I mention to Cerveris that I find this attitude sometimes condescending. "I know what you mean," he replies, "but I'm sure that those people are in the minority. Mostly, I've met people who've gone there to be of service, and to enjoy the city because of its music, its food: everything that makes it unique." He added: "Disaster reminds people of how transient we all are -- how we can be blown down in an instant."
I relate this sentiment to a similar one in "Next Room," when one of the characters, experiencing grief, says that "everything that's worth having is borrowed."
Cerveris replies, "It's a very rich play. I've read it many times since I first got a copy e-mailed to me. I've read it on trains and planes and at home. And each time I read it I seem to cry by the end. That doesn't happen often."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.