A blind date can be a boon or a bust for two strangers seeking romance. But what if the couple know each other and use blind dates as a game in an attempt to keep a spark in their relationship?
In The Personals, Don and Janna are just such a married couple, arranging their role-playing ‘dates’ through small personals advertisements. Their sometimes sexy and often hilarious encounters hide the pain of loss and the desperation of two people trying to maintain a connection.
These characters, first seen on the screen in two film versions titled, “Blind Date,” by Theo Van Gogh, and later by Stanley Tucci, are now meeting each other in a new stage adaptation written by Brian Sutow, and just opened at No Rules Theatre Company.
While most companies are content with one location, No Rules has a dual city identity. Originating in Winston-Salem, North Carolina four years ago with a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the young company members brought the musical to Washington, liked what they saw, and stayed. In 2011, the company received the Helen Hayes Award’s John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company and continues to split most of their productions between the cities.
Sutow, also the producing artistic director for No Rules and one of the company’s founders, spoke with DC Theatre Scene about adapting the film and the No Rules three-person cast.
Jeffrey Walker: The source of your play has quite an interesting history.
Brian Sutow: It certainly does. This is the third incarnation of this story. I became familiar with the project when I saw Stanley Tucci’s film called “Blind Date.” His film is the second version of the story; the first was by Theo van Gogh, a well-known and respected filmmaker who worked in Amsterdam. I believe he was Vincent van Gogh’s great grand-nephew and he was somewhat famously murdered several years ago. He was making a film about religious extremism in Amsterdam and a religious extremist actually murdered him.
When that happened, Theo’s production company decided to have a trio of actor-directors reinterpret a trilogy of his work. Steve Buscemi did one [“Interview”]and Stanley Tucci did one. (A third director was announced, John Turturro, but I don’t know that the third one was actually released.)
I came into contact with “Blind Date” and from the moment I first got to see it, I thought it was a play, more so than a film. It was this beautiful, exciting, hilarious story that I connected with on so many levels.
I also knew I wasn’t interested in just putting the screenplay on the stage. I knew that there were some serious changes and reinvestigations that I wanted to make in the story. It was amazing how quickly I was able to get in touch with Stanley Tucci and his response immediately was yes, please, go ahead. He gave me the information about the producers and the lawyers I needed to talk with in Berlin and that was a much longer conversation, but in terms of getting green lit while contracts were being worked out, it was incredibly fast process. Stanley was incredibly sweet and supportive instantly.
I notice there is an inherent theatricality to the original film. Is that what drew you to it?
The film does have a very theatrical sense to it. It is about this married couple, Don and Janna, and Don, aside from being a bar-owner, is really a vaudevillian. So there’s this classic stage presence to him but there are also these intimate scenes between the two of them as they place these personal ads to try to reconnect with one another.
Part of what I felt was in a film, when something is as intimate and personal as so many of these scenes are and the camera is two inches away from their face, it causes you to tell the story in one very specific and incredibly small way. And simply by putting that same story on the stage, your circle of communication has to be larger and the way in which you share that truth is larger. And I don’t mean broader, I mean being able to be able to communicate a story to the back wall of the theatre and not just to a camera. I thought opening up that sphere of communication was going to be huge in terms of how those truths land with the audience perceiving the story.
On a deep guttural level, I was drawn to to the piece because it was a drama about comedy. I think people are always a little surprised when I say that. Janna and Don are two extremely funny people who are very clever but whose best qualities have been turned against them and the comedy is a means of survival. And that was incredibly relatable for me.
I was also really drawn to this story of a world where there is no clear antagonistic force. It is so rare that we can easily point the finger and say this is the antagonist, like we see in some of these stories, or this is the source of evil. It’s often so much more heart-breakingly unclear and nebulous than that, and how do we deal and soldier on and survive and find resolve and happiness in a world where that’s the case? To me, that is incredibly honest in terms of how we navigate our way through this world. Here we have two really good people and something really unfortunate has happened to them.
There is also all of this role playing and in most of these scenes, there is not a single line that couldn’t be interpreted multiple ways. I would be lying if I said that I think it’s a piece of material that two actors really get to chew into and that it really crackles and sparkles; as an actor myself, that was incredibly thrilling to me as part of the appeal. There is nothing I like more in the theatre than watching something real and exciting happen between actors – that beats fancy sets and flashing lights any day. So to have the opportunity to create material that three actors could really chew into was also very exciting.
I noticed, looking at parts of the original films, that the connections Don and Janet try to keep for themselves grows out of something painful from their past. Even as they use humor, they share the tragedy of losing their daughter. And in the Stanley Tucci film, the voice of the daughter offers sections of narration.
You have just pinpointed what has been one of the hardest steps on the journey for me, through all the chances to workshop the play at the Kennedy Center and in New York with some really amazing actors. The film uses a few points of critical narration to clarify a lot of what happens that might otherwise be overly mysterious. And I was not the least bit interested in doing that. Not to criticize the film, but film can get away with that. Part of the journey of bringing this to the stage was really developing the character of Henry, the young bartender who is in the bar with the married couple the whole time and becomes a central observer to what’s happening and becomes very invested in this situation. He helps to clarify things and be the eyes for the audience in several crucial moments.
There’s quite a bit of added material, moments that don’t exist in the film, that is there to activate that crucial information. So while the film primarily exists with Don and Janna always on these blinds dates and playing these games together, in The Personal(s) there are several critical instances either with Henry or in smaller ways with each other, when we see them communicating outside of the game.
I was somewhat resistant to that concept at first but the more that I allowed it to happen, the more I discovered it was a relief and a surprise and just a huge shift to see this different forum of communication with them. It’s like in music, if everything is always really loud and then you go really soft, that can be really exciting; with Don and Janna to not just stay in their game but to be able to jump to something very different, for me, is one of the most exciting things to happen in adapting this for the stage.
You had a chance to do workshops, make changes, and now you have a full production, directed by Josh Hecht. Who did you and your director find to play the characters of Don, Janna and Henry?.
We have a pretty wonderful cast and I’ve been really excited watching them.
Playing the central role of Don is Michael Kramer. Even though he works a lot, for my money, he has always been underrated. Watching him in the rehearsals has been incredibly exciting. He had a natural flair for not only the comedy and the old-world vaudevillian-style that is called for in the role of Don, but also has deep dramatic pathos. He is also willing to go to scary places and is sexy.
We had a really hard time finding Don. Josh Hecht and I felt there were so many attributes that had to go into this guy, he had to be so many things, and we really lucked out with Michael.
Then in the role of Janna is Anne Kanengeiser, who used to be a DC actress. She won a Helen Hayes Award for Fosca in Passion at Signature in 1997, and also has a Helen Hayes Award for Lady Liberty at Ford’s Theatre. Since then she moved on to New York, where she has worked and done national tours, and we’re incredibly lucky to have her.
There is a long list of characteristics that one person has to embody and Janna is not an easy role to play in the least. She has this huge emotional life, and needs to manage to be as sexy as Don, and needs to be very funny and broken. I found that Ann, in the rehearsal room, was a terrifically intelligent actress and she made wonderful connections with Michael and the two of them have great chemistry.
And then playing the role of Henry is Spencer Trinwith, who is relatively new to DC audiences. If anybody saw the No Rules production of Suicide Incorporated last year, they may remember him playing the suicidal customer. He received some really good reviews for that. We think he’s a really spectacular actor and he brings a huge emotional life to anything he does. Spencer is always fascinating to watch, and particularly as Henry, he was able to really quickly bring these colors of being youthfully optimistic and occasionally naive..
It is a meaty piece of material for actors and I feel very lucky in terms of casting the production that we ended up with a cast that is very strong and ready to take on this very difficult piece of material.
Based on the film, there is a great deal of comedy, but the play verges into serious territory, even as the couple plays games with each other, almost tipping the hat to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. How did you handle the balance between the comedy and the dead serious?
That comparison to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?is not one that I drew originally but one that critics had said about the original films a number of times. I think the comparison with the source material is a good one and an accurate one because there is something slightly unsettling and rich in this mixture of humor and drama. It is similar in tone with Virginia Woolf, if you say it’s about this couple role playing in their relationship as a desperate attempt to reconcile. There are scenes that are often very funny but ultimately it really is a drama more than a comedy and so these scenes can turn at the drop of a hat from a wisecrack to something painfully serious. In this script, I have tried to strike that tone, so it’s like being in a room where the comedy is not casual, where a joke can be dangerous, or potentially loaded or misinterpreted as something else – that is very exciting in the nature of this story.
Life is a mixture of comedy and tragedy all the time and theatre is a reflection of life, so there you are.
Absolutely; it certainly is.
Closes May 18, 2013 in Arlington
Thursdays thru Sundays
Winston-Salem, NC schedule:
June 5 – 23, 2013
It has been remarkable. We’ve only had one mainstage production before The Personals, Black Comedy, which closed in March and finished in North Carolina in early April. That show, simply from a box office standpoint was the best selling show we’ve ever had and far exceeded our expectations in terms of where it got with audiences. From that perspective, being able to reach more people with our stories, I hope that is a trend that continues because that was incredibly exciting with Black Comedy.
And from an administrative perspective to have this incredible staff that Signature has and to be able to engage with them and learn from them has been remarkably useful to our organization.
Especially at present, I am the full time staff person and I was trained as an actor so to have this pool of generous people that have all this expertise in the different components of what it really takes to make a theatre company succeed has been huge for us. And the generosity of people like Eric Schaeffer and Maggie Boland, whose door is always open for me to go in to ask questions, has been really unbelievable. I think it has turned out to be a mentorship and a residency on many levels that I don’t know where we would be without it. We’re incredibly lucky and I look forward to seeing what the rest of the season holds and the rest of this (at least) three season residency has in store for us.