Playwrights take their inspiration from any number of sources, but for Robert Stanton and Daniel Jenkins, the genesis for Love Child
, their new two-man show at Primary Stages, came directly from two women they'll call "Ethel" and "Kay."
"Robert and I first worked together at Playwrights Horizons in 1993, doing a play, Carter Bay's Five Visits From Mr. Whitcomb
," recalls Dan Jenkins, who may be best known to theatregoers for his roles in Mary Poppins
and Big River
. "At one performance, a couple of audience members who were sitting very close to the stage got so enthusiastic, they nearly became participants in the production. They made themselves at home—it was just as much their theatre as it was ours. That's awesome when that happens, if occasionally distracting and annoying."
"The notion that someone would get so caught up in the story that they would yell to my character, 'It's in the fireplace!,' I found absolutely hilarious and delightful," says Robert Stanton, best known for roles in All in the Timing
and The Coast of Utopia
"They were making it pretty challenging for us to go on without inviting them up onstage," Jenkins continues. "We were very entertained by them, and when we finished the run, we thought: Perhaps we need to honor them more directly."
The idea percolated for a while among the two busy actors, who first agreed that a play-within-a-play device would be the best way to incorporate unruly audience members. The next step was to find a play to put inside the frame, and before long they latched onto a little-known Euripides play called Ion
, which Stanton started adapting.
"We loved the play," Stanton avers. "It has all sorts of really interesting themes, it's packed with incident and it walks a line between comedy and tragedy." So in Love Child
—a title referring both to the writers' labor-of-love creation and to the fact that Ion is the offspring of Apollo and the Athenian queen Creusa—the lead character has written an adaptation of Ion set in the present day, and by opening night everything that can go wrong is going wrong, both backstage and in the front of the house.
It sounds like a rollicking backstager, and it is—with one catch: All the characters, upwards of 20, are played by Stanton and Jenkins.
"We flash back and forth without benefit of costume changes," says Stanton.
"Just six chairs and light cues," Jenkins confirms. "It's about empowering the audience's imagination. There's a puzzle aspect in keeping up with everything. I think audiences really do enjoy solving that kind of puzzle."
Director Carl Forsman has done his best to keep both actors on their toes.
"He wants to make it harder for us," Stanton says. He means that in a good way: Such actorly alertness helps to keep the experience alive.
"Say we're in a backstage scene and there are seven people in it," Jenkins says. "Can we actually keep that room filled with people in your mind?"
That's the magic of theatre, of course. And lest this sound like another catty backstage satire, Love Child
has grown into something much warmer.
"It's a love letter to the life we've carved for ourselves as theatre professionals in New York," says Jenkins. "It's about the people who sacfirice comfort and convenience for the sake of being part of theatre. Almost everyone in our play does that. We in the theatre create families."
"As I've grown older," Stanton chimes in, "I've come to realize that one of the joys of being an actor for me is being part of a collective. I'm writing a love letter to that."
Sometimes the "collective" is a party of two, but even that—maybe especially that—has become increasingly valuable over the years.
"When you get half a chance to get together in a living room and work on something you love, and laugh with something, and have an experience that's not sitting home at a computer by yourself—we forget how valuable that is," Jenkins says.
Grateful theatregoers know exactly what he means.
Click here for more information about Love Child.