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Stephen Kunken on the Pride of Joining The Apple Family and the Insecurities of Being an Actor in New York City

The Tony-nominated actor is in the repertory production of Richard Nelson's four-play cycle about a politically minded family in Rhinebeck, New York. That's eight hours of lines to learn right there.

Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins, Jon DeVries, and Stephen Kunken in The Apple Family.
(© Joan Marcus)

Stephen Kunken has been abducted. "I've spent more time with Richard Nelson this year than my family," he muses. Okay, maybe "abducted" is too strong a word, but "adopted" certainly seems apt. Kunken played composer Nikolai Nabokov in Nelson's Nikolai and the Others earlier this year at Lincoln Center Theater. Now he's appearing in Nelson's four-play cycle, The Apple Family, about a New York clan grappling with issues big and small as they sit around the dinner table at their Rhinebeck home. That's five plays by one author in the span of less than a year.

The plays are running in repertory at the Public Theater through December 15. The first three, That Hopey Changey Thing, Sweet & Sad, and Sorry have all played the Public, each in the fall of the previous three years. The final installment, Regular Singing, starts performances November 16. Kunken plays Tim, the actor boyfriend of Jane Apple (Sally Murphy). He and Murphy join a cast that includes Jon DeVries, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Laila Robins, all veterans of the previous productions.

TheaterMania spoke to Kunken and asked him what it was like to join this tight ensemble and how he could relate to his character, a New York-based actor. (Huge stretch, right?)

Stephen Kunken.
(© David Gordon)

Do you feel like you've been adopted into this family, since several of the actors are returning?

Absolutely. It's an extraordinary group of actors to be in a company with. My job is slightly easier than Sally's. Tim is the newcomer in the family. You get to watch Tim live that ride of coming from not knowing these people, to being with them, to being outside, to returning. I get to live that journey. The first play, in many ways, is the easiest. There was never a template that Richard was interested in plugging us into, however. This was a rediscover of the Apple family with two new members. Every actor was thrilled to take that on.

You just started performances of the first three plays. What's it been like so far?

It's great. There were people who had seen the other plays and came back to see them again. You could hear the excitement of people to have these characters come back into their world. It was a unique experience to have that kind of open-arms invitation before you come out. I've never been in that kind of cycle play before where people know the characters before they come out.

Did you see the original runs?

I had not, fortunately and unfortunately. I had heard they were stupendous, but I missed them. In one respect I think I'm lucky. I think I would have been intimidated by the dexterity and speed of it all.

How did you get involved?

I was playing Nikolai in Richard Nelson's production of Nikolai and the Others. Somewhere right around previews Richard came to me and said, "You're going to get an offer today from your agents to do my series of plays." I was brought aback. I was so firmly in one role, and it was like, "OK, I've got to go read four plays tonight..." I found it incredibly daunting to think you could put that much new information into your head. I was hooked from the first page of the first play... Richard is at the top of his game and he's one of the great playwrights writing in the English language today.

And he's really creating an awful lot of work.

I find the level of detail and consideration amazing. I don't know how he does it. I went up to Rhinebeck to see his studio where he works. It's full of all these books. Where does he find the time? He has the same twenty-four hours in the day that I do. I don't know how he uses them so much better. He's a student of the world and he churns these plays out.

You're from New York State originally. Is your family like the Apples?

In certain ways. That's the great gift Richard has as a writer. There is a kind of universality to the people he writes, even Nikolai. My family bears little to no resemblance to Balanchine and Nabokov. But he takes all the bones of these people and then makes stock out of the bones. He boils them down to the essence of what it is to be human. So in my family, of course there's political discussion around the table. There are the internecine conflicts between cousins and brothers. There isn't the question of identity that the Apples have. Still, you don't have to extrapolate that far to have that same situation. I'm amazed at how lifelike these plays feel. There are moments where we feel like we could all be sitting in a real dining room.

You're playing Tim, an actor. Have you ever played another actor on stage?

I've played more directors: Six Characters in Search of an Author, Noises Off. I've never had to sit in the steamy, sad world of my everyday life on stage.

Tell me about that.

I think it's amazing and really hard. I don't know that actors want to be open about their insecurities. It's not something that necessarily serves them in the profession. It doesn't go so well for Tim. He's not achieving what he wants to achieve. Often when you work on plays as an actor, what you're working on in the play tends to reverberate back through your own life. I've found that my moods are altered by the roles I work on or I start to see patterns in my own life.

What has playing Tim made you see?

There's a searching and discontent that Tim is going through. Being a forty-year-old actor in New York with a family and a four-year-old daughter, you have to ask: What does it all amount to? What does it really mean? Why am I doing this? He's asking a universal question: I've devoted my life to something I'm passionate about. It hasn't coalesced into being something fulfilling for me. What do I do? Do I abandon this thing that set me on this course? Do I reinvigorate my interest in it, knowing that I'm going to be met with dysfunction and rejection? That has retuned back to my own life. I ask those questions all the time.