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Inside his work on Broadway's The Velocity of Autumn
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles
"The thing that draws me to new plays is the speech," says Stephen Spinella. "Does the writer have a good ear for the way people talk?"
His acting career has certainly been marked by thrilling language. From originating the role of Prior Walter in Angels in America to delivering a one-man adaptation of The Iliad, he's mastered torrents of roof-shaking words.
The trend continues with The Velocity of Autumn, Eric Coble's tragicomic play about Alexandra, an elderly woman threatening to blow up her Brooklyn apartment if her children try to move her to a nursing home. Spinella plays her son Chris, who climbs a tree to get through her window and coax her outside. Mother and son have been estranged for decades, but as they navigate their various disappointments and a roomful of Molotov cocktails, they're as honest as they've ever been.
And the more they say, the more eloquent they become. If the opening of the play, which is now on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, is all pauses and stammers, then the finale is flush with arias. Both characters say rough, beautiful things about getting old, being forgotten, and finding reasons to keep going.
"All of that means character to me," Spinella says. "The thing I like about Eric's writing is that the language is kind of clumsy in places. The syntax is odd. The jokes can be awkward and bad. But then there are these long passages that have a wonderful kind of music to them. The task [as an actor] is to figure out the guy who does all of those different things."
Spinella's been investigating Chris since last fall, when he and Parsons opened the play at D.C.'s Arena Stage. On Broadway, he's created a character who seems caught between a fundamental lust for life and the crippling memory of old wounds. In that context, both his stumbling dialogue and his emotional outbursts make sense.
Making this performance work means honoring the play's sincere emotions without getting mawkish. "Actors who play sentiment have to be very, very careful because sentiment turns cloying so easily," Spinella says. "You have to play it in a way that doesn't make it pronounced, but you can't pretend it's not there. In this play, Estelle and I work really hard to keep it as honest as we possibly can."
He stresses that honesty means letting each performance be different from the ones before. Yes, the parameters of the script and the basic staging will stay the same, but both actors need to be responsive to whatever's happening at a particular moment.
"Like last night," Spinella says, discussing Wednesday's evening show. "At the very beginning of the play, she says, 'Oh, so you just came back and decided to climb a tree to visit your dear old mom.' I played [the response of] 'climbing the tree was my idea' as a bigger feeling of pride. It suddenly occurred to me that I'm really proud of that, and she latched on to that and mocked me even more mercilessly than she had the night before.
"And that's always what's in the script, but given the degree to which I did it, she came back with a greater degree of what she was doing."
Spinella says he and Parsons will just keep making those adjustments: "It's like that constantly. 10,000 times. There are little nuances all the way through."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus