Jason Alexander Returns to His Roots in Larry David's Fish in the Dark
The Tony winner comes back to Broadway after 25 years, and steps into the well-worn shoes of his Seinfeld past.
"There's no pressure on me," Jason Alexander says in his stage-level dressing room at the Cort Theatre. "I'm not opening the show, I don't think I'm getting reviewed in the show, and even if I was, it wouldn't matter. It is familiar turf."
That turf, as he calls it, is a variation on the role from which he's been trying to distance himself for 17 years: the neurotic and self-loathing George Costanza from TV's Seinfeld, which ran on NBC from 1989-1998. Alexander has told TheaterMania in the past that for him to take on another role like that, it would have to be "pretty spectacular." Well, it doesn't get more spectacular than being the leading man in Broadway's hottest ticket.
Since Fish in the Dark, written by and originally starring Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm impresario Larry David, opened at the Cort in February, it's been the talk of the town, setting a record for the highest-grossing advance-ticket sales for a play in Broadway history and recouping its initial investment after just three months. David was famously the inspiration for George Costanza, and now that he's ready to depart the show, producers turned to the next best thing to fill his shoes.
"This is the one time where they put a shine on your ass and it's kind of true," Alexander says through a laugh. "Larry is an American icon doing something he's never done, and people want to see that. Well, there are two people in this world [who] can continue the event: It's either Jerry Seinfeld or me."
It was his love for David that brought Alexander back to Broadway after 25 years. "If it was just Norman [the role in Fish in the Dark], I don't know that I would have done it," he says. "I had to look at this thing as a whole. No small part of it is that it's Larry. I owe so much of the quality of my life to him and his work. The truth is…part of the reason I do things now is because it's stupid fun. This is the most perfect gig."
But don't confuse Alexander with the neurotic roles he plays. "While I'm sure there must be something in me that enables me to see into George the way I do, the key things that define Norman and Larry and George, either I don't have at all or I have it to such a small degree that it's not noticeable. If I was made of the same stuff as those characters, I wouldn't be able to step back enough in order to observe it to do."
The energizing part for the Tony-winning Alexander is getting to explore David's work in a completely different medium. "What's interesting," he says, "is that Larry has actually written a more nuanced and textured play than he performs — partially because of him as an actor, but also partially because I think he never got to step back and look at it."
In rehearsal Alexander has discovered moments alongside fellow actors Ben Shenkman, Jayne Houdyshell, and Rosie Perez that he describes as "pretty intense stuff." "We're being allowed to dig into those things a little bit," he says. "Now, it's not going to suddenly be Medea. But if you saw it twice, once with me and once with him, the play will have a resonance that it did not have [before]."
Alexander is also well aware that there's no competing with the comedic stylings of David. "I've seen Fish in the Dark two or three times. You look at him doing something to get laughs and you go, 'You are out of your f**king mind!' I'm not sure I have it in me to go to the lengths Larry goes to get the laugh." But that doesn't matter, as Alexander has throughout his own personal history as a replacement in various shows. "Once or twice, I've stepped into roles that were done by consummately funny people, and the response I would get is, 'They were funnier, you were better.'"