BWW Interview: Darren Pettie Chews the Fat About DINNER WITH FRIENDS
Darren Pettie is an actor who can say more with a monosyllable than others can do with pages of text. Several seasons ago he shared the stage with Olympia Dukakis in the Roundabout Theater's production of Tennessee Williams' THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE at the Laura Pels Theater. As Christopher Flanders, he conjured up the crashing of the sea against the rocky Amalfi Coast with an effectively uttered "Boom". He also managed to imply a sense of storminess and doom in that one, tiny word.
Now, on that very same stage, the actor is appearing in David Margulis' Pulitzer Prize winning play, Dinner with Friends. In the first act of the play, he speaks the line "My wife makes me feel like shit", dropping his clear baritone voice a full octave on the word "wife". There's no doubt how he feels about this woman or the prospects of reconciliation between Tom and his spouse. Pettie once again demonstrates how skilled he is as an actor and is contributing a performance filled with richness and nuance.
The Alabama native became interested in acting in high school and after a stint in the military he enrolled in the Julliard School of Acting. Upon graduation, he became a staple on New York stages and in 2005 he made his Broadway debut in BUTLEY opposite Nathan Lane. His most recent New York appearance was in the acclaimed production of DETROIT in which he shared the stage with David Schwimmer, Amy Ryan and John Cullum. He also has a recurring tole on the television show MAD MEN. He also starred in a production of STRANGE INTERLUDE in London's famous National Theatre. Without a doubt, he is an actor who is constantly in demand.
"London audiences aren't all that different from those in New York. You have your good nights and your bad nights but their very appreciative," Pettie says. "There may be a few different union rules but it's a very nice. Their breaks are different, though. Actually, I liked the way they do it there. We'd get a big break in the morning and then a tea break in the afternoon. We'd gather around the kettle and it was all very social. We'd work for a good 2 or 2 1/2 hours straight. Here it's every hour and a half. It was always an eight hour day. We did have a longer time to rehearse but we only previewed for a week. All the press comes to review the show on one night. I was struck with how similar some of it was-especially the way actors live in London. It was very much like what we have in New York except that all their film, theater and TV is in one place. Here in the States it's spread out over the coasts. I really, really enjoyed it and I was never one of those guys who was dying to go to London to work. When it did happen I felt very fortunate I'd go back in a heartbeat."
Darren Pettie was talking in a lounge tucked away in the Roundabout's Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center In person he's even better looking than he appears on stage. The virile ruggedness he embodies in the play seems a bit younger and gentler when he's sitting only a few feet away. His brown eyes are friendly and he's willing to talk freely as he folds his 6' frame into one of the large sofas in the room.
As with most stage actors, Darren Pettie truly enjoys the rehearsal process. "I love the focus of rehearsal," he says. "I hate dealing with real life so when I'm in rehearsal I put everything on the back burner and just focus on the play-the role I'm playing and the people I'm working with. It gives me an excuse not to deal with the business-with-life sort of stuff. When you get into the run of the show you can still do that but you've got more time for the real world to creep in. That's not the only thing, though. I love building the world of the play; I love getting into the text and really learning it. Performance is obviously a part of it, that's where it really starts coming to life. I truly love the rehearsal process. I think most actors do; there's less pressure and it's 'play time' that's when you really have the opportunity to explore and see what happens."
"Now the preview period is where things can get tough," the actor continues. "This is because you're rehearsing during the day and doing the show at night. Sometimes that gets difficult. With this show Pam [MacKinnon, the play's director] stopped calling us in after a week. With other shows you can be rehearsing every day right up to opening. That's a lot of hours. I like the preview period because that's where you really find much of what you're looking for. You can also find things that you didn't know what you were looking for because you're doing the show for an audience and they can tell you a lot. This is a period when you can feel that you're still in rehearsal but on the other hand, you don't feel like you're in rehearsal anymore because you're performing in front of a paying audience."
Pettie continues: "The audiences for this play have been pretty sensitive. Some nights they're a bit quieter than others. Older audiences seem to really respond to things in the play that talk about getting older and their laughs are laughs of either recognition or identification or understanding. Younger crowds will laugh at some of comments about relationships that seems more current to them. When they laugh, it's more of a laugh of 'I don't want that to happen to me' while the older crowds laugh because they've already gone through it. Reaction to the play does seem to change with the over-all age of the crowd. Everyone seems to appreciate this play at their own levels. It's current where they are in their lives."
DINNER WITH FRIENDS concerns itself with two couples, one of which is divorcing. Each character has its won complexities, but Pettie's character (Tom) seems to be the most ambiguous of the four. "I don't think I've made any deliberate choice to play him as ambiguous. I think our relationships are always like that," Pettie explains. "You never know who's full of shit and who isn't. I don't think people themselves know. I've been in relationships that have gone bad. I saw it the way I saw it and it was very different for the person I was in the relationship with. In Tom's case, he feels like he has done the best he can and I'm sure for him that is completely true. I'm sure that Beth she feels she's done the best she's capable of and for her that's the truth. I don't intentionally play him as being ambiguous but I don't think anyone knows where the truth lies when you're talking about a relationship between two people.
There are certain things that are unquestionable but in terms of how one person feels neglected (in this case Tom) and that he feels he's been denied affection and physical contact. It's possible that he has. On the other hand, Beth feels that she has been there for him but things change in a relationship I think Tom feels the relationship is done and he has to make a choice that some people may see as selfish but it's his life. Tom feels that he's stick it out for the kids as long as he could and after a while he couldn't do it anymore. He feels he's in his right to think about his happiness."
What attracted Darren Pettier to Dinner with Friends? "The first thing that attracted me to it was that I wanted to work with Pam," the actor answers. Jeremy Shamos and I have been friends for some time, and I've known Heather Burns for a while, too. As for Marin Hinkle, I've know of her for but we never worked together. I did remember seeing the original production of the play and really enjoyed it. I can't say that I ever felt I just HAD to play Tom but once I did start working on the character, I could identify with what was going on and although I'm not married I know what if feels like to feel that I'm not happy in my life and need to make certain changes in it."
Working with this director and this cast has been a rewarding experience for Pettie. "They're all wonderful," he says with a broad smile. "Jeremy and I have a great time joking around. We've know each other for years but we only worked together briefly in and Ang Lee movie but not a lot. Marin and I don't get to work together much in this play except for the scene in Martha's Vineyard which all of us have a good time doing. We're also together a little bit at the top of scene two. Heather and I are well cast and she's a true pleasure to work with. Our scenes really turn out well. Everyone in this play is cast well."
As for Pam MacKinnon, who won a Tony Award for her directorial efforts in last season's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, Pettie has the highest praise, "At least with this experience, she's been there but also hands-off. She let us do our thing with her gentle way of nudging it one way or the other. She's never been negative or questioned our choices. If one of us did make a choice that isn't quite what she was looking for she'd acknowledge it but then suggest we try something else to see if it worked. I'm game to work with someone like that. I'd work with her again any time."
There have been times when Pettie worked with directors who weren't as supportive as Pam MacKinnon. "I worked on a show once where all my instincts were telling me what felt truthful in the play. It just wasn't what he wanted. He was the director and I had to find a way to take his direction and not pay attention to my instincts and connect the dots with what he wanted. It was very difficult. To tell the truth, after we'd opened and had been running a while I found that what he wanted and what I wanted sort of met in the middle a little bit and to this director's credit, he came back and saw the show and told me that I was right all along and he should have left me alone."
"Then there are times," Pettie continues, "when I've had to do something I didn't agree with and I realize that's what the director meant. Suddenly it makes sense and even though my instincts were telling me one thing, the director saw something else and once I start integrating that and find the truth in it, then it works out fine. That's our job as actors: the director tells us to do something and we have to find a way to allow it to make sense."
Darren Pettie is an actor who is frequently employed both on stage and in television. Still, there are times between jobs when he's without work. "Luckily I've been able to make enough money to float me between jobs. I do my share of guest shots on television so I haven't had to do anything else other than acting for a long time. Thank God! But you never know. Robert Duval was once asked for his best advice for young actors and he said, 'Hobbies, hobbies, hobbies.' He's right, you know. It keeps the mind going and keeps you away from other things."
DINNER WITH FRIENDS opened during the blizzard on February 13th. The critics gave it fine notices but couldn't refrain from making culinary quips about the play's title and the plot's subtext of food. They were quick to note, however, Darren Pettie's performance in it. Newsday's Linda Winer commented that he "portrayed...many sides of handsome opportunism", while ABC's Jennifer Farrar wrote: " Pettie imbues this bullying, petulant man-boy with a suave obtuseness, breezily tossing off Tom's destructive, self-pitying and often ignorant remarks. The character seems like a parody of men who refuse to suck it up and deal with the responsibility (and ups and downs) of family life, raising kids and sustaining long-term relationships." Obviously the role of Tom is one that is filled with complexities and Pettie explores them with consummate skill at every performance.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel