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Interview with Bob Balaban
on Manuscript

By Charles Battersby

Theatregoers will know Bob Balaban from his extensive directorial work, including the acclaimed The Exonerated, or his performances on Broadway. Film and TV viewers, no doubt, recall his recurring role on "Seinfeld" and his work in Christopher Guest's "mockumentary" films. Balaban is currently directing a new play, Manuscript at the Daryl Roth Theatre. While on a break during rehearsals, he shared a few words with Talkin' Broadway's Charles Battersby.

Charles Battersby:  Manuscript is now in previews, for those who haven't heard of it, what is it about?

Bob Balaban:  Manuscript essentially concerns three ambitious young people - well two ambitious, and a friend who isn't so ambitious. It's about an unpublished manuscript by a famous author that is discovered, and a fight that ensues between them about how to deal with it. It's about truth. It's about the fun of seeing three young people struggle together to control something. It's about power and youth and success. I would almost call it a murder mystery, except there's no murder, and the victim is a manuscript.

Pablo Schreiber, Marin Ireland, and Jeffrey Carlson in Manuscript

CB:  The author is Paul Grellong. A lot of people in New York may not know who he is, but his work has been done a lot out of town.

BB:  There was a series of staged readings of the piece at the Cape Cod Theatre Project that went over very successfully. People seemed to like the play a lot, and he's writing a movie right now. He's very much an up and coming young writer, out of the Paula Vogel workshop at Brown University, which has encouraged a lot of other terrific young writers as well.

CB:  This production was originally going to be at the smaller DR2 Theatre.

BB:  We were originally there, but Thom Pain is doing so well that we moved over to the DR1 Theatre, which has been the home of De La Guarda for so long, and we are now the first sort of "regular play" to occupy the space. We've carved out a more traditional thrust stage. The seating is now more flexible, and you can do a traditional play there. It's a great space.

CB:  And no one has to swing around on wires for this one ...

BB:  You could, but you don't have to.

CB:  That was sort of a stroke of luck for your production, that Thom Pain got that glowing review from the Times.

BB:  A stroke of luck. I wouldn't have minded putting Manuscript up in a tiny little space. Putting it up in front of 250 people instead of 99 people is a little scarier; it's harder to get people to come, but, on the other hand, if it's a success, it's a bigger success.

We love being in this area. We think that the Union Square East area is a great place for theatre.

CB:  There's a lot of successful Off-Broadway shows there, like Slava's Snowshow right around the corner.

BB:  There's something called Beast on the Moon right around the corner, the Vineyard Theatre has a new play opening that's supposed to be quite interesting. There's a lot of stuff here, and it's fun in the summer.

Jeffrey Carlson and
Marin Ireland

CB:  A lot of people are familiar with your directing from The Exonerated. That had a cast of very experienced celebrities, but Manuscript has a cast of younger performers.

BB:  The Exonerated has a cast of rotating stars, but it also had seven other people who were just wonderful regular old actors and not necessarily household names. Every play is different. The cast of Manuscript is young, but they're experienced; they've all done tons of things. It's not really different. There isn't anybody famous in it, but that's more of a marketing thing than anything else.

It's no different in the way to direct people or deal with them. With The Exonerated, we had a regular 4 week rehearsal period leading up to the first performance. But then, as I put people into it quickly, I'd meet with them very quickly, and say some quick things. Mostly everybody came tremendously prepared and did a great job, but we didn't really have much time once the play got running.

Manuscript has had, not a long rehearsal period, but fully enough for a three-character play that production-wise is very simple; the hard part is that it's a very tricky play. The characters are very complex, and the event of the play is a very interesting one, it's always shifting. I'll be very interested to see how an audience watches this play. It's full of surprises. You have to listen very closely.

CB:  Would you call it a dark comedy?

BB:  It's kind of a dark comedy, and kind of a mystery play. I had trouble classifying it when I read it and that's one of the things I found interesting about it. There's humor in it. It's interesting and it's also surprising.

CB:  How did you first get involved?

BB:  I got involved because Daryl Roth, the wonderful producer, is somebody with whom I've worked a couple of times. I directed a play that Daryl produced called Vick's Boy at the Rattlestick Theatre about four years ago, and had a great time. The play was terrific.

I had a great experience working with Daryl and we've always looked for things to do together since then. We actually collaborated on turning Vick's Boy into a screenplay, which we're trying to get set up. She sends me stuff periodically. She was very excited by this play, and mostly if Daryl is interested in something, I'll find it interesting.

CB:  This has a younger cast, and is about young people. Is the target audience the younger generation of theatergoers?

BB:  I would say the target audience is everybody. Hopefully, it would include more teenagers and college students than necessarily go to the Off-Broadway theatre. I wouldn't say people wouldn't be interested because they're not 21 years old, as are the characters in the play. Just like a play such as This Is Our Youth, which was a wonderful, fascinating play about young people, but you didn't have to be 22 years old to enjoy it.

CB:  Did you know anyone in show business who behaves in the same manner as these characters?

BB:  Two of these three people are budding New York writers, fresh on the literary scene. I've definitely come across eager, creative young people who are willing to step on somebody's head to get ahead. And this is very much about someone who cheats lies and steals their way to the top. And what happens to them.

I don't want to give away too much of the play but - have I come across a situation where people would do anything to get ahead? Sure. Lots of times. In fact, the movie business and the play business are not unlike the novelist business in that sense. It's overcrowded, there are too many talented people and it's very hard to get ahead unless you're tremendously aggressive.

So, I don't think everyone is like that, but there's more tha and infinitesimal percentage.

CB:  Aside from directing, a lot of people know you from your performing as well.

BB:  I'm an actor; I was in those Christopher Guest movies, which I love so much, Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind, Best In Show. I was in the movie Gosford Park, which I also produced. I just finished acting in a couple of movies that'll be out next year, one of which is called Capote - the brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote.

I'm also appearing in an animated cartoon series that I produce and direct and put together for the Independent Film Channel that'll be starting August.

I also write a series of children's books. The sixth one has just come out, it's called Mc Growl, so if anyone is reading this has a child whose 8-12 years old, I hope they'll read it and enjoy it. It's an ongoing series of adventures with these kids in a small town who have a bionic dog.

CB:  In the most recent Christopher Guest film, A Mighty Wind, you played the son of famous folk music producer. That was such a believable performance, I got the sense you might have known someone a lot like that guy.

BB:  Maybe. Maybe I'm a little bit like him myself ... I had a father who was in the same business that I'm attempting to be in. He was more on the business end, but to me there were some parallels between my life and the life of that character. I had a dad who was very successful in the movie business and television and radio, and I did kinda follow in his footsteps as my character Jonathan, followed in the footsteps of his father.

CB:  What's the concept behind the animated project?

BB:  It's called Hopeless Pictures. It's about a movie studio run by Michael McKean, who had great aspirations to be an artist and produce movies of great truth and beauty, and is racing around trying to make some money and try to save his struggling studio.

It's fairly improvised. There are outlines - we mold it and shape it a lot. It's funny. It's also about getting ahead in the arts, but it's Hollywood and it's about movies.

CB:  Tell me about something called "Celebrity Charades."

BB:  I produced that with Chad Lowe and Hillary Swank. It will be on the AMC in mid-June. It's a week of charades, with celebrity guests, and we eat food from the fantastic Gourmet Garage (My good friend Andy Arons runs it). We eat, we have a party, we photograph it with seven cameras. It's like a documentary about a party.

CB:  Sounds fun

BB:  I hope it will be.

CB:  So, back to Manuscript.

BB:  I hope people come to see it and they have a good time. It'll be fun to watch an audience watch it. I've been alone in a room watching it by myself, and I'm interested to see what an audience thinks. I hope they'll enjoy it. They probably will, but ya never know ...

Manuscript continues at the Daryl Roth Theatre, DR1
101 East 15th Street at 20 Union Square East, between 15th and 16th Streets
For performance and ticket information, visit

Manuscript photos: Paul Kolnik

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