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Mind the Gap

Date: Mar 11, 2008


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There's a kind of rough music in Harold Pinter's writing, so it makes a kind of sense that Michael McKean, the versatile actor/musician who has graced the world with such indelible creations as Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins and Laverne and Shirley's Lenny Kosnowski, fits so snugly into Daniel Sullivan's crackling new Broadway revival of The Homecoming, Pinter's masterpiece of sexual gamesmanship in a dysfunctional family.

Fittingly enough, McKean--who plays Sam, the meek chauffeur brother of a snarling East End patriarch, Max (played by the redoubtable Ian McShane)--had his first theatrical epiphany at the Broadway run of Stanley Holloway's 1960 revue Laughs and Other Events.

"I think I was 12 or 13 when I saw it," McKean recalls, sitting in his cozy dressing room at the Cort Theatre before a Wednesday matinee. "I had already been thinking about how much fun it would be to be an actor, but this was my first experience of live theatre on a big scale, and I just thought that was the berries: Here was this guy doing all these funny monologues and amazing songs, and doing 50 characters in a night."

Later, when McKean joined The Credibility Gap, an early '70s-era comedy troupe with Harry Shearer, David L. Lander and Richard Beebe, he put his inspiration to good use.

"We'd do mostly political but also social satire," McKean recalls. "We would write sketches and songs and put them on, and get to go 10 or 20 characters a night."

He's used similar muscles in a series improvised film mockumentaries he's made with Christopher Guest, including Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. His work on the heavy-metal parody Spinal Tap gave him a comfort not only with improvisation but with an English accent, which stands him in good stead in The Homecoming.

"When we were doing Spinal Tap, we had a two-year run-up to the actual shoot as we were working on the script and the songs, so to a certain extent we were sort of living in the characters," says McKean. "And then we started shooting, and there are 100 hours of improvisation that we did. A kind of ease comes with that."

And, taking the accent out of the equation, McKean points out that improvisation teaches a more basic acting lesson.

"One of the best things about improvisation is that it makes you at ease with a character," he explains. "If all the dialogue is up to you, you've gotta be really clear on what your character wants--which is the primary thing you gotta do in every scene you do, scripted or not. You pare the character away to the bare bones, because that's all you've really got to hang onto."

Accordingly, Pinter is famous for stripping his dialogue back to the point of enigma. Few characters in The Homecoming are more tightlipped and hard to read than Sam, the prissy, aging bachelor with a hint of a limp. What's up with this sad fellow?

"I think he's sort of the moral conscience of the play, and like most moral consciences, he's absolutely impotent," McKean says astutely. "I've always had the feeling that the world of sex is something that's just baffling to him. I think that Max, his older brother, probably took him to a whorehouse when he was 15 or 16 and really sewed it up--that Sam had such a horrible experience there he won't go back."

His distance from the fairer sex, though, has had a softening rather than a coarsening effect on Sam. "He's one of those people who has an idealized view of women," says McKean.

An idealized view is hardly unique to Sam, or to Pinter's blinkered characters.

"I don't know about you, but my mother used to tell stories in front of me and a new girlfriend, say, and though there was nothing terribly embarrassing about what she would say, I was amused at how the stories would kind of grow," McKean recalls. "It started as boilerplate, and now there was all this filigree on it, or she had placed the story in a different time, and I'm thinking, 'That's not true, Mom--but go ahead.'

"That's how family history operates; it's all oral history. And don't try correcting people, because they know. In their imaginations there's no imagination involved; it's the truth."

McKean's wife, the actress Annette O'Toole, is currently appearing in The Seagull at Classic Stage Company. Though they have a home and adult children on the West Coast, they're working a lot in McKean's native city of New York. Before The Homecoming, McKean most recently appeared in the Broadway revival of The Pajama Game.

"I seem to keep working here," McKean marvels. "There are a lot of things that I can't turn down because they look like too much fun."

Click here for more information about The Homecoming.