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Patti LuPone and Michael Urie on Pesky Texters, Juilliard Shorthand, and Shows for Days

Plus, a play-by-play account of the cell phone event that made world news.

On TV's Ugly Betty, they played mother and son. Onstage now in Douglas Carter Beane's Shows for Days at Lincoln Center Theater, they're playing a similar (but vastly different) kind of pair. Two-time Tony winner Patti LuPone is Irene, the larger-than-life impresario of a Reading, PA community-theater troupe that becomes the artistic home of Car, a lonely 14-year-old actor/playwright played by Drama Desk Award winner Michael Urie.

Onstage, Irene is a would-be mentor to Car, a stand-in for Beane himself. Offstage, LuPone and Urie are very much in love with working together for a second time. It hasn't been the quietest engagement (the show made headlines in July when LuPone grabbed, no, palmed, a phone out of the hands of a texting audience member) but it's been an opportunity for both actors to rediscover what it is they love about theater.

Following a recent matinee, LuPone and Urie sat down over dinner to discuss their community-theater experiences, their adoration for each other's acting techniques, and their reactions to the incident that made headlines.

Michael Urie and Patti LuPone star in Douglas Carter Beane's Shows for Days at Lincoln Center Theater.
(© David Gordon)

Growing up, what were your experiences with community theater?
Michael Urie: I learned a lot about community theater from doing this play. I worked with a children's theater as a kid, but never with an adult community theater. This is my first real exposure to this idea, adults who don't go into show business but still have this burning desire to get on a stage. This has really opened my eyes to that.

Patti LuPone: We had the famous Red Barn Theater [in Northport], which attracted Hollywood TV stars. It was this beautiful Victorian house that housed all of the actors and a red barn where they did the plays. I was never a part of that because I was too young. In my school, three people started the Patio Players, and that was my experience with summer stock. They got so good and the community supported them so much they had to move out of Cathy [Sheldon]'s backyard and into East Northport Junior High School.

Looking back on the now-infamous cell phone incident, what happened?
Patti: It was a day from hell. Four cell phones went off during the matinee. One person let their phone go to voicemail, so it rang about ten times in our scene.

Michael: Which is silent. The whole play is quite silent.

Patti: And it's a small theater, for cryin' out loud. I look at the audience. I like to know who I'm playing to. This woman had been texting. She was texting for the entire first act. Did you see her?

Michael: I didn't see her until the top of the second act. Any time I have the chance to look at the audience, I can't see them because the light is in my eyes. At intermission everyone was like, "Can you believe that woman?" And I hadn't seen her yet, so at the top of the second act when I could get a glance, there she was.

Patti: Still texting. Still. Texting. I thought she wouldn't come back from intermission.

Michael: EXACTLY. If it's that important, you should go. You should excuse yourself.

Patti: She was with a man. The odd thing here is that he had his eyes glued to the stage and she didn't. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Aren't men usually dragged to the theater? [laughs]

Patti LuPone as Irene and Michael Urie as Car in Douglas Carter Beane's Shows For Days at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Patti, break it down for us. How did you grab the phone out of her hand?

Patti: I didn't grab it. I palmed it. It was a sleight of hand. I came offstage and went, "I got the phone!" Even I was surprised.

Michael: It was so subtle. If people weren't looking, they didn't even realize it.

Patti: The people who saw her texting knew I took the phone.

Michael: And they clapped.

Patti: And there were gasps too. I wonder how she's reacting to all this press. She's thanking god, I'm sure, that she wasn't named.

Unlike the Hand to God guy.

Patti: He's an idiot. Please quote me on that…The fact that he didn't apologize, that he thought he made [Hand to God] more popular, is the indication. This guy in no way understands what he did. And there are more people like that in this country nowadays. There's no consideration, no respect, for the person you're looking at.

Michael: He's an idiot. She was just a jerk.

Patti: She was oblivious. Don't come to the theater if you're an idiot or oblivious. Do me a favor: Stay home. It's a much bigger problem than just cell phones going off in the theater. It's a state of mind. There's an entitlement, a self-absorption.

Conversely, you two obviously have a huge respect for each other and enjoy working together.
Patti: I love it! We worked together on Ugly Betty and we discovered our Juilliard shorthand.

How does that Julliard shorthand apply?
Patti: I think there is a recognition of the training. There is a technique. You work with actors who don't have technique and you know they don't have technique, so you have to navigate those waters. And then you work with actors like Michael, who understand technique and are really, really fine actors, and there's a shorthand. He's so wonderful to work with.

Michael: I love going onstage every day and so does she…We're backstage together right before the show starts and we have the same attitude. It doesn't feel like it's the first time, but it feels special every time. Regardless of how special this performance ends up being for me and whether or not I remember today's performance, somebody out there will. I would never give half of myself because of that. And she's like that, too. We're out there and the phones are ringing, or we see people leaving or coughing or hacking or eating, and she gives one hundred percent. When she looks me in the eye, I see what's happening in the play. I don't see her checked out.

Patti: And the same goes for him. He gives one hundred fifty percent. He's just several years younger than me.

Michael Urie as Marc St. James and Patti LuPone as his mother, Jean, on the ABC television series Ugly Betty.
(© Scott Garfield/ABC)