By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.
Somewhere between the wolf puppet and the collapsing kitchen wall, it becomes clear that Apple Cove is not a realistic play. Set in an eerily idyllic gated community, Lynn Rosen's dark comedy follows a young married couple discovering trouble in paradise. With each revelation, their home literally falls apart, or explodes with rainbow-colored flowers, or gets raided by commandos from the neighborhood security unit.
But within this madness, the couple, Alan and Edie, stays recognizably human. Their morning ritual might be extreme---they say hello to the newspaper, after all---but lots of people have domestic routines. Their arguments might be theatrical---that's where the puppet comes in---but they're rooted in familiar feelings like anger, loneliness, and the fear that your spouse doesn't know you anymore.
So how do actors tackle these roles? How do they balance extreme situations with honest emotion?
"That's been one of the biggest struggles for me during the whole process of this show," says Allison Mack, who plays Edie. "Getting caught up in the world and wanting to get big and wild and up high. I have to make sure I come back to myself and ground myself in the truth of this story. Edie's an incredibly relatable character, and I want to make sure she's not a cartoon."
Sitting next to her at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan, Erin Gann, who plays Alan, concurs: "We had a couple of rehearsals where it was very, 'Ha-ha! I'm going to do a joke! And here's my jokey character! And then we had a rehearsal where Gio [director Giovanna Sardelli] was like, 'Let's just take it down. Connect with each other."
He admits that old habits returned during early previews at Women's Project, where the play runs through March 6. "Once we got the audience in, it became about, 'Here's my joke! Here's my punchline! Laugh!'" he says. "You have this need because you know how funny it is, but that's the trick of it. You only get laughs when you commit to the reality of the scene, because that's what's so funny."
He continues, "If that [commitment] is there, then Alan and Edie have a whole life together that has to maintain a certain level of success. That becomes far more interesting to watch than, 'La-la-la! Here's my joke!"
Both actors rely on their fellow cast members to maintain this humanity, and at the restaurant, they certainly behave like they trust each other. When Gann discusses Mack's work, he looks her directly in the eye, and when Mack says Gann's name, she casually touches his arm.
That relationship is crucial for Mack, who plays Chloe on television's Smallville. "This is the first real play I've done in New York City, so working with Erin, I feel so safe and well-supported in exploring something that's very scary and new for me, in a pretty naked role," she says. "I think that comes through because there are moments where Allison, not just Edie, is on stage looking at Erin, not just Alan, going, 'Where to next? Where do we go from here?'"
That vulnerability underscores the deeper argument in Rosen's play. For all the wacky comedy, it's also about the struggle for an authentic life. "That's the reason the play was attractive to me," Mack says. "Comedy is one of the best places to sneak in thought and questions, and if you do it right, you can have people laughing and thinking at the same time. People open themselves up with laughter, and then they allow themselves to be affected."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor