For 11 seasons, David Hyde Pierce played Dr. Niles Crane, the persnickety perfectionist younger brother of Kelsey Grammer’s Dr. Frasier Crane on TV’s “Frasier.”
It’s how many people still see him.
You can see Pierce on April 14 at the old Nyack High School on Midland Avenue, where he’ll chat with Elliott Forrest, the latest in a series of conversations presented by ArtsRock.
If you see Pierce in Christopher Durang’s new Broadway play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Golden Theatre, for much of the action he is dressed as a different doctor — “Doc” — one of Snow White’s dwarves. It’s all part of his character Vanya’s efforts to keep the peace, to go with the flow, not to ruffle feathers.
Before the performance is over, however, Vanya’s feathers are ruffled in a delightful 10-minute-plus rant about the decline of civilization as demonstrated by the fact that no one licks stamps anymore.
OK, it’s not just about stamps. It’s about how we are now a nation of splintered focus, how we don’t watch the same shows all together now, how there are 145 channels and still nothing to watch, how we choose our news stations based on our political views. By the end of his breath-taking and breathless diatribe, Vanya comes to a conclusion.
“People hear that speech and think that Vanya’s trying to say how things used to be so much better,” Pierce says. “The thing that’s so brilliant about the speech is that the deeper he gets into these memories, the more that he realizes that the show he cherished so much was actually stupid. And the things that they were enjoying them were kind of lame or silly. It’s only in the course of talking about it that he realizes that the heart of what he’s talking about is how we have all become separate.
“And with all this technology, it’s not that we’ve changed, but that everyone is now in their own world, at home watching their TV or playing their video games. That connection is what Chris is warning about and that is something that strikes older people in the audience, but also younger people who maybe haven’t articulated that for themselves: that feeling of separation that comes when you’re all at the same table at a restaurant and you’re all on your iPhones texting and no one’s talking to each other.”
Joining Pierce at the Golden are Sigourney Weaver as the narcissistic actress Masha; a Kristine Nielsen as his adopted sister, Sonia; Billy Magnussen as Masha’s boy-toy, Spike; Shalita Grant as a clairvoyant housekeeper; and Genevieve Angelson as a young neighbor. The siblings draw their name from the works of Anton Chekhov and there are lovely parallels to the gloomy Russian plays here. The play, directed by Nicholas Martin, is set to run till June 30.
Click here to see a scene from the show.
Pierce and Durang have history. The actor made his Broadway debut in a short-lived production of Durang’s “Beyond Therapy.”
Pierce says this is a different Durang.
“This is the play that shows he’s a different playwright,” Pierce says. “All of his plays are different from each other. They all have such great elements of absurdity. Some of them are very abrasive and ascerbic, others have more heart. This, to me, is a really fully formed mature play which doesn’t abandon his earlier tendencies, but there’s a reason this play ended up on Broadway, and I mean Broadway in the best sense of the word. It is a play of great value, but it has a broad appeal.”
Audiences have been generous, Pierce says.
“I was in ‘Spamalot,’ which was a huge hit with crazy, enthusiastic audiences, but the feeling of gratitude we get from the audiences is kind of unique,” he says. “It’s about what the play has to say, but it’s also about the experience they’ve had for two-and-a-half hours. Many people have said ‘I didn’t think I’d have an experience like this in the theater.’”
Pierce, who turned 54 on April 3, answered some other questions, some of which are kind of “Inside Baseball,” but fascinating.
Elliott Forrest directed you in “A Christmas Carol” for WNYC a couple of years ago.
Yes, we had a great time. It was a lot of fun. I had never gotten to play Scrooge before so it was a nice opportunity for me.
You and Elliott should have plenty to talk about. He’s on WQXR and you grew up playing classical music on the piano.
We have a lot of mutual interests. Also I just like Elliott. He’s a good guy and easy to talk to so I’m looking forward to it.
What are the odds that Chris Durang wrote a character just about your age?
Actually, Vanya is 57, which was about the age Chris was when he started writing the play. He wrote the part for himself.
Flattering that he got you involved.
Yes, I’m glad he wasn’t available.
Vanya is the voice of reason, the steady hand, the calming influence among all these crazies he’s surrounde by. He’ll really do anything for his sisters. To keep the peace. He’ll dress up as “Doc,” if need be.
Yes, I think so. He loves his family very much. I think he’s caught in that place — where everyone is. It’s that issue of change, the fear of change and the fear of being stuck. It’s the flip side of comfort and security is being stuck. Change and loss are risky things. Vanya and his siblings have lost their parents and they’re trying to figure out where they are in the world. Now that we’re on Broadway, we have a wide range of ages in the audience, a lot of young people coming to see the show. I’m always struck by how they are taken with the show. There are young characters in the show but the focus is on these three middle-aged people. But the dilemmas that they’re going through — of changing times and changing technology and loss of connection and fear of what’s coming and missing what’s best — that’s not specific to that age anymore. That really is something that’s kind of universal.
That’s true. As you go through life, you’re constantly saying goodbye to something that was a touchstone for you.
That’s right. And with the pace of life today, even younger people are finding that they’re having to say goodbye to things and miss things at a much faster pace than we were from a generation or two before.
You’re surrounded by crazies — an adopted sister who wants to marry you, a biological sister who is as narcissistic as they get and her boy-toy who insists on pinching your nipples whenever he can.
Nice work if you can get it. Plus we have a housekeeper who’s a psychic and a beautiful young next-door neighbor who’s completely obsessed with the works of Anton Chekhov. We’ve got quite a complement of obsessive people.
Had you done Chekhov before?
Yes, I’ve done it several times. I studied it, of course, in acting classes in college. And then I did a production of “The Seagull” at the Guthrie. I was good ol’ Christopher Reeve’s understudy in a production of “The Cherry Orchard” at Williamstown. And I was in a production of “The Cherry Orchard” that Peter Brook directed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And we took that on tour through the Soviet Union and to Tokyo.
You don’t need to know Chekhov, but when the young neighbor introducers herself as Nina, the audience gives a knowing sort of laugh.
The nice thing about the play is that even people who have never read any Chekhov in their life, they may have kind of a sense of what a moody Russian play might be like. And Chris is such a brilliant writer, he has so carefully written the play that for the most part any references — not only Chekhovian references, but even references to pop culture or culture of the ‘50s — are sprinkled throughout, but at important moments, they’re described or explained or illustrated in a way that even if you don’t know them, you get the idea.
Those young kids you talked about don’t know who Kukla, Fran and Ollie are when Vanya talks about them …
You’ve spent seven or eight months with “Vanya,” getting it on its feet at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, then taking it to Lincoln Center, and both runs were sold out. Has it changed a lot from the McCarter?
It has changed in extraordinary ways since the McCarter and very little in terms of the text of the play. The McCarter was a traditional proscenium stage, then we went to the Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center, which was a three-quarter thrust, with audience on three sides, requiring a very different way of staging. When we moved to the Golden Theater, we restaged it for the proscenium and discovered that it is the best forum to see the play because it’s a comedy and so much of comedy is about timing and focus and how you guide the audience’s eyes and ears. When there’s only plane for them to look at, which is a traditional proscenium stage, they’re all watching the same story. Whereas when you have audience all around, the energy gets dispersed.
We also had a gift of five weeks off between Lincoln Center and Broadway – which you never get in American theater — and that let the play sink in and let old performance habits get shaken loose. You get refreshed but it has all been in there, bubbling and percolating in your unconscious, which is where your greatest stuff comes from anyway. And that process has continued every week we’ve been on Broadway, the performing of it has gotten simpler and richer. The thing I’d compare it to is if you see a long-running TV series, like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “Frasier,” if that’s your bag. Watch the pilot episode or an episode in the first season and compare that to an episode 5 or 6 years into it. Earlier episodes, you’ll see them performing much more, handing it to you on a platter. Whereas later in the run it’s much more relaxed and just opens to the audience. Instead of saying ‘Hey! Look at us!” it’s more of an invitation. It’s richer for the audience and the actors on the stage.”
David Hyde Pierce in Conversation with Elliott Forrest. 7:30 p.m., April 14. BOCES Rittenhausen Theater at the Old Nyack High School, 131 North Midland Ave., Nyack. $30, $15 for students, $100 for VIP, with premium seats and an after party with Pierce. www.artsrock.org
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th St., between 7th and 8th avenues. $60 to $130. 212-239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Colleagues, in a word
David Hyde Pierce played a game of free association, responding to the name of a colleague with a one-word reaction.
Sigourney Weaver: “Luscious.”
Christopher Durang: “Brilliant.”
Kristine Nielsen: “Divine.”
Billy Magnussen: “Stunning.”
Geneverie Angelson: “Delicious.”
Shalita Grant: “Wacky.”
Nicholas Martin: “The first word that popped into my mind was Dad. This is literally like a therapy session. I’m even sitting on a couch. Not only is he really like a father to the company in the way he has dealt with us, but also now that I think of it he reminds me of my own dad, very gentle and softspoken with a great wit.”
Niles Crane: “An old friend.”