Emily Mann’s Meshugah

Sundance Theater Lab

From Reading to Hollywood

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

222."

With his crinkly features, sympathetic eyes, resonant voice, and

gentle

manner, the veteran actor’s words come as a bit of a shock. But

Constantine

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.

"The

way actors are paid is another," comes the immediate reply.

"When

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

Teamsters.

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,"

Constantine

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

wonderful."

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Emily Mann’s Meshugah

"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

survivors.

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.

"He

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

of girl."

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

helping

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

clients,

but disappointing women has always been my trade.’"

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Sundance Theater Lab

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

Blacker.

"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

McCarter.

In creating the role of the survivor, Max, Constantine dug into his

own family history. Both his father and mother, Theoharis and

Andromache,

came from Greek families living in Turkey. Both suffered ethnic

uprisings

there. Although Constantine was born and raised in Reading,

Pennsylvania,

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

Constantine.

"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

back."

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.

"She

never saw her parents again. As far as she knew they were killed,"

he says.

"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

army,"

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!"

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From Reading to Hollywood

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

to do.

"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

practically

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

myself

that I played it differently from Muni, but I had learned how from

Muni.

"Muni created the superstructure of the character: how that

character

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

there."

With subsequent roles in "Compulsion" and "Miracle

Worker,"

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

Seymour

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

perfectly."

Five years ago Constantine started on his new fledgling career,

writing

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

Meshugah, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-683-8000. $25 to $36. Opening night is Friday, October 23,

at 8 p.m.


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