Well known to viewers of NBC-TV's Third Watch for his portrayal of a hotheaded but charismatic young NYC cop, Jason Wiles is now taking on a new challenge at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, co-starring with the venerable Malachy McCourt in a production of Bill C. Davis's Mass Appeal. Written in 1980, the play had well-received engagements at Manhattan Theatre Club and in Boston before beginning a successful run on Broadway in November 1981, starring Milo O'Shea and Michael O'Keefe. It deals mostly comically but sometimes seriously with the volatile relationship between a brash young seminarian and a much older, much more conservative priest.
Wiles's television credits aside from Third Watch include the series Beverly Hills 90210 and To Have and to Hold, plus several TV movies. He has been seen in such films as Higher Learning, Road Racers, Kicking and Screaming, and -- in a non-speaking role -- in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. But, to all intents and purposes, Mass Appeal marks his professional theatrical debut. He spoke with TheaterMania about the project this morning in a phone conversation from Hyannis, Mass., where he and his wife are staying during the run of the play.
THEATERMANIA: So, you're on the Cape?
JASON WILES: I'm on the Cape. We open tonight! The show is at the Cape Playhouse, which is the oldest summer theater in the United States. It's a truly beautiful theater that used to be a church; it still has the church pews in it, which is very appropriate for this play.
TM: I've read about your TV and movie credits on the Internet but nothing about your stage experience.
JW: Well, this is my first big professional theater gig, and I'm very excited. It's a whole new form for me. You move at such a fast pace on TV, so it's nice to be able to slow down and find something new every day in rehearsals. And it's exciting to know that we gave a performance last night and that we're coming back tonight. The exploring never ends, so to speak. Doing this play is about me exploring my own faith, really. That's kind of why Malachy and I have taken the project under our wing. Here we are, doing Mass Appeal in 2002 and, obviously everything has changed -- the world is different, the church is different. But why do a play unless you're going to find new meaning in it?
TM: How did the project come about?
JW: Theater is something I've really wanted to get into for the past few years. It's strange. People who've done all these Broadway shows come on Third Watch and do a line or two; I want to do what they're doing and they want what I'm doing! Anyway, I've had this agent at William Morris trying to look into things for me to do on stage, but it's hard to find the right gig because I'm not available that much.
TM: Third Watch is filmed in New York. What has it been like to work on a show about NYC cops, firefighters, etc., since 9/11?
JW: Obviously, we've taken a new turn. We wanted [to deal with 9/11] in an appropriate, respectful way, but it was difficult; we were back working three weeks later, not knowing if we were doing the right thing. I think it's worth it if we can show just a little bit of the truth of what these people go through.
TM: Your character on Third Watch is often described as "hotheaded."
JW: Yes. I play a police officer named Maurice "Bosco" Boscorelli. What everyone thinks, he says and does.
TM: Are you part Italian or did you have to research that?
JW: I'm, like, a quarter to one-half Italian. I've also got some Welsh in me and some other things. I'm a mutt, but I definitely have the Italian blood in me -- and my wife is from Brooklyn, so that helps. She's from Flatbush.
TM: So, Bosco is similar in some ways to your role in Mass Appeal but very different in others. I haven't seen the play in at least 20 years, so you'll have to help me out a bit. Isn't the character's name Mark?
JW: Mark Dolson, yeah. And Malachy McCourt plays Father Tim Farley. Mark is this idealistic kind of guy. The monsignor sends him to Fr. Farley so Mark can learn from his sermons, because Farley is a very tactful sort of priest and Mark is not tactful at all. He has all these questions: Should women be ordained as priests? Why can't priests be married? What is religion? What is faith? Mark and Fr. Farley develop a friendship; it's a teacher-mentor situation, but who's who? That changes throughout the play. There's an angelic quality to Mark; obviously you can't play that, but at the end of the play there's a feeling of, "Wow, maybe he's sort of an angel who has come in and changed things." You think that Fr. Farley is going to help and mold Mark but they really learn from each other. They need each other. It's a love story, in a way.
TM: Isn't there a movie version with Jack Lemmon as Farley?
JW: Yeah, and Zeljko Ivanek plays Mark. I have a strange story about that -- very strange. I went to see a show in New York last week and, afterwards, I got on the subway with a buddy of mine. It was about 11:30 and no one was in the car. Then somebody walked in and my friend, who has been coaching me in the part, said: "Oh my gosh. That's Mark Dolson!" I'm like, "What do you mean? A Mark Dolson type?" And my friend says, "No, it's Mark Dolson! It's Zeljko Ivanek!" It was so weird: All the people in New York City and this guy just happened to walk onto the same deserted subway car that I was on late one night. Talk about omens! I was going to say something to him but then I thought I shouldn't. I was like, "Leave it alone!" Anyway, Zeljko did the movie of Mass Appeal, which is a good movie -- but it's not what we're doing. I'm playing a different, much more opinionated, out-front sort of Mark Dolson.
TM: If I remember correctly, the character turns out to be gay.
JW: No, I think you would say he's bisexual. He has this big speech about how he indulged his sexual ambivalence, how he's been searching his whole life. He comes from a lot of money, from a family where all kinds of bad stuff happened but nobody talked about it. Mark left home at 16 but who knows what he did after that? He could have gone to prep school, he might have been to Europe. Maybe he joined the Peace Corps and went to build houses in Chile. He's coming into the seminary in his late 20s and he's already been through a lot. He's a man.
TM: Whatever his sexual preference, the point is that he's now celibate.
JW: Yes. In the play, Mark is being persecuted because there are homosexual rumors about two other seminarians and people are assuming that Mark is involved. He basically says, "They haven't taken their vows. Who cares if they're sleeping together? They're not priests yet!" Fr. Farley tells Mark to lie about his past so he won't get kicked out of the church himself, but Mark says he's not going to be a priest on a lie.
TM: Do you feel there's a shadow hanging over the play because of the sex abuse scandal in the church?
JW: I guess there is. When you see Mass Appeal, what are you going to think? Pedophilia. Bad priests. But I can't really worry about that because I have to be true to Mark's journey. The script has been touched up; Bill C. Davis revised it this year. I think he's coming to see our production, which is kind of exciting. Malachy has played Fr. Farley twice; he was the original standby for Milo O'Shea and he's seen a lot of actors come and go. Eric Roberts did it and kind of flipped out, I guess. Then Bill C. Davis played it himself and then they got Michael O'Keefe.
TM: Your production has a short run, doesn't it?
JW: Two weeks, 16 performances. We had a preview last night. My heart was racing but, the moment I walked on stage, my gut told me that I needed to do this. I asked my wife as we were driving home afterwards, "Honey, how many times have I said that I wanted to be on stage?" And she said, "Are you kidding me? It's all you talk about whenever you see a play." I'm always so inspired when I go to the theater. Even when the play sucks, there's something about it that I respect.
TM: Well, I doubt that I'll get up to see the show, but I hope you have a great time with it.
JW: Malachy and I are actually talking about bringing it to New York. It would be great to find a great little theater and have a nice four- to six-week run. We'll see how it goes!