What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Patrick Breen
The Normal Heart
Now, following a critically acclaimed staged benefit reading directed by Joel Grey, the 26-year-old play finally has debuted on Broadway. For this purpose, the show has assembled a stellar cast, headed by Joe Mantello, best known as the director of such hits as Wicked, Take Me Out and Assassins, but a Tony nominee for his 1993 performance as Louis Ironson in Angels in America. In addition, the show features four screen actorsEllen Barkin, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons and Luke McFarlanein impressive Broadway debuts; and stage veterans Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik, John Benjamin Hickey and Wayne Alan Wilcox. When Joel Grey was cast in the musical revival Anything Goes, he handed over the directorial reigns to George C. Wolfe. The show opened at the end of April to widespread acclaim; it already has received a Drama Desk Award for best ensemble acting and has been nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick Breen, who plays Mickey Marcus, one of the founders of the organization. Breen, a New York native (born in Brooklyn and raised in Staten Island), is a founding member of Manhattan Class Company and a longtime member of Naked Angels. In addition, he's appeared in several Broadway productions, most recently the Naked Angels transfer Next Fall. He has worked steadily in television and film, including a role on television's "Kevin Hill," recurring parts on such shows as "Eli Stone" and "Joan of Arcadia," stints on "Law & Order," and recent appearances on "The Good Wife" and "Nurse Jackie." He's been in several movies as well, including 2002's Just a Kiss, which he also wrote, but he's perhaps best known for his work in the fan favorite Galaxy Quest. Also, as I learned, he's a smart, thoughtful, and interesting man.
Beth Herstein: When did you first decide to become an actor?
Patrick Breen: I was at Hunter College, wondering what I was doing. I thought, "What if you only live once? What if it's true?" I had been in some plays in high school and loved it. So, I went to NYU and interviewed with Fred Gorelick, who was the student advisor at the time. He said, "Finish your first year at Hunter College, work hard and get really good grades, and maybe all your credits will transfer. You'll come in as a first year student but with all those credits under your belt." So I went to NYU and studied at the drama department there. I studied at the Actors and Directors Lab that Jack Garfein ran on 42nd Street in the dark days of 42nd Street between 9th and 10th ... Bernie Telsey was my roommate and Bobby LuPone was our teacher. We ended up forming the Manhattan Class Company (MCC Theater) after college.
BH: What led you to form a theater company and to become so involved with another fledgling company, Naked Angels, at that time?
PB: I don't know how actors come to this city without an agent or without being Equity or being in the unions and manage to work ... In my twenties, I ended up doing fifty plays and a hundred readings, all different characters. Brian MacDevitt of Naked Angels was the lighting designer and I hung lights for him, for shows. Joe Mantello was directing. The writers were Warren Leight and Jon Robin Baitz and Nicole Burdette and Frank Pugliese and Kenneth Lonergan ... Whatever small achievements I've managed to have in my career is all due to those two theater companies, through forming those companies and then working with them solidly for six, seven years straight.
BH: You've also worked regularly in television and movies, including one show I really loved, "Joan of Arcadia."
PB: That was so much fun. All of the television experiences I've had have been pretty fun, but often you're jobbed in for just one episode. For that one, I managed to be in the pilot, and they put me in a few shows after that. I thought it was incredibly well written and fun to do.
BH: Galaxy Quest seems to have a real cult following. Do you get recognized a lot for your part in that movie?
PB: That one is probably the one I get recognized the most for. If I have any sci-fi cred at all, it's for thatand also Men in Black, in which I had a small role. Galaxy Quest crosses barrierstheater people, movie people, pedestrians, cab drivers [love it].
BH: There were so many great stage actors in that show.
PB: Oh, it was killer. Great stage actorsand comedians, in Tim Allen. He's got great stage presence. We had such a blast. Tony Shalhoub, and Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver. Everybody was really goofy and funny, and it cut together well. It's one of my fondest movie experiences.
BH: To segue back to theater, I saw you in Next Fall. In an interview you did at the time, you indicated you had to be lured back to do the show.
PB: I didn't exactly have to be "lured back." I was reluctant [to commit to the part] because I needed a job with a check, and I was waiting to hear back about a television pilot. Geoffrey [Nauffts, who wrote the play] said, "Just say yes to the play. If you get the other thing we'll replace you." So, I agreed to do the play. Fortunately I didn't get the television job, and I got to do the play. It was one of the greatest jobs I've ever hadthe play, the role, the cast, working with Geoffrey and Naked Angels again. It was one of those peak experiences.
BH: It also must have been rewarding when it moved to Broadway, and you had the chance to reach out to a wider audience.
PB: Just yesterday, at The Normal Heart, I got a note from some man who'd seen the play and he'd also seen Next Fall. It really spoke to him because he was raised in a Christian household as a young gay man. It's still resonating, it seems.
The Cast of Normal Heart
BH: In an essay you wrote about the play's personal resonance, you stated that it gave you the courage to speak openly about your bisexuality. I don't want to make this an interview about your sexual orientation, but I found the essay very moving. It reminded me, too, that, though our era is so different from the one during which Larry Kramer wrote his play, people still have issues talking about or being comfortable with their sexuality.
PB: I know. And I know that a lot of people felt that Next Fall in some ways was, not retro, but [hearkening back to an earlier time]. They wondered, "Are people still closeted that way?" There's a twenty-five year difference in the time that The Normal Heart and Next Fall take place, and yet there are still different types of closeted characters, for different reasons. I don't think AIDS is even mentioned in Next Fall. In The Normal Heart, George Wolfe, the director, speaks of the show as being a very typical horror story. It starts with these strange wounds on people, that no one understands. Is it a vampire? Is it aliens? Who knows. Then you watch this small band of people try to tackle this monster and defeat it.
BH: Despite its continuing relevance, the play is like a time capsule in some respects because it provides a very real sense of what it was like to be a part of the New York gay male community at that time. The play brings that experience to life, people who were in their twenties or thirties or forties and losing half or more of their friends, not knowing why and not really knowing how to stop it.
PB: I was in New York in 1980. And one of the founding members of Manhattan Class Company was a gentleman named Larry Burke, an actor and a playwright. He got AIDS at a time when people had no idea what the hell it was. He died around 1988. When they were designing the set for The Normal Heart [which projects a growing list of names of people who've died from AIDS on the walls during the intervals between the scenes] we were asked for names of people we knew who'd died of AIDS. His name is on one of those projections, along with several other people I knew. Everybody else got to do the same thing.
People who come to see the play who are in their twenties are shocked by the events. They say afterward, "I am so ignorant. I had no idea." Now a lot of people are under the misapprehension that it's a chronic illness. If you take the meds, you're fine.
I've told this story a bunch. I was in London in October staying at a gay couple's house. There was a young man staying there who was HIV positive. He wasn't taking his meds and he was drinking. He told me this horrifying thing, that some people sort of want to be made positive. Once you get it, you get the medications for free as part of the national health insurance in Britain. Then you can participate in the lifestyle, being reckless. I don't know, but taking that much medication can't be good for you eventually.
BH: Plus, of course, you have the disease for the rest of your life. There was a chilling article years ago in The New York Times magazine ["Flirting with Suicide," by Jesse Green, in the Sept. 15, 1996, issue of the magazine] about a young gay man who came out in his twenties, lived very recklessly, and thenafter he was diagnosed as HIV positivebegan taking better physical and mental care of himself. The article discussed other factors, such as survivors' guilt, the belief of young people in their invulnerability or even the crippling fear of getting HIV, all of which contributed to the increase in higher risk behavior.
PB: So, The Normal Heart is still relevant today. The great thing about it for me is that, a couple of playwrights who have come to see the play and said that somewhere in the second act it stops being a play. In the middle of the second act, you're suddenly being yelled at and woken up, like it's a crazy alarm clock. You're watching what happened and how little was done and how this still exists. It's not the same today [because] the medications can keep people alive and keep the virus from replicating, but the disease is still killing people. People are still getting infected. The rates among young men are going up again.
BH: Two directors, Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, receive credit for directing the production, and they were jointly nominated for the Tony as best director. By the time you were involved in The Normal Heart, it sounds like George Wolfe had taken over from Joel Grey, who now is appearing in Anything Goes on Broadway. Can you talk about the transition?
PB: Joel conceived the idea, but when he left for Anything Goes he couldn't be there for the abbreviated rehearsal schedule. We only had two weeks, and at first it was going to be a presentation, on book. I saw the reading Joel directed in October. It was incredibly effective and beautiful, and it still punched you in the head. It is such a knockout, this play. The way they did it, everyone was on stage and people stepped up with the script in their hand. There was minimal staging. Joe [Mantello] knew some of the big speeches and could do them off book. At first they were hoping to do something like that on Broadway. But when I got to the first rehearsal, [laughs] I was the only one looking at my script. Everybody else was off book. So, you just rehearse in the daytime, eat dinner, and then memorize.
BH: What is it like working with this incredibly gifted cast?
PB: They are exciting and sublime. There was no goof off time. We had to show up, rehearse, and get on with it. Joe Mantello set the bar very, very high. He knew all his lines when he came in, and had an idea of what to do, and did it. He brought an intensity and thoroughness to the rehearsal process that we were going to have to match to keep up with him.
I don't recommend doing two-week rehearsals. But, somehow we managed to do it. Daryl Roth was a major force in getting it together, and Joel Grey, and George Wolf. I have no idea how it worked out, but it did.
BH: Some of the actors had ongoing outside commitments during the rehearsal period. How did you all pull it together?
PB: Everyone thought it was a good idea [to do the show], and somehow they said they'd work it out. Jim Parsons was only able to rehearse Saturdays and Sundays. He was flying back to Los Angeles to do "The Big Bang Theory," his TV show. And [John Benjamin] Hickey would leave and miss rehearsals because he had to shoot "The Big C." The understudies were even involved. They would show up and do the whole day of rehearsal for those characters. Rarely do the understudies ever get to rehearse in a regular rehearsal day.
BH: I was lucky enough to see Joe Mantello's terrific performance in Angels in America -
PB: So was I.
BH: It's great seeing him back on the stage again.
PB: He really is bringing it.
BH: I was so impressed, too, with how good Ellen Barkin is in her Broadway debut.
PB: How about that. All that beautiful detailed work on the character. The way she would place her legs on the wheelchair and her feet, even [during rehearsals] there was always physical work going on.
BH: Though there are lead characters, The Normal Heart is very much an ensemble work. Every character has a defining moment in the play, a chance to explode or do something that reveals their inner turmoil or anxiety about what is happening. Including you, and I found your moment very moving. How did you create the dynamic that is necessary for everyone to do that?
PB: That's the score. That's just the music itself, the script. Our job is to do it the way we think it should be done. Then, Georgehe's the conductorsays, "Bring this part down," or "Do that a little faster." But, yeah, it's Mr. Kramer's script. Somewhere in act two there's an aria that everybody gets. A moment to shout about what is infuriating about these events, from all these different perspectives. Some of it is quiet fury, like Bruce's speech that Lee Pace does so beautifully, where Albert dies getting off the airplane. Very quiet. Then, there's Ellen's in your face "You're all idiots."
I had a friend who saw the original production in '85, and he was a young man, he'd just come out, he was partying. He said that when Dr. Brookner says, "Just stop fucking," he said, "Oh shit, they're talking to me." He came to our production and he got to meet Larry Kramer and he said, "You saved my life." So, the playhow can you describe it? It's not just a play anymore, these are commandments. These are health warnings.
BH: I recently was reading parts of Randy Shilts' book And the Band Played On, about the discovery of AIDS amid the growing international health crisis. The book describes the resistance that Larry Kramer dramatizes so articulately. There were people who had just fought, at great personal cost, in order to be acknowledged as gay men and have open relationships as gay men. Some people felt that AIDS was somehow orchestrated to push them back into the closet or tell them that gay men couldn't have sex. There was a lot of resistance to what the people at GMHC and elsewhere were telling them to do.
PB: Mickey, the character I play, that is his dilemma. As the crisis becomes more evident, he's got to start leaning toward Ned Weeks' point of view. That's why he's so furious. "Are you telling me that we were wrong to do this?" He was one of the original Stonewall guys. You can see how they would feel, "No, no this can't be right."
BH: You're talking about him as a historic figure, which of course he was.
PB: Except Felix, who may be an amalgam perhaps, every character has a real life counterpart.
BH: I was wondering how, if at all, that impacted your attitude in creating the character.
PB: Only in one way. Dr. Lawrence Mass, [on whom the character of Mickey was largely based] became the editor of Bear Magazine and the picture of him had a beard. So I decided to grow a beard. The character played by Lee Pace is based on Paul Popham, who was tall and really good looking, and so is Lee Pace. Roger McFarlane, the Tommy Boatwright character played by Jim Parsons, was southern, and quite young when he came to GMHC.
BH: Did you all do any other research?
PB: We read a lot, we had a lot of the articles. We had a lot of Larry Kramer's fiction. We read the article that got GMHC and Larry in so much trouble at first. So we did homework whenever we had the time to do it. It was always interesting to read; and, as Larry said, it's practically a documentary, really, based on his point of view. These events happened, in that time frame. [The first 41 known AIDS deaths in New York] are the first 41 names on the board. There are also a couple of one word names. They didn't know people's last names eventually. It was just, "Peter." There's one that just says, "Anonymous. Alone."
BH: That's so sad.
PB: It shows on one of the projections. You just wonder, how was he found?
BH: I think it's wonderful that you pay tribute to the people you all know who were affected. In a different sort of show, Jonathan Larson's Rent, there's a scene with an HIV positive support group in which everyone says his or her name. Except for the main cast members, many of the names you hear are names of people he had lost, or people he knew who were HIV positive at the time.
PB: I didn't know that. The character names in that scene?
BH: Yes, it was very sad but also a beautiful tribute to them. Now, you've also had a lot of access to Larry Kramer. Larry Kramer clearly has created a fictional counterpart in the character of Ned Weeks. He can be a pain in the neck, a rabble rouserbut he gets a lot done that way. At the same time, I read a Jim Parsons interview in which he pointed out that in The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer also manages to beautifully and eloquently articulate the points of view that were directly contradictory to him, and that he did not denigrate any of the characters he disagreed with. He treats them all with tremendous dignity. That suggests his humanity and compassion.
PB: It would be just a polemic if it was him saying, "I'm right and here's what you're not doing you idiots." And, it's Joe too, not trying to soften the character at all. Ned Weeks was a burr, and irritated everybody. I guess even in 1985 they didn't know he was right. Twenty-five years later, history has proven him correct. I wonder what people thought in '85, when they heard it ... People knew what the virus was, but there was so little information about it. Now, Ned Weeks is Cassandra. He's absolutely right and nobody believes him. Yet, he's got to keep screaming.
BH: It's the perfect sort of postscript to the show, that he is out there or people who work for him are out there handing out a letter, telling people the enormity of the problems that still exist.
PB: He was there last night, handing them out!
BH: I know you have limited time and I appreciate all the time you've taken with me. Is there anything you want to say that we haven't covered?
PB: [The Normal Heart] is not a museum piece. It's a vital message that people still need to hear. That last sobering statistic [projected on the wall], 35 million dead, 75 million infected. That's not ancient history.
The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. Directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe. Scenic design by David Rockwell, Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz, Lighting design by David Weiner, Projection design by Batwin + Robin Productions, Inc., Original music and sound design by David van Tieghem. Cast: Ellen Barkin, Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik, John Benjamin Hickey, Luke MacFarlane, Joe Mantello, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Richard Topol, Wayne Alan Wilcox. At the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. For schedule and ticketing, visit Telecharge.com.
Search What's New on the Rialto