When the producers of Broadway’s “Fish in the Dark” announced that Jason Alexander would replace Larry David for an extended run of the show, fans rejoiced. For “Seinfeld” viewers, there is no better actor to play Larry David than Alexander, who spent a decade embodying an incarnation of David in the role of George Costanza. On top of that, Alexander is a theater veteran and a Tony winner for his performance in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” in 1989. When David left “Fish in the Dark” in June and passed the baton to Alexander, he joked that his cast mates would finally “get to work with a professional.”
I wrote about Alexander in The Jewish Week and soon afterward saw him perform in the play. It came as a surprise to me that the show was more satisfying with David. I thought at first it was because the jokes were less funny the second time around, but I realized later that it was something more: David had played the role exactly according to his character on HBO. Every mannerism was recognizable. With Alexander, it wasn’t a replica of David nor was it a replica of George. The persona was somewhere in between. More creative but less familiar.
That said, having the opportunity to interview Alexander was a highlight. He was gracious, intelligent, thoughtful, and thankful. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, held backstage at Broadway’s Cort Theatre:
It’s likely that a good portion of the audience at each performance of “Fish in the Dark” is comprised of Larry David fans who aren’t regular theatergoers. What is your take on the nature of the show, which is neither Larry David doing standup nor a typical staged comedy?
When I tell people what it’s like, I say, “It’s a two-hour episode of Curb that has a single storyline." It’s more of a series of events that are happening than what you would think of as a classically constructed play. For the kind of audience that are not typical theatregoers but are big Larry David fans, they go, “This is great!” because they’re getting everything they want. The typical theatregoer will feel the fact that it does not have a classic two-act structure. And a more seasoned playwright would pepper through-lines in…. But Larry never cared about those things. Larry loves the funny and the uncomfortable and he writes to those moments. And he relies on his actors to fill in the connective tissue.
So you would think of this as a show where “funny trumps” as it did on “Seinfeld”?
Absolutely. When people say, “Am I going to have a good time?”, I say, “You’re going to laugh your ass off." At “Seinfeld”, there was a motto over the door that said, “No hugging, no learning.” It’s the same thing here. You come to laugh for two hours.
I do think that Larry knows structure. On “Curb”, he made different threads of narrative come together each episode in surprising ways.
He really understands story. And what a lot of people don’t know about Larry is that his favorite kind of music is classical, so he understands classic structure in all kinds of things: theater, music, art. But when he puts pen to paper, his primary concern has been, “Where are the pools of laughs, where can I create a situation where nobody’s comfortable and force them to tough it out, and when I’m through with that, how quickly can I get to the next one.”
When you think about Norman Drexel [the main character in the play], does it feel like Larry David with different biographical details?
Sure. Because the character that Larry presents to the world has a lot of Norman’s attributes: there’s the neuroses, the quick temper, the unabashed lashing out, the acknowledgment that he’s not as great as he thinks he is. So he’s writing from that well. The challenge for me actually is to do no harm because I cannot separate myself from the process I would use as an actor if this was “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. I have to look at what drives and motivates the character, what physical and emotional conditions is he dealing with. And even though Larry doesn’t necessarily carry of echo of scene A into scene B, I have to explore those tendrils to see what is there. And the thing I have to be aware of – and I rely heavily on Larry and Anna for this – is that the good actor work that makes the character fuller and realer and more impactful doesn’t kill the jokes.
Larry taught me a valuable lesson during "Seinfeld". There was an episode where George thought he was having a heart attack. And I started performing the heart attack and Larry said, “No good!” And I said, “But that’s a heart attack.” And he said, “I know, it’s not funny! I believe you’re having a heart attack.” That’s the danger that I bump into when I do material like Larry’s. The good actor in me does not always serve the good comic in me, and in this case, the good comic has to win.
When press came out that you were replacing Larry, every article stated that it was perfect casting. Does [director] Anna D. Shapiro ask you to find your own access point to the character separate from Larry's performance? I can’t imagine she asks you to play it like George, right?
No no. My discussions with Anna have been about trying to get a handle on things that really bumped me. For instance, I said, “Is it your understanding that Norman loves his wife...because within a page of her leaving him he’s calling up the girl from the hospital.” We talked about what that moment is trying to be. It’s not about taking advantage of the fact that I’m a bachelor, but that my brother is not cooperating and it will hurt him if I get this girl. So we’ve had discussions about what is not so obvious on the page. The thing we don’t discuss is how to make it funny.
How about some of the phrases that are quintessentially Larry, like “Pret-ty pret-ty good”. Will you have that line?
I’ve heard he’s gonna change it. I could make an argument for or against it. It could be a fun moment for the audience to go, “I know that you know that I know.” Or he could put in a George reference like, “Serenity Now!”
Since “Seinfeld” ended, there have been various opportunities that have looped you back into the orbit of Larry and Jerry Seinfeld: this show obviously, and the reunion season on “Curb”…
And the super bowl spot…
Right, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. Do you predict your careers will continue to intersect with theirs?
Boy, I hope so. You know, the reason we stopped doing Seinfeld – I mean there were a couple of under-the-surface reasons, but the artistic reason was that we felt like we couldn’t do anything to surprise the audience anymore. But if there’s something new to explore, why not? Every time I come together with Larry and Jerry, it’s a great time, and it makes people extremely happy. So I can’t over-intellectualize beyond that. Would I love to come back to Broadway for something that has meat and maybe has music – sure! But this is too good. The minute they said , “Are you interested” I said, “Of course”.
I’m trying to make a shift in my career altogether. Joe Mantello has the career that I would love to have. He spends 80% of his career directing and 20% acting. I would love to do that. These days I find equal and often greater satisfaction with directing than I do with performing. But if I’m gonna perform, I love doing it in a live situation. I love doing theater. My fantasies as a kid were all here.
photo credit: Joan Marcus