Q&A with Actor and Playwright John Cariani
Five years after making his Off-Broadway debut in It's My Party (And I'll Die if I Want To), Cariani garnered a Tony nomination for his Broadway debut as Motel in the 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Since then, he has appeared at the Delacorte Theatre in Kathleen Marshall's revival of the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona as well as in the play Modern Orthodox.
Almost, Maine--a whimsically comedic series of linked vignettes that marked his first effort at playwriting--ran at the Daryl Roth Theatre earlier this year, and he has followed it up with the darker comedy cul-de-sac.
MC: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, John. Congrats on the great reviews for cul-de-sac!
JC: Thank you! A lot of the credit for the success has to go to Transport Group—and Artistic Directors Jack Cummings III and Robyn Hussa. Check them out. They take chances. They took a big one with cul-de-sac! And…it seems to have paid off.
MC: You've come into prominence as a playwright over the past year or so with Almost, Maine and Cul-De-Sac. How long have you been writing plays, and is this something you've always wanted to do?
JC: I've always loved stories. I've always love telling stories—that's why I'm an actor, I think. But I remember early on being in plays—as an actor-and always being sensitive to audiences--feeling them "go away." That's such a mystery to me—why we grab 'em sometimes and why we lose them sometimes. Why does it sometimes feel like they get confused or lost…or bored… Feeling an audience retreat is one of the worst things an actor can feel. And I've learned that it's not always because of the actors' work or the director's work…but because the story just wasn't clear or believable. Like—sometimes people don't buy the story that's being served up. And…I guess I just wanted to try my hand at it—serving up a story in the form of a play. I mean—I guess I'm really interested in why people don't like going to plays. My brother is a smart guy and he doesn't like going to plays—he says they're just plain boring a lot of the time—and that the stories are lousy or not believable. A lot of people feel that way. I mean—the theater's not "pop" anymore. And I'm just trying to figure out why that is. It shouldn't be boring. It really isn't a high art. It's storytelling—and I guess I saw and acted in what I consider a lot of failed storytelling and I wanted to see if I could do it better. And…I've learned that…I'm really not doing it much better than anybody else yet—but I'm trying. A guy can try! It's hard—because the art is in the story. The dialogue is just craftsmanship. Funny lines are easy. Story is hard.
MC: cul-de-sac is a dark comedy that concerns three couples--the Smiths, the Joneses and the Johnsons--living in a suburban cul-de-sac. Could you please describe the play a little more?
JC: cul-de-sac is about keeping up with the Joneses. I always thought it would be funny to have a play start with a person staring out her window at her neighbors'—the Joneses—home and asking her husband, "Do you think we're keeping up with them?" That's how cul-de-sac begins. As the story unfolds we learn a lot about why the Smiths and the Johnsons want so badly to keep up with the Joneses and why…maybe they shouldn't want to keep up with them so badly! I just wanted to write dialogue that contained a lot of what we as Americans think our hopes and dreams are—what exactly is the dream we're all chasing? I thought it would be neat to give voice to those things we THINK but don't always SAY out loud. And I thought having someone ask her husband if he thinks they're keeping up with the Jones' is something we all think in some way or another—and we would be a neat jumping-off point for a play.
MC: From what I've read, cul-de-sac shows many of the downs, as well as a few of the ups, of living in the suburbs. Did you grow up in the 'burbs yourself, and would you ever want to live in one again if so?
JC: I grew up in a small town in northern Maine! I didn't really experience the suburbs till after college—when I saw how most people live and grow up in this country. So—I don't know, really. I actually like the suburbs. I don't like what suburbs do to people. They isolate. They require people to consume. It's the only way to survive in the suburbs—because you have to have a house and you have to have stuff for your house…and you have to have a car so you can get all the stuff you need for your house… It's all a little too much, I think.
MC: You play Jones yourself. What's it like to act in a play that you have written?
JC: I probably won't do again for awhile. It's a lot! I didn't get to do the work I normally do as an actor because I was working on the writing so much… The hardest part has been thinking of rewrites while performing—while listening to the other actors, sometimes I think of how I oughtta rewrite that line. Sometimes I think of rewriting lines as I'm speaking them—pretty bad, right? Very difficult to turn off the writer part and just do the work as an actor.
MC: Let's talk a bit about Almost, Maine! Was this your first play to be produced professionally? What was that process like?
JC: Almost, Maine was my first play. It was workshopped at the Cape Cod Theatre Project (Andy Polk, Artistic Director), and it was produced at Portland Stage Company (Anita Stewart, Artistic Director) in Portland, Maine, and then it ran in NYC off-Broadway in the winter of 2005/2006. A thrilling, painstaking 6-year journey! It was neat to bring a play that is about people from a rural part of the country to New York City. And now it's being done all over the country! That's the most exciting part, think!
MC: Both Almost, Maine and cul-de-sac examine the joys and tribulations of love experienced by couples living in smaller areas of the country. How would you compare the two plays?
JC: Both plays are about love—lost and found…about people trying to get by, figure out their place in the world…figure out if happiness is the goal.
MC: Now, let's talk a little about your career as a performer. How did you get your start as an actor. You received a Tony nomination for your performance as Motel in Fiddler on the Roof--your Broadway debut! What was that like for you?
JC: Well—It was my first time on Broadway—my first professional musical… It was like being a kid in a candy store. Hardest job I've ever had, too! And getting to work with people like Alfred Molina and Randy Graff and Nancy Opel and Sally Murphy…very special.
MC: As Motel, you sang a great Broadway showstopper--"Miracles of Miracles." Are you an optimistic guy, and do you believe that miracles can happen?
JC: Definitely an optimist. A saddish optimist. But—definitely hopeful. I mean—Almost, Maine is pretty hopeful—and it's got some sadness to it. And miraculous things happen in that play! Funny—cul-de-sac is actually a reactionary piece: Almost, Maine sweetly sad; cul-de-sac is sourly sad.
MC: Last year, you played the comic servant Speed in Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Delacorte Theatre. Please share a memory or two of that show, which was both a critical and popular hit.
JC: Well…a guy like me got to sing—rock out—with Norm Lewis. Norm Lewis. Enough said. I mean—when is that ever gonna happen again? I also got to be kind of a mean punk which was a nice break from Motel!
MC: Do you consider yourself primarily an actor or a playwright?
JC: I am whatever I'm doing. I'll be neither on Saturday at about 11pm—cause we'll have done our last show. I'll be a tourist—I'm going on vacation. And then I'll probably be a teacher—because I'll be teaching a little over the summer! Then a playwright again when I start working on the new one!
MC: Finally, what's next for you--in both the playwriting and performing arenas?
JC: Well…Almost, Maine is being done in a bunch of places all over the country over the next bunch of months. I have 3 new plays—Maine plays—that I'm working on. And I'm auditioning… It's always pretty much the unknown—and I've come to love that.
cul-de-sac runs at the Connelly Theatre (220 East 4 Street) through May 13th. Tickets are $19 and are available at www.theatremania.com or by phoning (212) 352-3101. For more information about Transport Group and cul-de-sac, visit www.transport-group.org.
1. John Cariani at a Two Gentlemen of Verona press preview
2. John Cariani and Nicole Alifante in cul-de-sac
3. John Cariani with Fiddler on the Roof co-star Sally Murphy