When Tony Carlin takes to the stage in “Rabbit Hole” at Hudson Stage Company this weekend, he’ll be doing what Carlins do.
It’s what his father, Tom Carlin, did.
And it’s what his mother — Tony-winner Frances Sternhagen, of “Sex and the City” and “E.R.” fame — and his five siblings continue to do.
The Carlins of New Rochelle are performers.
“Rabbit Hole,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, centers on Becca and Howie, a suburban couple grappling with the death of their child. Carlin is Howie; Susannah Schulman is Becca. Also featured are Lucy Martin (seen in Hudson Stage’s “Murderers”), Theo Allyn and newcomer Brandon Gill, a recent graduate of Juilliard School.
The production, directed by Dan Foster, runs weekends through Nov. 21.
Howie is latest in a line of roles for Carlin, in a family of role-players.
Sternhagen credits Felicity Dell’Aquila, a long-ago English teacher at Rye High School, with starting the Carlin family off on its theatrical expansion.
“I guess she was like our agent,” recalls the actress.
Decades ago, Dell’Aquila invited Sternhagen and her husband — both Broadway actors — to read scenes in her Rye High School classroom.
Recalls Sternhagen: “She said: ‘Why don’t you two find something you can do with the children?’ So we found a lot of material that we could do as a family. And we called it ‘Family Affairs’ and we did it at the Emelin and at Purchase. It was with Paul, Mandy and Tony. They were our actors at the time.”
Then came Sarah, Peter and John.
“In our neighborhood in New Rochelle, Sutton Manor, we were a small family,” Carlin says. “There were (families of) eight, eight and 13 in our neighborhood, near the New Rochelle marina.”
There were six Carlin kids, each of whom has gone on to lives related to entertainment.
Paul is performing in a “Musicals Tonight” production of “Paint Your Wagon” in Manhattan.
Amanda, an L.A. actress, works with Interact Theatre Company.
Sarah teaches acting at a Massachusetts middle school and “does shows in the summer,” Sternhagen points out.
Peter — who Carlin says prided himself “on being the nonactor” working behind the scenes as a stage manager, in PR and in the box office — landed a screen role in “The Pelican Brief.” Now he’s back behind the scenes, driving a prop truck for Disney and seeking acting work.
John is a musician playing toddler birthday parties for the Kids Music Underground, “a rock star on the East Side, among 2-year-olds,” says Carlin with more than a little pride.
Carlin is gregarious, funny and easygoing; Sternhagen is soft-spoken and charming, with a glint in her eye and a story ever at the ready.
A Tony-winner for “The Good Doctor” and “The Heiress,” Sternhagen is a mother, and she’s played one on TV.
She’s perhaps best known as Bunny McDougal on “Sex and the City” and as Cliff Clavin’s mother on “Cheers.” She also played Noah Wyle’s grandmother on “E.R.”
When it’s pointed out that both she and her son understudied roles in “Mary Stuart” on Broadway — Sternhagen understudied queens Elizabeth and Mary in 1971; Tony the Earl of Leicester and several other roles in the recent revival — the actress can’t resist a jab.
“You didn’t understudy both queens,” she tells Carlin.
“But it was much more Leicester’s play,” he says without missing a beat.
Carlin & Co. have plenty to work with in “Rabbit Hole.”
“You get a sense in this play, and the way we’re rehearsing it, that it’s all family,” Carlin says. “We are not polite. We don’t want to talk about things, but the playwright is masterful in putting that situation right on the front burner so it needs to be dealt with.
“A lot of people have said: ‘Oh, that’s a sad play,’ but it’s redeeming in the various ways that people are dealing with this unthinkable tragedy. They’re not dealing with it with a capital ‘D.’ ”
It’s an emotional ride.
“It’s a toughie,” says Sternhagen, who is on the Hudson Stage board of directors and plans to attend a show.
“I remember when I saw (the Broadway production) and someone asked me how it was. I’d tell them: ‘It was painful, but, boy, it’s something you want to see.’ ”
The original Broadway production starred John Slattery and Cynthia Nixon (in a Tony-winning performance).
Sternhagen has lent her name to Hudson Stage’s board and has done readings to help raise money for the 11-year-old theater company started by Denise Bessette, Olivia Sklar and Dan Foster.
It’s because theater is what the Carlins do.
“We didn’t tell them to become actors; we didn’t tell them not to. We just let them do their thing,” Sternhagen says.
Their thing became the family thing.
“My dad used to say that having kids in the theater is like a never-ending Music Night at Trinity School,” Carlin says of Tom Carlin, who died in 1991.
Sternhagen laughs at the memory.
“We had a clarinet player, a trumpet player, another trumpet player and another trumpet player,” she says, adding with a giggle: “I was just glad Tony switched from the violin.”
Sternhagen was in one episode of “The Closer” this year but isn’t working on anything at the moment.
Besides the family of actors with performances to see, and grandchildren to pamper, Sternhagen has other reminders of an actor’s life.
“A little while ago, I got a check for 28 cents for work I did on ‘Cheers,’ ” she says.
What: “Rabbit Hole”
When: Weekends, Nov. 6 through 21. 8 p.m. Nov. 6, 7, 13, 14, 20 and 21; 3 p.m. Nov. 8, 15 and 21. A post-performance Q&A on Nov. 15.
Where: Woodward Hall Theatre, Pace University, 235 Elm Road, Briarcliff Manor
Tickets: $30, $25 for seniors and students, $20 for Pace staff and students. One free ticket for every 10 purchased at the group rate.
Ticket call: 212-868-4444
Ticket web: www.smarttix.com
Hudson Stage: 914-271-2811
Photo by Carucha L. Meuse / The Journal News: Frances Sternhagen, a Tony-winner and longtime board member at Hudson Stage and her son, Tony Carlin, talk about “Rabbit Hole” at Studio 353 in Manhattan. “Rabbit Hole” opens this weekend.