John Cullum and Charlie Hofheimerin Old Money(Photo: Joan Marcus)
John Cullum and Charlie Hofheimer
in Old Money
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It must have been an amusing sight: a group of actors and their director touring mansions on Upper Fifth Avenue. But there was a pressing reason behind the recent field trip. Mark Brokaw, who's directing Wendy Wasserstein's new play, Old Money, was trying to give the thespians a sense of what they were about to recreate.

The Wasserstein opus, which may be seen at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, takes place in a carefully restored mansion where well-heeled figures from the beginning of this century and the last century share the same space for a theatrical while. It's the respected playwright's notion that this is a way to make points about old and new money and to test the veracity of the hoary saying that goes "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

For Brokaw, it was helpful to visit the Warburg house and others like it. His purpose, as he puts it, was "to experience the scale, to stand outside a house and say, 'That's where you and your son are living. That's what you bought. It's this big, it's this grand.' Whenever you do that kind of work, it's useful. You can accomplish more in those kinds of hours. If you can actually go see the real thing, that's gold."

Brokaw is talking in the rehearsal room where, for some weeks, he and his colleagues have been working. Covering the wall behind his table are clippings that depict the interiors of familiar Manhattan luxury digs; there are also photographs of Andrew Carnegie and some contemporary East Side partygoers. Everything's geared to get the players in the right mood since, the director says, it's important that those on stage understand the milieu as well as Wasserstein does. (Well, Wall Streeter Bruce Wasserstein is her brother.)

Having built a reputation over the past few years as the right man to hire for your new play--for instance, he directed Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive--Brokaw has definite feelings about dealing with new material. "The excitement and the glory of working on a new play, which is what I've done primarily in New York, is that you are bringing something to life for the first time. You always wonder, is it going to work in the way you think it's going to work? You're flying without a safety net, because it's untried. It's all a positive challenge."

In meeting that challenge, Brokaw counted on playwright Wasserstein for help. "Wendy has been here from the very beginning," he says. "That varies from playwright to playwright--how much they like to be in rehearsal, how much they like to rewrite and at what stage of the game. I love for the writers to be there whenever they want to, because they're living encyclopedias. I love the give-and-take of having an author in the room. When something works in rehearsal--and even when it doesn't work--it's for the first time. There's a special thrill to that." The director goes on to report that Wasserstein is like Craig Lucas and Paula Vogel, with whom he works regularly, in that "they are all good at listening and really hearing what's actually happening in the room, not what they wish was happening."

Mary Beth Hurt and Mark Harelikin Old Money(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Mary Beth Hurt and Mark Harelik
in Old Money
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A man whose sunny outlook almost causes him to glow, Brokaw declines to be very descriptive about the play, obviously believing that seeing it will clarify what goes on better than any summary might do. But he will say that each of the eight actors--Emily Bergl, Dan Butler, John Cullum, Mark Harelik, Charlie Hofheimer, Mary Beth Hurt, Jodi Long, and Kathryn Meisle--plays at least two characters. Some of them play three, in situations that bring to mind the '40s novelty tune "I'm My Own Grandpa."

Actor John Cullum, who arrives in the room for a last look before going to a first on-stage tech rehearsal, says he enjoyed Brokaw's Carnegie Hill walk-around because "I don't know any of these people." He confesses that although his father was a Knoxville banker and his great uncle, Lee C. Gunter, was "a tycoon," he never felt like a child of privilege. "I'm a hillbilly from Tennessee," Cullum declares, making the point that his past doesn't overlap much with the life of Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer III or the others he impersonates.

Although Cullum has been extremely busy acting in theater and on television for decades, he hasn't done very many new plays. "It's so much fun to have [Wendy] around," he says. Then he adds with a laugh, "I've worked with Arthur Miller, and I'd just as soon not have Arthur around! Wendy is wonderful."

What has attracted director Brokaw to Old Money is, he states, the fact that it's "drawn on a very large canvas, and it's a play that requires the world to continually transform before your eyes with the barest of means. That physical challenge was very enticing. Also, it's a beautiful play full of very human and humane characters. I think that was the biggest draw of all: just the chance to work with Wendy. She's a terrific writer." According to Cullum, Wasserstein "knows everything about New York City and that sort of thing--all the people and connections." And, of course, the stately homes.