Now he's in the spotlight in the revisal of John Guare's 1976 play Rich and Famous at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater -- in which he portrays struggling playwright Bing Ringling. So, how does it feel to be front and center? "On one hand, it's fantastic, since you don't have to sew your part together every time you come back on stage; that's a real luxury," he says. "But it's definitely harder to learn all those lines. I wanted to do it on book, a la City Center Encores!" he says, with a laugh.
Ashmanskas was first approached to do the role last summer by Tony Award-winning director John Rando, with whom he was working on Williamstown's revival of Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear. "We had a slight history before that show. Many years ago, when I came down to New York to stay at a friend's apartment, we ended up sharing the place for one night, and we did some workshops of Urinetown together," he says. "But Flea went really well -- John is sweet and supportive but also smart and sophisticated -- and during the technical rehearsal, he asked me what I was doing this winter. And then gave me the play to read. I didn't really know anything about it -- except some folklore about how Linda Lavin had to leave during the original production in order to do the TV show Alice -- but I loved it. And then when I read John's revised version, I was really excited to do it, because I realized how ingenious it was. And since he's been here during previews, he's gone even further in making some great rewrites."
Even if some of the words have changed, the play's theme still resonates with Ashmanskas. "It speaks to the truth of why we do theater in the first place -- which isn't for the money," he says. "And it reminds of me of the place New York was when I first came to watch shows as an audience member; I remember my dad even took me to see the Ridiculous Theater. It was a time when Off-Broadway really was the place to do something new."
Speaking of that time, how does Ashmanskas feel about doing another play set in the 1970s so soon after The Ritz? "At first, they told me to grow out my sideburns, and I thought, 'oh, do I have to do this every year?'" he says. "But they decided to wig me so I won't look like a serial killer. And it's a different look from The Ritz [in which Ashmanskas mostly wore a robe and bikini briefs] in that I get to wear a tuxedo for the whole show."
Ashmanskas, who has also appeared in The Producers, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Dream, and Songs for a New World, does get to show off his singing chops in this show, even if it's not a musical. "John's written some wonderful original songs -- I don't think people know he's such a great composer -- but I sing rather quickly, basically either for comic effect or emotional effect," he says.
Rich and Famous marks a welcome return to San Francisco for the actor. "We did the try-out for Fame Becomes Me at the Curran," he recalls. "Mary Birdsong -- who was in that show and is starring with me in this one -- and I keep saying that we feel like we're having flashbacks every time we walk on Geary Avenue. Because that show was in flux the whole time, we felt like we were here for like three years. But I do have to say I find San Franciscans to be a very receptive audience."
While he also got a great reception in Massachusetts, Ashmanskas says he didn't expect She Loves Me to transfer to Broadway. "I knew it would be tough in this economic climate, and if they did bring it, they would need a bigger star than me," he admits. Nevertheless, he hopes that A.C.T. won't be the last stop for this show. "I think every actor has that secret hope that their show might move," he says. "Plus, this is such a New York play and I think New Yorkers would love to see a new version of a John Guare play."