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ALL IN A DAY'S FRENZY: 6 PLAYS IN 24 HOURS

Jason Zinoman

New York Times, September 15, 2004

 They can't say they weren't warned. On Sunday night Tina Fallon, a producer of "The 24-Hour Plays'' on Broadway - an annual benefit in which six one-acts are written, cast, directed and performed in less than a day - told about three dozen theater artists what they were in for. "At some point, you will regret doing this,'' she said, standing inside the American Airlines Theater's upstairs lounge. "But it will pass."

Since 2001, Working Playground, a nonprofit organization that provides arts programs for New York City public schools, has recruited hundreds of artists for this theatrical high-wire act. The most recent event began when stars such as Christina Ricci, Lili Taylor and Matthew Lillard met at 10 p.m. on Sunday to introduce themselves and hear instructions from their producers. It ended one day later on the stage in front of hundreds of audience members.


11 P.M. SUNDAY
Ready, set, cast! Inside a cramped hotel room on the 32nd floor of the W Hotel in Manhattan, six playwrights (David Lindsay-Abaire, Julia Jordan, Warren Leight, Christopher Shinn, Chris Henchy and Jeff Whitty) huddle around Polaroid pictures of 22 actors. The scene resembles a fantasy football draft for theater fanatics. The writers, most of whom are as straight-faced as poker players in the middle of a bluff, take turns choosing actors, while shouting out questions like "Can Amanda Peet be loud?'' or "Who here can sing?'' According to at least two observers, Mr. Leight ("Side Man'') was one of the big winners of the night: he picked an impressive lineup that included Billy Crudup, the raffishly handsome leading man who was last on Broadway starring in "The Elephant Man''; Amanda Peet, a beautiful comic actress with little stage experience; and Aasif Mandvi, a character actor currently starring in the docudrama "Guantánamo.''

Mr. Leight laughs at his success. "I got these stars to act in my play today,'' he said, "but tomorrow I'm struggling to get a workshop at the Roundabout.''


MIDNIGHT
Warren Leight, who looks like a folky Elvis Costello, retreats to his hotel room one floor upstairs, lays the pictures of his cast next to his laptop and starts imagining scenarios. A love affair between Mr. Crudup and Ms. Peet? Or how about a fling between Mr. Crudup and Mr. Mandvi? "Aasif looks Middle Eastern, so I could do something political,'' he says. "But I don't want to be didactic.'' Mr. Leight, who has written for the "24-Hour Plays'' three times, threw out his script at 3 a.m. last year. "At around 5 a.m., you go back to your tired old bag of tricks,'' he says, then gives a big grin.


12:30 A.M. MONDAY
Mr. Leight searches for Internet inspiration on the Drudge Report and the Internet Movie Database. No luck. He receives a call from one of the producers saying that Brooke Shields, who is married to Mr. Henchy, is available for a cameo.


2 A.M.
After mulling over two ideas - a tag sale in which a collection of props reveals the secrets of a man's life or a highly charged reunion between a brother and a sister - Mr. Leight settles on the second one. "Billy and Amanda look alike,'' he says. "In this exercise, you have to write for the actors.''

As for the structure of the piece, he says, "I always try 'funny, funny, funny, funny, sad.' ''


6:30 A.M.
Mr. Leight finishes his play, titled "United,'' about a half-hour past deadline and sends it by e-mail to the producers. It is about gay man who is paying his sister a visit to tell her that he is getting married. The twist is that his future husband, played by Mr. Mandvi, is the sister's ex-boyfriend. At the middle of a confrontation between the former lovers, Ms. Shields walks through the airport in a brief, and somewhat random, sight gag.


7 A.M.
The directors arrive at the theater, read Mr. Leight's script and the five others, and select their three favorites. The producers assign Mr. Leight's one-act to Michael John Garcés, a director who staged Off Broadway dramas such as Kia Corthron's "Force Continuum'' and Brooke Berman's "Triple Happiness.'' At the first read-through, the actors' initial impression of the script is that there is a lot to memorize. "It just goes on and on, doesn't it?'' says Ms. Peet about her first big monologue.


11 A.M. After discussing the relationships of the script ("It reminds me of 'Franny and Zooey,' '' Ms. Peet said) and defining some terms (P-Town, blogs), Mr. Garcés is happy with the show's progress. Mr. Crudup has found several hilarious line readings in his flamboyant portrayal, but Mr. Garcés thinks the meeting between the male lovers needs to be more intimate. "There needs to be more, you know, sexual heat,'' he says, shaking his pelvis. Mr. Crudup, flashing a devilish smile, looks at Mr. Mandvi and says "Feel free to grab my ass.''He then turns to Ms. Peet, "You can feel free, too."

 

12:30 P.M. In a startlingly short amount of time, the performances take shape and the actors look increasingly confident - until, that is, the playwright visits. Mr. Leight slips in the rehearsal room, which has shifted to a lounge at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts on 42nd Street, and tried to put the actors at ease. "I'm going to be doing lots of this,'' he says, sarcastically grabbing his head in agony. Still, the actors tensed up with him in the room, losing concentration. When Ms. Peet refers to "Brunello'' as a "bordello,'' for the second time, Mr. Leight quips, "Cook much?''


5 P.M.
Actors struggling to learn their dialogue often resemble asylum patients - pacing, cursing and repeating the same sentences over and over. But Ms. Peet is looking increasingly unhinged after running the scene scores of times and still forgetting passages. "I would pay someone $2 million to do this instead of me,'' she says.


5:45 P.M.
After technical rehearsal, the cast goes home to change and rest.


8 P.M.
It is minutes before the shows begin. Backstage, Sam Rockwell is jogging in place. Anna Paquin is calmly reading the paper. Mr. Crudup, Ms. Peet and Mr. Mandvi are sitting in a triangle, nervously racing through their monologues. Mr. Mandvi pauses to laugh after saying his line - "Oh, look, there's Brooke Shields'' - because, in this case, Ms. Shields has actually just walked in, with her 15-month-old in tow. The three stars are momentarily distracted, but after a few seconds of making faces at the child, they are back to the script. Meanwhile, Rosie Perez approaches the Amazonian Ms. Shields. "Could you take my place?'' she asks. "I'm going insane here.''


9:00 P.M.
As soon as Mr. Crudup makes his swishy entrance, it is clear that "United'' is going to be a crowdpleaser. Ms. Peet glides through the scene with easy charm until midway; then her mind goes blank and she begins to improvise. "I just don't know what to say,'' she says twice before looking at her feet. "I'm stumped.''

A long awkward pause.

Mr. Leight, sitting in the orchestra, gets a sinking feeling as several members of the audience whisper to one another. By the look on her face, Ms. Peet has probably reached the point of regret that Ms. Fallon mentioned almost 24 hours ago. Then Mr. Mandvi takes a script out of his bag, prompting one of the biggest cheers of the evening. The moment of regret passes and Ms. Peet erupts in giggles while Mr. Mandvi, hamming it up, fakes leaving the stage as if in embarrassment. The crowd eats it up.

"People like bloopers,'' Mr. Leight says at intermission.

Even playwrights? He won't go that far, but he acknowledges that once the play is onstage, it is out of his hands. " 'The 24-Hour Plays' is a good exercise in learning how to let go,'' he says.

 

 

24 HOUR PLAYS: IN WHICH I AM A WIMP

Campbell Robertson

New York Times, October 22, 2007

I have had enough coffee to kill a walrus.

Billy Crudup, as originally reported, is not in “24 Hour Plays” this year. Margaret Cho, though she was originally listed as a participant, is not here either. I am not sure what the alibi is for either of them. It’s never easy to wrangle all the actors for this event, and, one producer said, particularly tricky this year since everyone is trying to get some work in Hollywood before the movies go on strike.

The appeal of having movie actors involved in the process is partly, of course: ‘Ooh, look at the famous people.’ But there are charms to watching Hollywood types do theater on the fly. An assumption often takes hold about famous movie actors, that they report to work once a day, say four lines that they haven’t memorized and then go back to eating caviar in their gold trailers.

Live theater reveals whether or not an actor can deliver without the luxury of editing or re-takes; the speed-chess version does the same thing but also ditches the luxury of a long rehearsal process.

“I’ve never acted on stage before” announces Chris Rock as soon as he steps onto the stage of the American Airlines. About an hour before, the actors gathered in the lobby to hear casting announcements and rehearsal studio assignments.

Mr. Rock was cast in “I.P.,” in which he plays a secretly gay action movie star trying to adopt. The adoption counselor is played by Marlo Thomas. These are two people you would not normally find in the same paragraph.

As Mr. Leight is giving notes to the other actors, Mr. Rock paces the stage, looking out at the orchestra section. “So who comes to this thing?” he asks no one in particular. “A bunch of people from Nevada? How much are the tickets?”

Meanwhile, Mr. Leight has been up all night writing this play, tells me that after rehearsal he has to go write a “Law and Order C.I.” episode. After that, he’s coming back for tonight’s performance. He doesn’t even look that tired.

 

ASS-BARING PARTIES CONQUER NIGHTLIFE

 Village Voice, Jan 22, 2008

Michael Musto

Let me keep the body parts coming by telling you that at The 24-Hour Musicals at Joe's Pub, a mini-documentary showed the frantic creative process that had resulted in the evening's entertainment. ("What rhymes with vagina?" a panicky lyricist was seen asking, as the clock ticked. I don't know—orange?) The idea was to serve four little tuners created and rehearsed in a 24-hour period, all to benefit the Exchange and the Orchard Project. Rome wasn't built in a day, but unfortunately, Rome isn't four short musicals! The tossed-together quickies were endearing, bittersweet, erratic, and shockingly good, mostly about the need for partnership in the face of fear and disability. The vagina line never surfaced, but I would have written: "She had a big vagina/But don't you dare judge Ina/Claire." (Ina Claire was a 1920s stage diva who may or may not have had a big one; poetic license is called for when one has to create art so quickly. But one thing I do know: She never flashed her butt crack in public.)