Theater News

In the Blood

Show business is the family (and friend) business for filmmaker AARON HARNICK. Leslie (Hoban) Blake reports.

Writer/director Aaron Harnick
Writer/director Aaron Harnick

Aaron Harnick comes by his show business credentials both genetically (from actress-mom Barbara Barrie, producer-dad Jay Harnick, and lyricist-uncle Sheldon Harnick/Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello) and the good old-fashioned way: He’s earned them. “I knew I wanted to write and direct from the day I was born,” says the young New York native, who was also seen onstage in the WPA show Club Soda, directed by Pam Berlin. He got his acting/directing BFA from Syacuse in 1991, and started his “show biz” career by getting coffee for Vicky Lawrence in 1992.

A year later, he was hired by the Friends team of Bright/Kaufman/Crane as a staff writer for the Pamela Reed show, Family Album. From there it was just a short hop to selling a few (unproduced) pilots of his own before writing for The Drew Carey Show. And just this year, he was seen on screen in Judy Berlin, as director Eric Mendelsohn’s alter-ego in the acclaimed semi-autobiographical debut film, co-starring Edie Falco, the late Madeline Kahn, Bob Dishy and his mom, Barbara.

For 30 Days, Harnick’s own first feature as a writer/director, he followed Mendelsohn’s lead and wrote a film that was both highly personal and a true ensemble

Jerry Adler as Rick andBen Shenkman as Jordanin 30 Days
Jerry Adler as Rick and
Ben Shenkman as Jordan
in 30 Days

piece. Harnick cast his film with cross-over New York stage and indie film actors, starting with the central character of Jordan played by Ben Shenkman, a youthful veteran of The Roundabout, Playwright’s Horizons, and The Public, as well as Darren Aronofsky’s indie hit Pi. Jordan also works in his family’s business, a liquor store owned by dad (character actor Jerry Adler of Soprano fame, currently on Broadway in Taller Than a Dwarf) and fretted over by mom (Barbara Barrie, returning to the New York stage soon in David Marshall Grant’s Current Events). The conflict comes when dad decides to sell the store and retire. One of Jordan’s responses is to propose to Sarah (Arija Bareikis, The Last Night of Ballyhoo).

Dealing with the perils of romance, marriage, and finally having to grow up (maybe) are the rest of Jordan’s post-slacker New York friends–real New York friends, that is–including kooky weather forecaster Tad (Bradley White, a founding member of Naked Angels); Brad (Thomas McCarthy, The Citizen), who’s marrying Lauren (Catherine Kellner, The Iceman Cometh); and Mike (Spin City‘s Alexander Chaplin), the guy who never does anything right. Cameos include appearances by Drama Desk nominee Julia Murney (MTC’s The Wild Party), Blue Light’s Greg Naughton, Ballyhoo‘s Mark Feuerstein, associate producer Hank Unger, and in the role of the sarcastic sister, Harnick’s sister Jane.


Barbara Barrie as Barbarain 30 Days
Barbara Barrie as Barbara
in 30 Days

“I thought Eric’s ending for Judy Berlin, was the most daring I’d ever seen,” remarks Harnick, “and I personally didn’t want to see any more movies about people who know exactly what they’re feeling all the time. Most of 30 Days was written, but I encouraged improv both before and after the camera was rolling and I’d constantly use an improvised look–a word or some movement. We saw every actor in New York down at Theatre Works USA [run by his dad], and I based all my decisions on my own acting experience. Everyone had to be perfect, a real ensemble, or I knew I wouldn’t be able to work the way I knew I had to.

“Having my mom meant that I could write jokes knowing she could deliver. [Casting against her usual patrician type, Barrie plays an Upper West Side yenta.] She brought an elegance to the set, and she’s such a pro, she could always match her action in every take, which is so important in low budget filmmaking. That’s how we got Jerry [Adler]. He said, ‘As long as Barbara’s my wife, I’m in.'”

For Harnick, finding a producer was easier than finding a cast. “I’ve sent everything I’ve ever written to my buddy, Mike Rego.” They were roommates at Syracuse, and Rego and his brother Matthew are currently two-thirds of the Araca Group (30 Days‘ Unger is the other third). Araca previously produced The Adobe Company hit-transfer Duet, James Naughton: Street of Dreams, Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monlogues, and most recently, Manhattan Theater Club’s The Wild Party (just nominated for 13 Drama Desk, three Lucille Lortel, and five Outer Critics Circle Awards). They’ve joined forces with fellow theater producer Arielle Tepper (Freak, De La Guarda, The Dead), to make 30 Days, which is Araca’s first film venture.

The Regos were kid actors in their native Cleveland, where they first teamed up with Unger. They all met Tepper through Harnick. Sitting in Araca’s West 44th Street office, Mike says, “We brought theatrical rules to filmmaking.” As Matt points out, “There’s an obvious synergy between theater and indie film. Basicially, it requires getting a lot of people to do something for very little money in very little time.” Tepper explains, “Theater producers have to trust their own judgment while movie producers always have to listen to all the others involved.” Mike concludes, “Making theater happens faster: you read a script, you like it, and you become your own distributor.” Case that makes Araca’s point: 30 Days was shot in only 20 days, but the release date comes a full two years after the start of pre-production. However, their next theatrical production, The Laramie Project opens in New York (after a run at the Denver Theatre Center) just a year and a half after the Tectonic Theatre Project’s collective process began.

30 Days garnered good notices at the Toronto Film Festival last Fall, where it picked up its European distributor and was just seen at the Avignon/New York Film Festival (April 27). Theatrical release for 30 Days (via Arrow Releasing; Ponette, My Life is in Turnaround) is set for June 23. Harnick, as writer and director, naturally gets the last word, which in this case is: “Independent film is today’s Off-Broadway theater.”