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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 17, 1999. All rights reserved.

Amy Stiller & the Family Tradition: `No Sham’

When the 11-year-old daughter of the popular actor-comedy

team Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller appeared on the Mike Douglas show

27 years ago, she could only come up with a few "yes," or

"no" answers. Although Amy Stiller still throws in a few "yes"

and "no’s," she has a lot more to say about a lot of things,

now that she has a life, a career, and what sounds like a working

philosophy.

Growing up in a house of talkers, Amy Stiller learned fast enough

to make words count. And following in the tradition of her parents,

she is offering her "no bullshit" philosophy as we talk on

the phone prior to a rehearsal of the world premiere of her mother’s

second play, "Down The Garden Paths," that begins previews

at George Street Playhouse on Saturday, November 20, and opens on

Tuesday, November 23.

Whether it was the effects of the peanut butter on crackers she said

she was eating, or the high that normally comes when an actor has

a job, Amy’s snappy responses to my questions clearly rang with the

earthy resonance that marks the family style. She calls it the "no

sham" sense of honesty.

Amy is giving her family’s tradition a real workout at George Street

where she is not only appearing in a role that was conceived with

her in mind, but working as a confident artist under the watchful

eye of her mother, the playwright. Ironically, Amy’s father, Jerry

Stiller, is also in the play ("I’m Daddy’s little girl"),

but only in a videotape segment.

"Down The Garden Paths" marks the second collaboration between

Meara and George Street’s artistic director, David Saint, who directed

Meara’s debut work, "After-Play," last season. As with that

dark comedy, "Down The Garden Paths" deals with relationships,

love, and family bonds, as it explores one extraordinary evening when

prize-winning author Arthur Garden and his family gather to celebrate

the success of his latest book, "Alternate Routes." In a night

filled with memories and dreams, we are told, the unexpected twists

and turns will show the Garden clan what might have been, and lead

to surprising new probabilities.

Described as "a funny, profoundly moving story of a family’s deepest

tragedy and its greatest celebrations," the play is also the continuation

of a new path for Meara as a playwright. No one would deny that Meara

is an astute human observer. In the highly successful "After-Play,"

Meara performed double-duty as both playwright and star. Meara does

not appear in "Down the Garden Paths," but just to keep the

family ties secure (or, is it insecure?), she can watch her daughter,

whom she described in our last interview as "a wonderful comic

actor."

While Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, the famed married

acting couple and the Stillers’ longstanding family friends, get the

new show’s top billing, it is Amy Stiller’s participation that sparks

my interest. Roberta Wallach, the daughter of Jackson and Wallach,

has also been brought into the act(s), which prompts me to ask Amy

whether she thinks that families who act together stay together.

"Ask my therapist," is Amy’s typically fast-on-the-comeback,

laugh-punctuated first response. She then add, in a more serious tone,

"The experience is great. Acting is everything. It’s what I grew

up with. Everything is great." Yet in the same breath, Amy reminds

me that Hillary said there was nothing going on in the White House.

"Am I being too dark?" she wants to know.

There is no denying that Amy has grown up in the luminous shadow of

her parents. With the spotlight more recently on the ascending career

of brother Ben Stiller, she digresses at length about her almost lifelong

search to effect an internal separation from her parents’ careers.

But perhaps even more than Amy’s commendable, but less than stellar,

theater, film and TV credits, it is her recent success as a stand-up

comedian that has changed the way she feels about herself, her family,

and people in general. "It’s all about learning who you are,"

says the actress who most recently performed her one-woman comedy

show in June at the Toyota Comedy Festival at New York’s P.S. 122.

"It was the first time I did 45 minutes of my own stuff,"

she says remarking how important it was for her to keep silent and

quiet about the material she was developing. "I haven’t put this

much pressure on myself since I was in my 20s and imploded. I don’t

know anyone of any sensitivity or spirituality who had a good time

during the ’80s." Perhaps this was why Amy spent just a year at

Emerson College. "It was a hideous time for me," she recalls,

referring to the ’80s emphasis on status and image. "I was so

concerned with proving myself to people that I didn’t know how to

live my own life for me."

In the present, Amy will tell you she holds the reins, even though

she was fated to end up in her mother’s play. Although Amy knew that

her mother had secretly wanted her for the part in "Down The Garden

Paths," she was not sure it was the right thing to do. "My

mother and I are so psychically connected it’s scary," she confides.

"So I resisted the play. I was actually trying to run away from

it, to separate myself from the play. I wanted to go off to Los Angeles

and work on my one-woman show. But six months of L.A., and all you

want to do is get back to the bosom of theater."

But Meara chose not to put any pressure on Amy. After all, Cynthia

Nixon was originally scheduled to do the first reading. But Nixon

became unavailable at the last minute, called to film an episode of

"Sex and the City." Although Amy was not even planning to

go to the reading, she did — and proved that destiny was playing

a part.

"Actually I play two parts in the play," Amy reveals, reluctantly,

not wanting to give too much away. "One is a control freak and

the other is someone who has gone in and out of rehab." But what

Amy says that she finds most profound about the play is how it allows

us to see how situations might have turned had the characters made

different choices. That "we all of us have many personalities,

other realities, and live in parallel universes," is how Amy understands

the play.

Do the things that happen in the play and the language strike Amy

as familiar, or even a little unsettling or uncomfortable?

"I’m very aware that many of the words are similar to conversations

we’ve had at home," she replies. But "like my mother, in my

one-woman show I like tapping into myself and sharing my experiences

because it connects with other people and lets them know we’re all

going through the same thing. That’s what I like."

Amy talks about how long it took for her to accept her

humanness. She says she is still working on it and admits, "A

few years ago I would have felt differently about the play."

"I don’t know about other theater families but we are really connected.

I’ve never felt luckier to have my parents than right now. This is

a very unique situation. They are very wise people and I learn a lot

from them," she emphasizes with a loud girlish giggle. While Amy

sees many parallels between her family and the Wallachs, she feels,

that unlike the more theater-focused careers of the Wallachs, her

parents’ considerable serious dramatic efforts have never quite matched

the success they have had as television comics.

Amy is forthright about her lifelong quest to make peace with the

sadness that comes when you don’t know who you are. But, in the best

tradition of comedians, Amy gives this a comic spin: "It’s called

growing up." Also spinning in time with the Stillers and the Wallachs

in "Down The Garden Paths" are Michael Countryman, Angela

Pietropinto, David Wohl, and Ann McDonough. The design team includes

sets by James Youmans, lighting by Howell Binkley, and costumes by

David Murin.

That I dared suggest (however prepared I was for the inevitable reaction)

that nepotism may be playing a part in this production, Amy retorts

with an expletive. In defense of this family thing, Amy makes an observation

tinged with revelatory tenderness. "I feel very comfortable and

safe," she says, "even though bits of myself are revealed

in the play. I feel honored by this. I’m proud of my mom," says

the "comic actor" who obviously has grown up and — with

just a gentle nudging — is able to say a lot more than "yes"

or "no."

— Simon Saltzman

Down the Garden Paths, George Street Playhouse,

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Previews begin Saturday,

November 20, for the show that opens on Tuesday, November 23, at

7 p.m. Performances continue through Sunday, December 19.


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