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Scaling New Heights With Frederick Weller - A visit with one of the stars of Edward Albee's SEASCAPE

The crowds that are filling the Booth Theater these days attentively listen to Edward Albee's brilliant dialogue in the Lincoln Center Theater's revival of his Pulitzer Prize winning play SEASCAPE. Yes, they applaud Michael Yeargan's stunning set which represents the dunes of a beach, possibly located on Montauk, Long Island. It is realistic to the point that it features beach grass and a cloud-streaked sky. Yet the quiet attentiveness changes halfway through the first act when Frederick Weller peers over one of the dunes. Laughter ripples through the audience in a manner that it hasn't done previously. Why? In this play Weller is performing the role of Leslie: a very large and loquacious lizard. His face is made up in a shade of green that would make Idina Menzel envious and he is wearing an incredibly realistic costume designed by Catherine Zuber. So begins a performance which Linda Winer of Newsday called "another quiet star turn". It is also the role that won Frank Langella a Tony Award for the original 1974 production. In Weller's hands, the audience is treated to a considerably different performance, yet one that is even more compelling.

Stopping by Weller's dressing room after a recent matinee found the 35 year old Weller still in the process of removing his green makeup. It seemed to come off easily with the aid of generous amounts of abalone cream. Once the make-up was gone, the actor's handsome features and piercing eyes were very apparent. Up close it is obvious that he has a complexion that is so clear it would be the envy of anyone who models for soap commercials. Seeming very relaxed after having spent 90 minutes under hot lights in a lizard costume, Weller commented, "I wear a full body stocking under that thing and it is laundered between performances. You can wring out the sweat when I finally get it off," he says. A gracious host, he was quick to offer his guests something to drink before settling down for a lengthy and comfortable chat.

A New Orleans native, Weller came to New York to study at the Juilliard School and various other places. He studied with Deborah Hedwell after leaving Julliard.. His first film role was in 1995's STONEWALl, in which he played a young homosexual character. "I consulted with my agent and manager and they really encouraged me to take the role. Nowadays it seems that it's very au courant for straight actors to play gay characters, but in 1995 it was a bit of a risk to take on such parts," comments the actor. Popular actors like Tom Hanks, Antonio Bandaras, Eric McCormack, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal have essayed gay roles without hurting their careers, yet Weller did it well before they even considered doing so. In addition to STONEWALL, Weller has done several other films including THE SHAPE OF THINGS, SOUTHERN BELLES, THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS and opposite Nev Campbell in James Toback's FOUR LANE HIGHWAY as well as numerous guest appearances on various television shows.

Although the actor appeared in productions of SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION and THE LITTLE FOXES for the Lincoln Center Theater, it was his appearance in Richard Greenberg's Tony Award-winning play TAKE ME OUT that really brought him to the attention of theater-goers. As Shane Mungitt, the homophobic redneck pitcher, Weller created a complex character who managed to earn the audience's sympathy while spouting dialogue reminiscent of the Atlanta Braves'pitcher John Rocker. When complimented about how he managed to achieve this, Weller responds, "Good, good. I'm glad to hear that. I feel that's the way Richard Greenberg had written it. When I read the play that was my immediate impression of the character. I did the very first reading at the Public. It must have been a year before we went to London and I immediately wanted to do the role. I felt it was one of the greatest characters I'd ever read. The part has everything you'd want to play: danger and he's pitiable, sad and vulnerable. I have the warmest feelings for Richard Greenberg simply because he wrote that character." According to Weller, Shane Mungitt is not really the glue that holds the play together, but rather, (to borrow a phrase from baseball player Reggie Jackson) "the straw that stirs the drink!". Undoubtedly the character was truly pivotal to the plot. When asked about his recollections of the famous full frontal shower scenes in TAKE ME OUT, the actor quipped. "I wished the water was warmer".

Last season the actor was part of the star-studded revival of David Mamet's GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. He found himself in a cast that boasted such luminaries as Alan Alda, Liev Schreiber and Tom Wopat. Weller played the office manager and was on stage with Alda when the curtain rose on the first act.. The two actors would be sitting in their places waiting for the performance to begin and Alda would joke around with Weller. Alda, it should be noted, has a voice that carries and is very distinctive. Weller remarked to his co-star that they were able to hear the audience in the first row and could clearly understand what they were saying. Weller said, "If we can hear them, maybe they can hear us." Alda responded, "Do you think so?" With that the elder of the two actors leaned toward the closed curtain and said, "I hear Alan Alda's the best! I heard Alan Alda is brilliant in this play! I hear it's one of the best things Alan Alda's ever done!" That started a tradition which Alda would continue for every performance before jumping back into his seat just before the curtain rose. "It really loosened things up," according to Weller.

When Liev Schreiber's name was mentioned in the conversation, Weller remarks, 'He was so inventive; finding things that weren't necessarily in the text. He really gave a terrific performance?the whole cast was amazing."

As the talk turned back to SEASCAPE, Weller offered comments about how difficult the rehearsal process was because of the huge dune set they were using. "We blocked the play on a flat floor. It took us about a week to block it, based on the model and the photo of the model of the projected idea of what the set was going to look like. Then we went out and saw the actual set, which was much steeper than it looked in the photo. We then went back and re-blocked the play and that took almost another week.

We made another trip to Queens where we had another day on the set. We tried the new blocking ON the actual set and it didn't work at all. We didn't even get to finish that day. In fact, we never finished blocking until our tech rehearsal when the set was brought into the theater. It was kind of nerve wracking. When we blocked it in the room, everything was downstage. When we saw what the set looked like we were always moving the staging higher."

Weller's performance was changing along with the blocking. Not necessarily because of the physical movement, but "largely because of the amount of room for interpretation in the character of Leslie. It's one of those characters you can really take many different ways. My initial instincts, as well as director Mark Lamos' interpretation, were that Leslie was a kind of blue collar guy, kind of a Stanley Kowalski, and there are traces of that, but it's much less so now. One of the reasons is that Edward [Albee] wanted to make sure that every consonant is heard and that nothing was clipped or elided or so forth. That helped considerably. So it was the combination of Edward's input and the director who changed it."

Speaking of diction, it was remarked that one of SEASCAPE's many pleasures is that no body mikes are used and the voices sound natural. "Actually there are little stage mikes," Weller explained, "but they don't distort the direction. The amplification throws
the sound to the audience sitting underneath the balcony's overhang" where there are traditionally acoustical dead spots in this particular theater.

The actor also found time to praise his fellow cast members in this play. George Grizzard, Frances Sternhagen and Elizabeth Marvel are all "brilliant; they're wonderful" he says. As for the playwright, Edward Albee, Weller has high praise. Albee was there for the first read-though and showed up when the director invited him. Once we were running through it he made his presence known and would give his notes to Mark Lamos, who would convey them to us when he thought they were appropriate. I'd done a full-length version of the ZOO STORY called PETER AND JERRY up in Hartford and I've grown very fond of Albee's sense of humor. But it's kind of a 'thinking man's locker room wit'. It's abrasive but it's fun. Edward's a great guy. He's stimulating. It's an honor to be working with him again."

As to what roles Weller would like to play in the future, he reels off quite a few, "I'd love to play Marc Antony in JULIUS CAESAR, Mercutio in ROMEO AND JULIET, HAMLET, Iago in OTHELLO, Constantine in THE SEAGULL, and the doctor in UNCLE VANYA, " When questioned why he chose Mercutio rather than Romeo, Weller responded, " The play's over when Mercutio dies. It's not a play I'd want to 'second act'!" Considering how deft Weller is with the humorous lines in his current play, would the actor ever consider appearing in a light romantic comedy in the ilk of BAREFOOT IN THE PARK? "I don't rule anything out," he responded, "if it's something I like, sure. I hadn't really thought about it, but I never rule anything out."

Volumes have been written about how actors prepare for the parts they're playing, but how does one go about preparing to play a lizard in a major Broadway production? "Well, I studied a lizard-just a garden variety lizard-down in South Carolina, where I was vacationing for a week before starting rehearsals. He would hang out on our balcony. That was where I did most of my moves. He was giving me the head bob and the head twist. He was going through all the moves by the numbers. Once rehearsals started Beth and I sort of worked off each other. If she did something I liked, I would keep it in and so forth." All of this has resulted in a performance that has been highly praised by the critics, but Weller doesn't read reviews. "I get a sense of them because people will tell me, 'you might read this,' or 'you might read that' but I don't read them. My manager saves them and I might go over them at the end of the run. By that time I usually don't care [what the critics have said]. If I'm looking forward to the reviews or if I'm wondering what they're going to be, then that has an impact on my performance during the press nights."

In regards to his numerous guest appearances on television, does Weller prefer one medium over the other? "I prefer theater over television. There's no immediate satisfaction and you don't get the sense of team work when you're working with a camera. Most of the shots you're in are singles. If one person is off camera and you're on camera, there isn't the same sense of camaraderie. Also, you don't get to see the product until months later and you're not getting any of the response of the audience. Movies are nice because you can go to the premiere and so forth. It's exciting and you see the audience's response."

SEASCAPE is in a limited run engagement which will end on January 10th. What does the immediate future hold for Frederick Weller? "I'm considering an indie film-a thriller-and I've been asked if I want to do this new Beth Henley play at the McCarter which is set for rehearsal in April. My wife, Ali Marsh, and I were both asked and we'll probably be doing it this spring."

Surely theater-goers will be seeing plenty more of Frederick Weller. Every performance he has given seems to be so diametrically opposite of what he's done before that he's gaining the reputation of being a chameleon-like performer. Perhaps that's why he was the logical choice to scale the heights of that impressive set onstage at the Booth Theater to portray a lizard in this well-received production.

Edward Albee'S SEASCAPE is being performed at the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, NYC. The limited engagement ends January 10th. Tickets may be obtained through Telecharge

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