BWW Interview: James Wirt Hits the Road to PHOENIX

PHOENIX, written by Scott Organ, is a cautionary tale about an odd coupling with unintended and surprising consequences. It's a dark and romantic contemporary tale with rat-a-tat dialogue whose themes zigzag around existence, time travel, parenthood and imperfect relationships. Throw in some quick wardrobe and set changes and you have a One Act with a punch.

Julia Stiles stars as Sue, a practical and no-nonsense traveling nurse, and James Wirt is the optimist Bruce. They are two drifting souls who don't know what, or whom, they're looking for. Sue and Bruce may be confused, but they've managed to find each other. Briefly. Or maybe longer. Depends on the audience's perspective, Wirt said before a recent performance.

"My character is a charming jokester who uses humor to defuse uncomfortable tension," he said. "He comes from a place of dark pain, but is determined to be in the present," he said referring to his wife's demise a few years back in the story.

Sue and Bruce meet cute, at a bar, and have a second date, during which Sue lets him know there will be no third. "Bruce learned how to be free and was very open about meeting Sue again after they hooked up a month ago (or four weeks, depending on who's keeping track). Which is part of the problem, since Sue became surprisingly pregnant. Surprising because Bruce had been told he would never be able to have kids.

"He wants a relationship with Sue, because she's everything that appeals to him," Wirt said. "He felt an immediate connection when they first met so he's shocked when she says there would be no more relationship." Just hanging out and talking with her was enough to convince him there was more to this nascent friendship. "There was something about her that was intriguing. He didn't know it would end in sex-a pleasant surprise," he said. "Remember, she called me," he added.

"His arc isn't huge, he's basically still an optimistic truth-teller to the end of the play, but he also started sharing some of his past with Sue, giving the relationship more depth," he added. Bruce ultimately decides to follow Sue to Phoenix, where she made an appointment with an abortion clinic, the result of their hook-up. "He brings up a poignant part of his history, when his wife died in a car crash, and finding out he was incapable of fathering children." The surprise fertility throws a wrench in Sue's carefully modulated life with few surprises. Her two cats don't even live with her-they board at her mother's.

"It's funny, because when I bring that up"-his wife's death -"we get some audience members laughing, because they don't know if he's joking or not," he said. He's not, everyone soon learns. "He's got an existential crisis the moment Sue tells him she's pregnant. It's scary when you love someone and you lose them, and Sue is surprised to learn this."

PHOENIX refers to the mythical bird that regenerates after being burned, as well as the city in Arizona; the Playbill cover shows a saguaro cactus festooned with condoms, an allusion to a critical plot point involving old condoms.

In the abortion clinic scene, Bruce reveals that his character has adjusted to being able to drive again by traveling to Arizona from New York by car. "He could have easily decided never to drive again, after his wife's accident," he said. But that's not in his essentially upbeat character.

"Maybe I was depressed in the beginning of the story," Wirt said. "I think he figures that this girl doesn't want anything to do with me. Or maybe I'm just being ridiculous going from an optimistic guy to a depressed-guy-arc. Bruce can be a victim of his own enthusiasm."

Some might consider Bruce a pushover in the relationship, but Wirt thinks not. "I think he's just being honest," he said. "He may come off as a pushover, but he's just ready to expose himself when he pursues her."

He concedes he may be considered a tad stalker-ish in following Sue to the Southwest, but he dismisses it quickly. "He may be a little obsessive, but maybe she reminds him of his late wife. And the time travel talk is his way of trying to change her negative point of view."

The scenic design gets a workout from the two, who lock and unlock the set's revolving floor during the course of the play. There's also plenty of T-shirt changes, among other clothing that is donned then discarded, rolled up or stuck away in a small piece of hand luggage.

They have an interesting exchange about the possibility of jumping centuries to revisit the past. "She's adorable and flat-out attractive and they have time travel thoughts in common, so there's hope for them," Wirt said. "Maybe he thinks he can change her point of view. Why should she take things so darkly? Yes, she's seen a lot at hospitals, but it doesn't have to ruin his disposition."

Wirt shared that he had a close friend who tragically died in a car accident--that grounds his perspective when dealing with his character's late wife. "My best friend was killed in a car crash-an 18-wheeler hit him. He was like a brother to me. So I understand the meaning behind the words he speaks," Wirt shared.

Wirt visualized an elaborate back story for his character before the play opened. "But it's really about the relationship onstage, as it is happening, that is most important," he said.

The set is very minimal and he believes the clothes-changing makes it more visually appealing. Changing his T-shirts helps him get into scenes, he said. What surprised him in the beginning was the audience reaction to certain dialogue. "Now we know where the laughs can live," he said. "The trick is not to work the lines, not to charm the audience. Just to let it flow naturally."

Twice they accidentally knocked over drinks onstage. "Those are the things that make the show come really alive," he said. "You get bored doing the same things every night. I now have a bar rag stashed on set."

Another unusual moment came when the lights started going out. "It went black for a split second in the second preview," Wirt said. "A guy had chest pains and lay down in the middle of the aisle. I remember wondering if he was going to be alright," he recalled. The patron was fine and the scene continued.

Despite Phoenix's dark parts, Wirt is confident audiences will relate to Sue and Bruce. "I hope they enjoy themselves and relate to the characters," he said. "Everyone's going to project their own interpretation on to it and take something away. So far the audience feedback has been amazing."

Wirt's preparation rituals before a show? "I try and breathe deeply but it's always exciting and nerve-wracking," he said. "It's like jumping out of a plane every time. Omigod, this is so scary. But the more shows, the less the fear is there."

PHOENIX is a Poverty Row Entertainment, Rian Patrick Durham and Rattlestick Playwrights production. It's playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street in the West Village.

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