BWW Interview: Michael Stahl-David's Holiday in Pensacola
Michael Stahl-David, who plays Sarah Jessica Parker's filmmaker boyfriend, Gabe, in The Commons of Pensacola, has one reason to appreciate being the only man in the drama: He has a dressing room all to himself, a rarity for most plays on or off Broadway. The five other characters in the play are women. "My dressing room is so huge, I'm subletting it on Craigslist," he said.
Starring Parker (Becca) and Blythe Danner as her mother, Judith, The Commons of Pensacola is "about a made-up family in the aftermath of a financial scandal," explained Stahl-David. Dad, it turns out, was a fraud of Bernie Madoff proportions.
While the patriarch is in jail for losing millions of dollars of clients' money, his disgraced wife has been forced to downsize from luxurious New York life to a one-bedroom condo in a retirement home on the so-called Redneck Riviera of Florida's Panhandle. Judith, in shaky health, is under the watchful eye of her housekeeper Lorena (Nilaja Sun), who monitors her medication intake among other things. Judith is joined by actress/daughter Becca, with Gabe in tow, for Thanksgiving. Judith's other daughter and her granddaughter also converge on her new home, adding more dramatic side streets to this lean, 80-minute, intermission-less drama written by the actor and first-time playwright Amanda Peet.
"I really thought this was a role I could play," Stahl-David said. "It's really smart writing and funny and I was happy to be dragged back to New York from LA."
Stahl-David grew up in Chicago and was drawn to acting at an early age. "My drama teacher was one of those inspiring and captivating characters, and the world of theater was this entire world for me outside of school," he recalled. Before taking the plunge he considered becoming a history teacher. "I also thought I would be a left-wing activist, too," he joked. "Then I thought, no, I really want to act." This was despite being warned by an older actor that if he chose acting as a career, he wouldn't know where his next meal would come from - but oh, what a wonderful world that would be.
He saw Eric Bogosian in 1998 in a play that "had cursing and nudity," he recalled, "and I thought that was really cool." While at college in Chicago, Stahl-David acted in numerous plays. "I was into Tony Kushner and loved the political nature of his work. I remember organizing a reading for one of his plays and that was exciting."
Stahl-David envisioned himself a theater impresario at this time and often arranged for readings. "I had access to a copy machine, and I'd make a million copies for readings in friends' apartments. That was amazing."
He was drawn to The Commons of Pensacola by its humanity and humor in addition to its dark subtext, he said. One crucial and mysterious element is what did Judith know and when did she know it. Becca's relationship with Judith hinges on these questions.
"I think Gabe is very protective of Becca and wants to make this documentary series to help her and her mother deal with the reality and aftermath of the situation," he said.
"Becca feels that she's stuck professionally and emotionally and has a lot of shame keeping her from fully becoming an adult," he added. Her irresponsibility has led to her own financial distress. "Becca sees this opportunity as a way to really own where she's coming from.
"It's a method for her to achieve a sort of healthy way to deal with the truth and make this amazing thing at the same time," he said about the planned docu-series about Judith's fall from grace, collateral damage of her husband's thievery.
"She sees this project as a way to comfort people who were harmed and achieve some sort of health in doing so," he said.
Gabe envisions the project as a way for Becca to re-establish her flagging career while at the same time offering the truth to the public, he said. While Stahl-David has compassion for his character, he's also a realist. "I think he's an alcoholic vegan," he said with a laugh. Turning serious, he added, "He's probably a trauma survivor of some sort, who keeps a tight grip, because when he loses control, he really loses control."