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BWW Interview: John Cariani's Wonderfully ROTTEN! Role

Say you're a promising playwriting team in the 1590s, with a miserable case of writer's block. It's the Renaissance, and a cocky Shakespeare is your nemesis. The Bottom Brothers, Nick (Brian d'Arcy James) and Nigel (John Cariani), are desperate for a hit and seek guidance from a seer, Nostradamus (Brad Oscar). Not the famous Nostradamus, but close enough. His vision for the Bottoms? Create the next big thing in theater: the first musical. The rest of the vision is a bit blurred: The theme of the next stage smash, he said, squinting into the future, involves ... eggs.

Cariani is having a blast playing the younger sibling in this uproarious production filled with awful puns, time-bending Broadway references, and double entendres. "It's perfectly stupid fun and it does exactly what it sets out to do," Cariani said. Shakespeare (Christian Borle), depicted as an Elvis-style heartthrob rather than a thoughtful muse, hijacks the Bottoms' oeuvre, and the rest is musical comedy history.

Cariani, who actually is a playwright when he's not playing one onstage, imbues his role with a rubbery elasticity. He's in thrall of the reaction of ROTTEN! audiences, who have erupted midshow in standing ovations on numerous occasions. "I've never seen anything like that before," Cariani said.

SOMETHING ROTTEN! with music and lyrics by the Kirkpatrick brothers Karey and Wayne, and book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell, is a head rush of a show, Cariani said. "The brilliant, fantastic book doesn't drag or waste time," he said. "It's so much fun being a part of it." The elaborate scenic design (Scott Pask) and costume design (Gregg Barnes) evokes Elizabethan England, only with exaggerated codpieces.

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, Something Rotten! pokes fun at Broadway musical history with a wink and a nod. Nigel is the dreamer to his brother's more practical family provider. "He's the alpha and I'm the poetic dreamer," Cariani said. "He gets stuff done. I'm the guy pushing to create something." The third member of the Bottoms household is Nick's eye-on-the-family-finances wife, Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff).

"Bea is a real feminist who wants to help out and get a job," Cariani said. "But family is first and foremost with these brothers. He's looking out for them all."

The musical is an original pastiche, with echoes of THE BOOK OF MORMON, THE PRODUCERS, Monty Python, and elements of Mel Brooks throughout.

The onstage antics mimic the backstage hustle and flow, Cariani said. With the large cast and precision timing, it's always a challenge to get the rhythm right. "Backstage is more complicated than onstage," he said alluding to the elaborate costume changes and nimble footwork. "It's a great workout."

Cariani sees Nigel as being a tad slower on the uptake than his elder. "I think I'm a little slower paced and not bombastic or constantly reciting information," he said. Nigel doesn't move quickly but is open to literal suggestion, as evidenced when he face-plants straight to the floor after his brother suggests he take a break.

Cariani got his start interning in a theater in Massachusetts. He performed an assortment of jobs, from the menial to the creative, he said. This is his second Broadway show, after FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. His routine pre-show is consistent, he said. "I like to eat about three hours before a show and sometimes go for a run."

Audience reaction has been inspiring. "It's good and funny and we work hard to keep up the pace," he said. "The jokes are relentless and hilarious and you can get those little earworms from some of the songs. I've never been in anything where the people are so nuts about it. It's pure, perfect escape and has some heart."

SOMETHING ROTTEN! is playing at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.

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