Theater News

Keeping to Equal Proportions

Boston’s Larry Coen, co-author of Epic Proportions, on how the show got to Gotham.

Larry Coen, co-authorof Epic Proportions
Larry Coen, co-author
of Epic Proportions

David Crane and I wrote the first draft of the comedy Epic Proportions during the summer of 1982. Seventeen years later, in 1999, the play was produced on Broadway. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, “Sometimes there’s God so slowly.”

Epic Proportions tells the story of Benny and Phil, two brothers who go to the Arizona desert to be extras in a Biblical epic movie, Exeunt Omnes, during the 1930s. Both brothers fall in love with Louise, the assistant director in charge of “Atmosphere Personnel.” In addition to the three leads are film director D.W. DeWitt, three men, and one woman, all playing a wide variety of roles.

The play was produced four years after the first draft, in 1986, by Manhattan Punch Line at the 99-seat Judith Anderson Theatre on West 42nd Street. That production received a rave from The New York Times and immediately sold out the four-week run the day the review appeared. Everyone connected with the production expected the show to transfer to a commercial Off-Broadway house; but the producers who had the transfer rights had a falling out, the production closed, and Epic Proportions proportionately faded from view.

Some folks who saw the ’86 production remembered the show fondly. Twelve years later, in 1998, interest began to build once more for a commercial run. A script was sent to director Jerry Zaks, a multiple Tony Award-winner who agreed to direct the play. With Zaks on board, it was decided to mount Epic Proportions at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. It would be the first new play of that season.

Zaks assembled a dream cast of comedy pros. Kristin Chenoweth, coming right off her Tony Award-winning performance in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, was cast as Louise; Jeremy Davidson, who had just appeared in La Terrasse, was Phil. Alan Tudyk, from Paul Rudnick’s Off-Broadway success The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, was Benny; Richard B. Shull of Victor/Victoria and many other Broadway shows was DeWitt. Tom Beckett from Communicating Doors; Ross Lehman from Zaks’s own production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Ruth Williamson from Little Me; and Richard Ziman from Not About Nightingales (there’s that Tennessee Williams again!)were the “cast of thousands.”

In the years since Epic Proportions was produced at Manhattan Punch Line, my collaborator David Crane had moved to Los Angeles to write and produce for television, creating a little show called Friends with Marta Kauffman. There was no way that David’s television schedule would permit him to stay in New York for rehearsals and previews, so it became my job to attend rehearsals, identify rewrites, and to work with David by phone to create new pages should they become necessary.

Of course, I had deeply mixed feelings about this bi-coastal arrangement. On the one hand, I would have a ringside seat to watch a Broadway play being put together. On the other hand, I would also be responsible for interpreting how the show was playing in rehearsals, communicating this accurately to David, and coming up with better material during late-night, long-distance phone calls.

Yet how much re-writing could there possibly be? After all, the Epic Proportions script, I thought, was still in pretty solid shape. Well, ha! When we finally finished fiddling with the script two days before the critics began attending the show, there were rewrites on all but two pages, many of them to make a better match between the actors and the material.

Alan Tudyk and Kristin Chenowethin Epic Proportions
Alan Tudyk and Kristin Chenoweth
in Epic Proportions

For example, from the start of rehearsals it was apparent that we would need to write additional material for Kristin Chenoweth. She was finding amazing depths of comedy in her scenes and speeches but her character faded towards the end of the show. We felt that audiences would be unhappy if Louise did not have a strong presence all the way through to the finale of the play.

That approach applied to everyone in the show; as rehearsals went forward, we had the great opportunity to reshape scenes and comic moments to take advantage of each actor’s unique style, and the cast worked like Trojans to put over every piece of material or business they were handed. If something was cut or changed after a couple of rehearsals, the cast of Epic Proportions was almost never responsible for any of it. Usually something would need to go simply because it wasn’t what was called for — jokes that slowed down the pace, plot that was over-explained, or a need for greater clarity about the emotional journeys of the characters.

We also needed to soften Phil, Jeremy Davidson’s character, so that the love triangle between the two brothers and Louise would have a stronger dynamic. Jeremy was so likable and handsome that we wanted to keep the audience rooting for him to the end. Our original plan had given the character a strong sarcastic edge.

Now, Jerry Zaks is not a director who spends hours pontificating about theories of comedy. He works quickly and he works well. In fact, the actors were working on their feet very early in the process, with Jerry providing broad, clear guidelines that would ultimately shape the performance style of the show: fast-paced, clear, simple, honest and real. All of this also added up to “very funny.”

Zaks also gave much of his direction to the actors during one-on-one conversations that occurred out of earshot of the rest of us, setting a tone of respect and privacy. He spoke to me the same way, which I appreciated enormously. This way, conversations could be frank and practical with no fear of status-playing.

Our last week of rehearsals was spent dealing with the technical aspects of the production. David Gallo’s witty set was a massive staircase that filled the stage from left to right, with three playing levels. Additional scenic pieces were flown in, many consisting of the bases of what would have to look like massive columns. The set created the illusion that Exeunt Omnes was indeed a huge epic film. William Ivey Long created dozens of costumes, ranging from Roman centurion armor to 1930s suits. The actors had an amazing number of lightning-quick changes during the show, which we accommodated by making some small additional script changes.

Finally, 17 years after the first draft of Epic Proportions was written, three weeks of preview performances began. During this time, we continued to change and polish the play. Our biggest change was the elimination of the intermission. By playing the show over 90 continuous minutes, we helped to build the momentum of the comedy.

The second big change during previews was the complete re-imagining of the character of D.W. DeWitt. In the original script, the film’s director was isolated and insane, with a secret plan that involved burying the film’s company alive. In spite of Richard B. Shull’s best efforts, audiences completely disliked the tone of these scenes; they were hurting us terribly. So we reconceived the role of DeWitt as somebody whose disengagement came much more from age and exhaustion. Shull did a bang-up job with his new material and it was much more in line with what the audiences wanted.

Press previews were absolutely wonderful. The cast was at its best, audiences were very responsive, and the script changes were all playing well. The critics saw the best we could offer.

Well, the reviews were wildly mixed, from raves to pans. Comedy is the most controversial of art forms. If you find it funny, you find it funny. There’s no argument. Unfortunately for us, Ben Brantley of The New York Times had an argument: he didn’t find us funny. But there were still enough good notices to build a new ad campaign and to keep the show going.

Two weeks after opening night, Richard B. Shull died suddenly. His death was a great shock and loss for the entire company. His understudy, Larry Cahn, took over the role of DeWitt while the producers found a replacement. Luckily for us, Lewis J. Stadlen agreed to step in. Interestingly, I believe Stadlen might have been able to deliver the old DeWitt scenes in a way that would have worked for our early preview audiences.

Previews for Epic Proportions began on September 7, 1999. Opening night was September 30 and we closed on December 19. By my count, we had one of the most successful runs of any new play on Broadway this season.