Producer Scott Rudin approached the actor with the possibility of remounting Guare’s play. It had a nice ring to it: Besides his family’s history with the piece, Stiller was, at 45, the perfect age to tackle Artie Shaughnessy, a zookeeper who has dreams of becoming a Hollywood songwriter.
“I had never looked at the play from Artie’s point of view. All of a sudden, Artie starts to make a lot more sense at 45,” says Stiller, laughing. “It really was about having to wipe the slate clean and go, `OK, this is going to be different.’”
The role puts Stiller in a love-triangle of sorts, torn between staying with his mentally ill wife, played by Falco, or fleeing to Los Angeles with his mistress, played by Leigh. The role also required Stiller to learn to play piano and sing.
Director David Cromer has been deeply impressed by Stiller’s attitude. “He’s just a workhorse,” says Cromer. “When we were on a break, he was playing the piano. When I came in the room in the morning, he was sitting with the script. When I left at night, he was running lines with somebody.”
Stiller acknowledges that he was intimidated at first to tackle the part, having fond memories of John Mahoney playing the part opposite Swoosie Kurtz and Stockard Channing. But he thinks he and Falco and Leigh have created a new legacy.
“Now that we’re at this place, it’s become its own thing. Whatever it is, I know that it’s ours,” he says. “It’s different and it’s what it is and it makes sense to me and that’s all I really need to know.”
Stiller says that though he’s now a star, he still identifies with his character’s longing for fame and recognition. On three different occasions, Artie Shaughnessy cries out that he’s “too old to be a young talent.”
“As an actor, I can relate to all of it. I think any actor can, no matter what level of success you have. It’s show business, you know? There’s always been a premium on youth in show business going way back,” he says.
“There are so many themes in the play that are so relevant now _ even probably more relevant now than they were 25 years ago or even 39 years ago when my mom did the play.”
Being on stage again, however, is still a nervy proposition. Stiller, who was never a standup comedian, has done a few things live, but says getting up in front of people still takes getting used to.
“It’s always different. You have that one shot where you want to get it right. But the reality is you never get it quite right,” he says. “And that’s actually the great thing about doing a play _ you’re always finding different ways.”