Berkshire Theatre Group: James Naughton in 'Cedars' Bring on the flaws
STOCKBRIDGE -- Gabe, a fiftysomething defense lawyer in Eric Tarloff's one-actor play, "Cedars" -- opening Saturday evening in Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage after final previews tonight and Saturday afternoon -- is not a nice man and his life is bearing the brunt.
His wife is leaving him. His mother is insane. His sister's life is off its wheels. His son is closeted. His law practice is failing and his emotionally abusive father is in a coma and hooked up to tubes and bottles of fluid.
So what's a nice guy like actor James Naughton doing here?
"You know it's funny. The roles I've enjoyed playing have been those characters who, like this guy, have been incredibly flawed," Naughton said during a recent interview seated at a table outside a rehearsal hall at BTG's Lavan Center, where he was joined by Tarloff and his daughter, Keira Naughton, who is directing "Cedars."
Set in a hospital room in Cedars Hospital, "Cedars" unfolds as a series of unsentimental one-way bedside conversations -- spread over five hospital visits -- during which Gabe takes advantage of his father's condition to speak candidly, often coarsely, to him about the track his life has taken; his bitter resentment at the disappointments and failings in his life, many of which are a result of his own doing. But as the play unfolds, it is clear that there is plenty of blame to go around.
Tarloff -- a novelist (his newest book, "All Our Yesterdays," is due out in August) who also has written for television, film and various publications -- had been sitting on the idea of a one-actor play for 20 years.
"I didn't know what to do with it, the idea of someone talking to someone who couldn't hear or respond," Tarloff said. "I didn't have the specifics."
He can't tell you where the specifics came from but when they came three years ago, he began writing.
"Father-son relationships are fraught," Tarloff said. "But ‘Cedars' is not autobiographical; not based on anything in my own life, my relationship with my father, my son's relationship with me."
The play virtually wrote itself, Tarloff said.
He says he kept hearing Naughton's voice as he was writing.
"Jim and I knew each other," Tarloff said, "so, when I finished the play, I sent it to him with a cover letter."
"I agreed to read it," Naughton said. The play appealed. Tarloff arranged for a reading in New York.
"When we met, I said to Eric, 'It's a bit long, isn't it?' " Naughton said.
Three hours, it turned out.
Tarloff went back to work. By the time they were ready for another reading six months later, "Cedars" had been trimmed to two hours.
After a third reading at Westport Playhouse in Connecticut last winter for which another half hour had been trimmed, Naughton called BTG artistic director and CEO Kate Maguire.
Naughton and Maguire were hardly strangers. Naughton directed Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker in a David Epstein comedy, "Brace Yourself," in BTG's Fitzpatrick Main Stage during the 2012 season. He also had seen Keira's performances in each of the four plays -- "Macbeth," "Birthday Boy," "Faith Healer" and "The Book Club Play" -- she's done at BTG.
"Kate has a good heart and insight," Naughton said, "so I called her, told her I thought we might have something here. She read it and when she called me back she said, simply ‘You want to do it here?' "
It also was Maguire's idea to bring Keira in to direct, Naughton said.
Naughton and Tarloff originally planned to work on the now 90-minute intermissionless play on their own and ask Maguire and her director husband, Eric Hill, to check in every now and then and give them notes.
"But Kate had a feeling we really would want someone from the outside to be there all along," Naughton said.
"When she suggested Keira, I remembered that the last few things I've done, Keira's given me the best notes."
"This really has been a collaborative effort," Keira said. "We're pretty much on the same track."
"His voice is what conveys the drama, the conflict," Tarloff said. "We see the father through Gabe's eyes, Jim's imagination. The father is not a physical presence on stage. We do it with lighting.
"Keira has an amazing sense of the geography of the stage. She also knows Jim's strengths.
"I've seen all his work," Keira said.
"That kind of familiarity is a good thing to have, especially with a play like this," Naughton said.
He's been working on the lines since February. They are challenging. Tarloff's writing is packed, Naughton said -- transitions; thoughts within thoughts within thoughts.
Gabe holds little back. His expression is raw, blunt, profane, explicit. It's who he is.
"You sense the depth of his vitriol, right from the beginning," Naughton said. "This play is a relentless physical as well as emotional exercise. It's really an eye-opener to the level of emotional damage that can be done.
"His mother is really crazy, his wife has left him for a younger man, his sister has had one debacle after another. If he had a dog it would bite him."
So what's the entry point, the connection that brings audiences to Gabe and Gabe tio audiences?
"I think the saving grace of the play is that it is funny, although this is not a comedy.
"It is also smart," Naughton said.
"I think people will be attracted to Gabe because he is so flawed," Keira said. "We watch him struggle to find resolution, closure.
"Only a perfect person wouldn't like him."
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