By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
There are roughly 5 trillion jokes in Lysistrata Jones, the new Broadway musical that transports the ancient Greek play Lysistrata to a modern-day college basketball court. With a book by Douglas Carter Beane and a score by Lewis Flinn, it cracks on everything from the perils of dating and the power of myths to Batman movies and dropped iPhone calls. As the gags whiz by, they create an atmosphere of breathless, fizzy fun.
But there's heart beneath the humor. Lysistrata Jones (Patti Murin) convinces her fellow cheerleaders to stop sleeping with their basketball-team boyfriends until they finally win a game, which drives the boys crazy. That's a breezy premise, but eventually, the characters realize their attitudes affect more than a basketball season. By accepting failure on the court or by forcing everyone to do what they say, these kids are short-circuiting their entire lives.
The show never gets "serious," but these ideas give it a little substance, a little humanity. They also give the actors an enormous challenge. How do they balance the rapid-fire comedy with the gentler moments?
Partly, they trust Beane, who's known for smartly comic shows like Xanadu and The Little Dog Laughed.
Murin, for instance, is a master of Beane's material. She was in Xanadu on Broadway, and she starred in Lysistrata Jones when the Transport Group produced it Off Broadway earlier this year and when Dallas Theater Center staged it in 2010. She says, "Comedy is so, so technical, and one thing I've learned about Douglas is: If you cannot figure out how to say a line, if you cannot figure out how to make it hit, just say the words. He has done so much of the work for you. He's always open to your interpretation, but you can always fall back on just saying the words."
At first, this idea startled Josh Segarra, who plays Lyssie's boyfriend Mick. "I want everything to be realistic and heartfelt and come out of my stomach," he says. "It took Doug to say, 'Josh, I get it. But stop doing that. Sometimes, you just have to say the words.' And he's right. If you're not hitting his exact words and punctuation, it won't land."
But what about the softer side? Murin and Segarra say the intimate scenes are different in the Walter Kerr Theatre than they were Off Broadway, where they performed in an actual basketball court. "It was teeny," says Murin. "The person who was closest to you was literally a foot away from you, so it almost felt like you were in your living room."
Segarra adds, "That's like playing to the first two rows of a Broadway house. Now, there's finding that same intimacy and vulnerability for 900 people, and some of them are a hundred feet above you."
They've discovered that to make the tender moments click, they have to play them small. Murin says, "It's so easy when you get in a bigger space to say, 'I'll just gesture bigger, and I'll talk louder, and I'll make bigger faces!' Especially for us. We really like to make faces in this show. But instead of falling to that, it helps to remember just to look at each other and play the scene and sing the song. To stay truthful. If you stay truthful, you can reach anybody."
Lysistrata Jones is in previews. It officially opens on December 14
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor