BWW Interviews: CAVEMAN's Paul Perroni
There's nothing like the sound of laughter. There's the sound of children's laughter and the raucous laughter of friends having a good time. There's the laughter of a good prank, as well as the laugher of a shared secret. Yet one of the most special kinds of laughter is that of an audience who are wholeheartedly enjoying themselves at a live theatrical performance. Such is the case at the Theatre on 46th Street, where Rob Becker's DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN is playing to packed houses that are laughing profusely and having a rollicking good time. The original 1995 production starred its author, who was followed by television actor Michael Chiklis, as the sole performer on stage. It ran for two and a half years and earned a place in theatrical record books as the longest running solo play in Broadway's history. The current production is in the exceptionally capable hands of Paul Perroni, who guides the audience through astute observations of the on-going battle between the sexes.
Perroni is a bit younger than his predecessors in the role but he is enormously likable on stage and holds the audience in the proverbial palm of his hands for the entire ninety minute performance. He's funny, charming, an expert mime, a bit of a stand-up comic, bears a small resemblance to Ray Romano, and he delivers Becker's one-liners with such aplomb that they never fail to hit their intended targets. This is very much evident as couples in the audience are seen nudging each other throughout the performance. Obviously they are relating to what Perroni is talking about on stage.
Meeting Perroni after the show is equally pleasurable. The actor greets his visitor with a firm handshake and before long the two Italians are off to a nearby trattoria, where he coincidentally enjoys a bottle of Peroni (yes, the beer's name is spelled with a single "r") beer before the meal arrives. The Little Rock native is enormously friendly and gladly speaks about his career, his previous credits, his lengthy stint in commercials for the Wendy's chain, and DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN. Many performers come to their profession in unusual ways but rarely does one find an actor who holds a BA in Political Science treading the boards in a Times Square theatre.
Perroni's parents were divorced when he was a mere two years old and his father moved around to various locations. Perroni and his sister were raised by his mother and the actor feels that he was "just a typical kid" in Arkansas. "I played a lot of basketball," he explains, "I went to a public school until I was fourteen and then to a private Catholic high school." He attended Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas which was "a great school, but there's not much to do there," he comments with a chuckle in his voice, "so I transferred schools and went to the University of Arkansas and began studying international politics with an emphasis on Russian studies. My specialty was the era from Lenin to Stalin. I was just fascinated by it. I was actually planning to attend law school or get a PhD in National Politics when I started doing stand-up comedy" he explains. "I used to go around impersonating my parents as well as well-known people like Jim Carrey, when someone told me I should give stand-up a shot. I followed the advice and had some really great shows. I was doing all this just about the time the law school rejections started to flood my mailbox, so I decided I should probably explore performing a bit more. Looking back on it, those rejection letters seem like blessings in disguise" With about two thousand dollars to his name, Perroni loaded up his car and set out for Chicago.
In the Windy City, Perroni studied at the world famous Second City while performing at places like Zanies, the Improv Olympic and Crush but never joined a troupe of any sort. "However, that didn't last very long because I knew I wanted to focus his attention on the classics by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Shakespeare, Edward Albee and all my favorite playwrights. When I got CAVEMAN, it brought a lot of those stand-up elements to good use, though."
As an actor, Perroni is most proud of his performance in Eugene O'Neill's A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. In the Collage Theatre production, the actor played Edmund Tyrone . "It was my first legitimate role as well as my first dramatic part," he explains. "To tackle something like that is really ‘out there'. That's when I fell in love with Eugene O'Neill.
The play is depressing and melodramatic, but I related to it. Although O'Neill's parents stayed together, they were certainly dysfunctional. You see, when I was a kid, I felt that I was always trying to please both parents even though they were divorced. They didn't get along and I felt that O'Neill was doing that as well; especially in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY."
Perroni's Shakespearean credits include A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, ROMEO AND JULIET and JULIUS CAESAR. When questioned about which role gave him the most satisfaction, he enthusiastically replies, "Cassius in JULIUS CAESAR. He's the villain and it's always fun to play the villain. Okay, he's not as bad as Iago but he's going down that path. The role was a challenge because my only other Shakespearean role at that point was Demetrius in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and that was a comedy. It made demands upon my and I felt I rose to those demands. I wasn't wholly familiar with Shakespeare's language, using the Folio Technique and what-have-you. Cassius has some great speeches that are a challenge to master but I really enjoyed playing that role. Now that a few years have elapsed, I'd like to play the role again."
In ROMEO AND JULIET, Perroni was featured in the role of Paris. "I try to find the comedy in some of my roles and I found a tiny bit here. I played him as a creep and that brought out some of the comedic elements that can be found in the role."
Although the crowds enjoying DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN don't realize it, Paul Perroni was a guest in there homes many times over when he did a series of commercials for Wendy's . In those commercials, the actor played a warehouse worker who was continually seen advising his co-workers on the virtues of "3conomics"--a term coined by the Wendy's chain to capitalize on "Reaganomics"-- a buzz word of the times . "I got those commercials through my agents when I was in Chicago. At that point I'd done one other commercial (for AT&T) and it never aired," the actor explains. "I'd auditioned for about 600 of them and never got anything. I went in for Wendy's and was thinking that if it didn't work out, I'd give all my focus to the theatre. You know, it's hard not to think that it's your fault when something doesn't go through. That's what I thought with AT&T. Heck, they didn't air it, so I thought I wasn't funny enough or I didn't deliver it the way they wanted me to. I was beginning to feel that I just didn't know how to do it."
In that instance, the feelings of inadequacy were uncalled for because Perroni and a friend of his both were called back and they both wound up being cast in the campaign which ran for a year. In those Wendy‘s spots, Perroni comes off as down-to-earth, winsome and easy to believe as he instructs his two friends about the values of the cheap hamburgers they're having for lunch. They are very effective.
The commercials gave Perroni the financial stability that allowed him to do theatre and perfect his craft as a stage actor. "It was a blessing for an actor," he states. "When you're trying to make ends meet you frequently lose focus on what you're trying to do. So when you have financial stability--or at least a little bit more than you had before--you focus better and get more gigs because you're not thinking about using the salary to pay bills or put food on the table."
When it comes to discussing his current role, Perroni truly waxes effusive and his dark brown eyes light up with enthusiasm. He became attached to the project in the autumn of 2007. Basically he was checking things out in New York and seeing if he wanted to move here. He waited around the Equity office all day waiting to get word on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as well as DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN, along with one other show. "I didn't get into the Oregon Shakespeare because they weren't seeing non-Equity people. I got into the other two, CAVEMAN being one, after six hours of waiting. I got called back and they told me to change my flight-- which I thought was a good sign. I got called back and they offered me the role that evening. There are seven other guys who are doing this show in various places around the country. In this particular instance, they were looking for a guy to fill a weekend of shows in Iowa. I didn't know if they were going to keep me going with it. Things worked out and I think they enjoy the way I approach the show and so one weekend in one state lead to more and more weekends. I officially went out on the road in March of 2008, so I've been doing it a little over two years. I took ten months off to do Wendy's commercials, to play in a non-musical version of DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE at Chicago‘s Northlight Theatre and to appear in SELF-PORTRAIT at the Abington Theatre, right here in New York."
Having played DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN in so many different venues, Perroni finds that the audiences in various places react differently to the vehicle. "The place where we're are now has more of a comedy club feel to it. It's set up that way and has a bar at the back of the theatre. The location is close to Times Square where people are out-and-about, with a lot of tourists who are ready for a good time, so they come eager to enjoy the performance. Now you take a place like New London, Connecticut--and I love that area--and I performed in a venue that seated a thousand people. It's less of a stand-up element style and more of a theatre play. People came there to listen and watch. They just enjoyed the theatre experience. Remember, they don't have many shows going into those smaller areas, so it's a little different."
The comedy club milieu that the show is currently being played in often leads to a relaxed audience that can be vociferous in what they are appreciating. Such was the case at a recent performance where one gentleman was becoming loud to the point of distraction. Perroni handled The Situation with finesse. "Before this, I've had people talking out during the show and I've always been able to improv and come back with something...nothing negative but just improv where I agree with them or something. This guy tonight was half way through the house and was just yelling. I could see this woman in the front row and it was obvious she wasn't having a good time. I made eye contact with her and gestured to the guy in the back. I realized I had to do something about it because he was ruining the show for others, so I spoke to him from the stage. I told him he had to bring it down a bit and he seemed to understand." The man apparently did cooperate but his seat was empty after intermission.
After doing this play for roughly two years, Perroni still likes it. "I'll be honest with you," he says. "When I first joined up with it, I enjoyed doing it because it was a one-man show. I'd never done a one-man show before, so I thought it was a real challenge. I enjoyed the comedy aspects of it. Then, gradually, I realized it's a show for people who are in relationships. I'm in a relationship myself and I can see how great it is for a couple to experience this together and laugh at it. I can see the people in the audience as the nudge each other, and that's great to see. It's a very sweet show in that aspect."
Perroni has a favorite moment in the show. It comes at the end when he presents a verbal image of a father and son fishing together. He talks about a man passing on what he has learned to a younger generation. "I always get chocked up a bit at that point," he says, " I think back to when I was a kid. I didn't fish with my father; we played basketball or I'd go swimming and he'd watch me swim. Then we'd talk and he'd try to teach me things. I'll never get that time back. Please know that my father and I went several years without seeing each other and we lost a lot of time together. The little time we did share are the moments I think about. I didn't appreciate it then, so now when I get to that part I have to hold back my emotions a bit."
While performing CAVEMAN, Perroni taped an episode of AS THE WORLD TURNS and hopes that it becomes a recurring role. He's also auditioned for stage work quite a bit.
Listening to Perroni's rich and resonant voice, one finds it hard to believe he hasn't done much in the way of musicals. With his looks and swagger, he'd be an obvious choice to play Billy Bigelow in CAROUSEL or even FrEd Graham in KISS ME KATE, where he could use his love for Shakespeare to great advantage. However, the actor looks forward to doing more plays by O'Neill and perhaps Brick in Tennessee Williams' CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or Tom in THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Somewhere down the line he'll surely be seen as Iago in OTHELLO or any one of the characters in MACBETH. He certainly has the chops for them. He previously played Nick in Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? And would love to tackle the part again. For now, though, New York audiences have the chance to see Paul Perroni display his numerous talents in DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN and laugh along with the other theatergoers who are enjoying both him and Rob Becker's play.
For more information about DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN or to purchase tickets, go to www.defendingthecaveman.com.