It's impossible not to feel like you know Jason Alexander. After all, at any given point when you turn on your television, there he is as the curmudgeonly George Costanza on Seinfeld. But most people don't know the real one, the song-and-dance man who had several major Broadway credits and a Tony Award (for Jerome Robbins' Broadway) to his name before that sitcom even premiered.
When Seinfeld ended its nine-season run in 1998, Alexander returned to his first love, the theater, as an actor and director. He played Max Bialystock to Martin Short's Leo Bloom in the 2003 Los Angeles mounting of The Producers. For a number of years, he served as the artistic director of the Reprise Theatre Company, and also starred in many of their productions. Now, he's at the helm of Odyssey Theatre Ensemble's revival of Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, a play that's near and dear to his heart, having starred in the comedic drama's 1986 original Broadway production.
TheaterMania chatted with Alexander about his behind-the-scenes return to Simon's long-admired play and his desire to keep coming back to his theatrical roots, especially in the Big Apple.
How did you become involved with this production of Broadway Bound?
About a year ago, a production was done at the La Mirada Theater, and my dear friend Gina Hecht was playing Kate. She and Allan Miller, who plays Ben, wanted to hear about my experiences when I did it [on Broadway]…They were picking my brain and I guess as I was explaining what my understanding of the play and the characters were — they got very excited. Unbeknownst to me, they approached the Odyssey about doing another production of it there, and then asked if I would direct it. I enthusiastically agreed.
Was there any waffling in your mind about returning to the play because of your history with it?
Not because of the history. The waffling came from the Odyssey being a 99-seat theater with limited capacity. I was not sure what we were going to do about the set. The set is a very realistic rendering of a two-story house. There aren't a lot of ways to get around that. Somehow, my friend John Iacovelli, who was the original designer for that production, discovered that the La Mirada set had not been destroyed and could be altered to fit into the theater on a budget. So we're using a Broadway-sized set in a 99-seat intimate space and the effect is amazing. You walk in and you're essentially in the living room of the Jerome house. You're transported the minute you walk in.
You mentioned that Los Angeles theater is mounted quickly and there's not much time for exploration. Can you distill the differences between working in L.A. versus New York?
In New York, the theater is a destination point. In Los Angeles, no matter how provocative, how successful, how star-studded the theater event may be, it is, at best, a second-class citizen. But the audience that comes is just as rabid, just as supportive, and just as diverse in their interests of what theater can and should be. In some ways, there's a mirror reflection of the trend in New York towards only things that are incredibly star-studded, provocative, or pure entertainment getting traction. Things that [are] more serious or classic, or are not being performed by actors of national renown, are having a hard time getting the audience. That is a fairly recent development. That wasn't what it was like when I was a young man doing theater in New York. But by the same token, I've got a play that we've been trying to find a [Broadway] theater for to revive and we can't get a theater.
So you are planning a return to New York after all these years…?
I've pointedly kept the New York theater at arm's length for a number of years, the only reason being was to raise my kids. I didn't want to uproot them…Seinfeld gave me the financial gift of not having to make that choice, so I stayed, and now the baby's going off to college. Theater is very much the world I'd like to get back to, particularly in New York, both as an actor and director. It's a question of finding the right thing, if I'm going to be an actor…if I have to get up eight times a week for a number of months, I want to be excited and challenged from the day I start to the day I leave.
What would be the right offer?
I have always wanted to play Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. My mother, who's 94, really needs me to play Tevye before she dies, but I don't think they're approaching me about this revival. If you know my New York theater career, I spent more nights playing dozens of characters than playing one. I like getting away from myself. Because on television I've played a character that's so iconic, a lot of the offers are in the mode of George Costanza. It would have to be a pretty spectacular role for me to come back and do that. I keep waiting for people to go, "Hey, you know what he can probably do…?"