Corrections or additions?
This feature by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
October 21, 1998. All rights reserved.
Surviving a Crazy World
I hate the theater — I mean I love going to see
the theater, but it’s a nasty thing," says Michael Constantine,
known to millions as the wise principal of television’s "Room
With his crinkly features, sympathetic eyes, resonant voice, and
manner, the veteran actor’s words come as a bit of a shock. But
is in town, after all, to perform in "Meshugah," Emily Mann’s
new play, adapted from the story of the same name by Isaac Bashevis
Singer. "Meshugah" takes its title from the Yiddish word for
"crazy," and opens Friday, October 23, at McCarter Theater.
So what if the 70-year-old star’s words sound a little crazy?
"One of the things I hate about the theater is that I can’t stay
interested," continues Constantine, with the same good humor.
"They have this hellish thing of eight performances a week, you
see, where you have to give a matinee twice a week. It’s inhuman to
ask someone to do Hamlet twice in one day!"
Is that your main beef against the theater, we ask cautiously.
way actors are paid is another," comes the immediate reply.
you agree to do a play, your agent negotiates your weekly salary.
But you don’t get that during rehearsals, you only get that after
you open. Well, so many plays run one week and die. It’s dreadful.
"There are good things about the Actors Equity Association, but
I think we’d have been much better off if we’d joined the Teamsters
— you wouldn’t see this kind of stuff going on if we were
We’d get paid our salary from day one of rehearsal, and if you were
doing `Hamlet,’ you wouldn’t do two performances a day.
"Now having said that, I do love going to the theater,"
continues. "And I fell in love with `Meshughah’ when I read it.
I thought, `Oh my god, if you turn this down, you’re not an actor.’
I mean this is just too good. Playing it for an audience will be
"Meshugah" is a tragi-comic portrait of a community of recent
Jewish emigres rediscovering life and love in the 1950s on Manhattan’s
Upper West Side. Two of the central characters are Holocaust
Constantine plays Max, a guilt-ridden survivor who strives to bring
comfort to the displaced people of his community. Unhappily married,
he introduces his beautiful young mistress to Aaron Greidinger, a
struggling writer and advice columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward,
a character Singer modeled on himself.
"Max is a man who has a lot of guilt," says Constantine.
left his wife and two daughters behind in Warsaw in September of 1939.
We don’t know from the play whether his idea was that he would come
back and get them or what, but he left them there and he has a lot
of guilt for that now."
Max flees eastwards to Shanghai, China; from there he gets to San
Francisco, where he married. The couple now live in New York. "Max
feels like he walked into a trap when he married this woman —
who he refers to as an institution — because she’s a big snob.
She’s nothing like this other girl who he loves, a free spirit sort
Many of the refugees living in New York received small reparations
payments from Germany. With no idea what to do with the money, Max
becomes their money manager and stock market speculator.
"He’s really a lovely person, he’s really very sincere about
these women recover," says Constantine. "Right now he’s making
a lot of money and the women are doing well — and I think he’s
making love to about half of them. As soon as he hears that one is
depressed and is considering suicide, he goes right over there and
has dinner with her and takes her to bed and tries to cheer her up.
Max says: `I know that sooner or later I’ll disappoint my crazy
but disappointing women has always been my trade.’"
Mann’s "Meshugah" was developed with the support
of the Sundance Theater Laboratory, a project of Robert Redford’s
Sundance Institute in Utah. Two years ago, Robert Blacker was brought
in as artistic director of the Sundance Theater Lab to reconceive
its mission. Theater Lab now sponsors eight projects a year selected
from 400 applicants. It brings in 25 Equity actors from around the
country to work on these projects.
"The Theater Lab in its current form embraces work at any stage
of its development. It’s like a floating think tank," says
"In the past the focus of Theater Lab was on sit-down readings
of the plays. My mandate was to help create a new process which could
embrace work that can only be developed on its feet, or work that
has already had readings and needed on-its-feet exploration as its
next step — which was the case with `Meshugah.’"
Other authors in residence this year were Ruth Malaczech, founding
member of Mabou Mines, Carol Burnett and her daughter Carrie Hamilton,
who are developing a play from Burnett’s memoir, and Nilo Cruz, whose
play "Two Sisters" is also part of McCarter’s 1998-’99 season.
All three "Meshugah" leads cast at Sundance will appear at
In creating the role of the survivor, Max, Constantine dug into his
own family history. Both his father and mother, Theoharis and
came from Greek families living in Turkey. Both suffered ethnic
there. Although Constantine was born and raised in Reading,
where his father worked in the steel mill, the household — his
father, mother, uncle, and two sisters — spoke only Greek at home.
"My mother was a victim of a small holocaust," says
"Her family was chased out of Turkey when she was nine. And then
some years later, after World War I, they were allowed to go
As a young woman, his mother was sent back to Greece by her parents
and while she was there, another uprising took place in Turkey.
never saw her parents again. As far as she knew they were killed,"
"But she was a very remarkable woman. She never blamed Turkish
people. She said, `It was always politics. We were like brothers and
sisters with our neighbors. Only when political foment began, did
people start hating each other and wanting to kill each other.’
"My father had an amazing life. His father sent him off when he
was 13 years old so he would not be drafted into the Turkish
says Constantine. His father made his way across Turkey into Persia
where he worked at a mine. When the mining camp was raided, he ran
away to Alexandria, Egypt, and eventually to the United States.
"My father lived for his family. You would think that with all
the misery he had been through in his life, that he might have become
bitter. He was nothing but a little bundle of love. At the end of
the day at the steel mill he’d be gray with fatigue, but he just had
to open the garden door and see his children, and he’d start laughing
and dancing and carrying on — he just adored his children.
"My mother was the disciplinarian. I mean we had to toe the mark
with that lady. She’s the one who made me go to Greek school for nine
years and she’s the one that made me become an altar boy in the church
— another job I loathed with all my heart!"
How he got from Reading to Broadway and then to Hollywood is something
of a miracle to Constantine. "It all started with me working at
a supermarket in Reading and a friend of mine sitting down one night
over coffee after work. We got into talking about what we would like
"I said, I hear there’s a place called Broadway in New York where
they do plays. And I heard that there is a girl that we went to high
school with who’s studying acting in New York. Now if you can study
it, you can learn it, maybe I could go there and learn that."
After a course of acting, and five years performing
off-Broadway, Constantine got his first break with "Inherit the
Wind" starring Paul Muni as Clarence Darrow. "I was
an extra in the play, there were 60 people in the cast. But shortly
after we opened, Paul Muni’s understudy got a job in something else,
and although I was just a young kid, I became Paul Muni’s understudy.
"It was extraordinary — the greatest actor that I’ve ever
worked with. On the few occasions when I played the part, I told
that I played it differently from Muni, but I had learned how from
"Muni created the superstructure of the character: how that
talked, how he walked, how he thought. And on different nights, that
framework was filled out differently. Some nights when your energy
may be a little down, other nights, it may be way up. But it is always
within the framework of that character.The audience is never getting
cheated. It is always getting that character — perhaps a trifle
more fully some nights than others. Whereas other actors that I had
worked with, I had seen them playing parts when on the nights when
they were off, they were just bad. There wasn’t that framework
With subsequent roles in "Compulsion" and "Miracle
Constantine got his first invitation to do television drama. He soon
moved to California where he found both the pay and working conditions
preferable to his life on Broadway. Constantine played principal
Kauffman on the hit series "Room 222" for five years and the
show retains a special place in his affections.
"When I first got that job, people used to say to me, `I hope
it goes five years for you, Mike.’ And I’d say, `I’d rather stick
a nail in my eye than play the same part for five years!’" says
the actor, of his Emmy-winning role. "But, you know, we all loved
each other so much on that series that it could have gone another
five years and it would have been all right. I’ve never had such a
loving, wonderful experience on a show."
After 25 years in Los Angeles, Constantine moved back to his home
town, Reading, Pennsylvania, eight years ago. He is divorced, with
two adult children, a son Brendan and daughter Thea, both of whom
work in the arts.
"One day, it was like a light came out of the sky, and I said,
I don’t have to be here. I can get out of this place that I have come
to hate, go back home to Pennsylvania, and work out of New York. And
I wish I’d done it 20 years ago, because it has worked out so
Five years ago Constantine started on his new fledgling career,
screenplays. With two works completed but in the drawer, he now has
high hopes for his current project, a biography set in Turkey. "I
feel so disloyal when I say this, but I find that I love writing more
than I ever loved acting," he says. "And I was not an actor
on a casual basis. I was extremely dedicated to acting. At times,
it was my whole life."
— Nicole Plett
609-683-8000. $25 to $36. Opening night is Friday, October 23,
at 8 p.m.
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