Of Trip Wyeth, the reality-TV producer he plays in "Other Desert Cities," Justin Kirk says, "He seems to be the most sensible character on the stage." Yet the route by which Kirk undertook his journey toward playing Trip - an assignment that began earlier this month - was not immediately clear.
"I was in Oslo when I got a text from Joe," Kirk told me in his dressing room the other evening. And why was he in the Norwegian capital when the "ODC" director, Joe Mantello, contacted him? "I was there visiting Elizabeth Reaser," Kirk continued, referring to an actress friend who is currently in New York off-Broadway in "How I Learned To Drive."
Kirk, who spent late 2011 in Europe filming "Mr. Morgan's Last Love," in which he plays Michael Caine's son, had not seen "Other Desert Cities." "By the time in Europe when I received Joe's text, I was feeling pretty homesick," said Kirk, who lives in Los Angeles. "So I didn't think I wanted to go straight to New York to do a play."
Reading the drama, however, changed Kirk's mind. "It's such a good piece of work," he said. Talking about the "Other Desert Cities" playwright, Jon Robin Baitz, Kirk added: "I think it's Robbie's best play." That's an assessment with some weight behind it, given that Kirk has some history with both Baitz and Mantello.
"Joe and Robbie were instrumental in my early career," Kirk said, casting back to the mid-1990s, when he had completed an acting program at New York's Circle in the Square and was making his professional way. He did a workshop of an early version of Baitz's "A Fair Country," and then Mantello cast him as a young blind man in Terrence McNally's hit play "Love! Valour! Compassion!"
Kirk has had a lively career ever since, moving between film, television, and stage. He was an unforgettable Prior Walter in the HBO adaptation of "Angels in America," for which he received an Emmy nomination. These days, he is recognizable for his role as Andy Botwin in Showtime's long-running program "Weeds."
Given that "Weeds" involves the selling of marijuana, one would think that Kirk, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and in Minneapolis, would be something of an expert in all things cannabis. Not so. "On television or film, you can do something in several takes, and fix things in the editing, so for 'Weeds' I've never really had to learn to roll a joint properly."
In "Other Desert Cities," though, Kirk's character is required to roll a joint. "I had to learn to do that convincingly," the actor says. "And I have to do it while reciting a speech, which makes it a little more challenging."
Also a challenge for Kirk: coming into a production that was already rolling along on Broadway, after a successful off-Broadway history at LCT's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. "It's great in that the play is already a hit, so you don't have to go through rehearsals and previews wondering if the show is going to make it," Kirk said.
Kirk memorized his part while still in Europe shooting "Mr. Morgan's Last Love." "I felt pretty cocky about the role once I got the lines in my head," Kirk confessed. "But that first performance in front of a live audience will always humble you." He added: "Putting that early scary stuff aside, doing the play is very satisfying. My stuff is so chewy. The language is both dense and accessible. It really pops."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.