Sheryl Kaller, Mario Cantone, and David Solomon
(© Tristan Fuge)
Sheryl Kaller, Mario Cantone, and David Solomon
(© Tristan Fuge)
When comedian Mario Cantone cites his biggest influences as a performer, the list includes Lily Tomlin, Robert Klein, Steve Martin, and Craig Russell. If you don't recognize that fourth name, Cantone is determined to change that by starring alongside Jeni Verdon in a staged reading of David Solomon's Margaret and Craig, being presented by New York Stage & Film at Vassar College's Powerhouse Theatre, July 1-3.

The play, to be directed by Sheryl Kaller, focuses on the two-decade relationship between Russell -- a Toronto-based female impersonator during the 1970s and 1980s who used his own voice to sing, and his schizophrenic roommate, Margaret Gibson.

In the late 1970s, Cantone was visiting Provincetown, where his cousin owned a nightclub called the Madeira Room and offered the aspiring comedian a job -- but not onstage. "I worked Craig's spotlight and watched him every night for two weeks," Cantone says. "And I got to know him a little bit. He was very nice and I just thought he was brilliant. He was also crazy." (Russell died in 1990 due to complications from AIDS.)

Cut to 2004, when Cantone mentioned Russell to his friend Solomon -- who had been a production assistant on Cantone's solo show Laugh Whore -- simply suggesting, "Look into this guy." First, Solomon viewed Outrageous, the award-winning autobiographical film starring Russell; but he soon widened his research, tracking down Russell's videotaped performances as well as Gibson's writings, including a short story called "Golden Boy" based on her experiences with Russell. "I said to myself, 'this is my play, this relationship between these two people," says Solomon.

"He researched the hell out of it and really became obsessed with the story," says Cantone, who describes the Russell-Gibson relationship as "loving and not loving and co-dependent and a lot of things."

Solomon persevered through three revisions of the play -- the first draft consisted of letters read aloud between the two -- before Cantone reassured his friend that he was on the right track. "It's always a perk when you bring something to Mario and it makes him laugh," says Solomon.

Having been knocked out by Cantone's performance in the Broadway revival of Assassins, Solomon wanted to tap further into the actor's darkness. "Part of the reason I wrote this was so that people could see a side of Mario that they don't always see," says Solomon.

"It's my favorite thing to do," adds Cantone. "I don't get a chance to do dramatic roles often because I anointed myself as a stand-up comedian, so it's hard for other people to see you in a drama."

After doing readings at Roundabout and New York Theatre Workshop, Cantone has tapped Sheryl Kaller to direct the work. The selection was both professional and personal; the two had been roommates three decades before at Boston's Emerson College, where Cantone had once introduced Russell to Kaller. She admits she was initially disoriented. "I was this little JAP from Long Island," she says. "I didn't know from female impersonators."

Kaller, who received a Tony Award nomination last year for Next Fall, cites the provocative way that Solomon's play juxtaposes Margaret's mental illness with Craig's drag shows. "I think all of us in the arts are just one step away from being crazy too," she says.

For tickets and more information on Margaret and Craig, click here.