The theatre needs more people like Dan Lauria. He's best known for his role as the father on TV's "The Wonder Years", but, in addition to his work in television and movies, he's a true champion of the theatre. More importantly, he's a true champion of new theatre.
Dan will be making his return to the George Street Playhouse stage this January for Lee Blessing's new production, The Winning Streak. In the play, he portrays a retired major league umpire who lives near a ballpark. His world is shaken up a bit with the introduction of his son, the byproduct of a one-night stand that happened roughly 30 years ago.
The play takes you inside a father-son relationship that's never existed and may never get off the ground. As with most plays by Lee Blessing, there are comedic moments, bitter-sweet moments, and harsh doses of honesty making for a highly enjoyable story.
Dan Lauria's return to George Street was largely due to Lee Blessing. For 10 years, he ran a writing program in Los Angeles where they read a new play every Monday night. The idea was to help writers get literary agents. One of the writers they read each year was Blessing.
"It's always the writing that attracts me," explained Dan Lauria. "I was supposed to go back to L.A. for pilot season right after the first of January and Lee called and said, 'hey, I've got a new one' so I said let's go. It's a crime that we have so many good new writers that can't get produced."
Lauria knows a thing or two about getting new work produced. As an actor that has performed in theatres from coast to coast, Lauria is adamant about only acting in new productions.
"I don't do plays by dead white guys," said Lauria. "I've only done one revival in 17 years. Jack Klugman made me do The Price. He only got me to do it because he said Arthur Miller's not dead yet! But that's the only revival I've done."
When Lauria talks about theatre, you hear a passion in his voice that yearns to see theatre reclaim its place in the entertainment world. He mentions places like Seattle and Chicago, but admits that there isn't any one true spot for new works anymore. And he's seen the changes happen firsthand.
"Even 15 years ago, 50 regional theatres would all do a new play that was not done anywhere else," he explained. "Now five or six theatres will do a new play. One will make a little noise and the other 45 theatres will do that play and say it's a new play. This year it's Richard Dresser's Rounding Third; a couple of years ago it was Marc St. Germain's Camping With Henry and Tom. The Laramie Project must have been done in 50 regional theatres and every one said it was a new play. But it wasn't new, it was new the first time it did it.
So, we don't have regional theatres now trying to discover the new writer and get to New York. We have somebody in New York who will put up a play and make a little noise and then that play is done as the new play for the regional theatre. And you wonder why the audience is getting older and older when you don't bring kids in. Well, we don't do plays by younger people."
Lauria believes that there are two main reasons why the theatre has failed to attract younger audiences. One is that the young group of actors coming up now don't feel the need for theatre. The other is that theatre itself has simply gotten too expensive.
"When I started, we got a few dollars together, went into a basement, built a set, put on a new play and hoped that agents would come and see us," recalled Lauria. "We knew that no agents were going to come see another revival or something, so we were always looking for something new that would make a little noise. If you talk to people like Gary Sinise at Steppenwolf it was always young people looking for young writers and that's what started a group off. But nowadays, it's too expensive to do a showcase. For the same amount of money you can go to a Radio Shack, buy a digital camera and shoot a 20-minute movie that the actors have to show agents forever. So, we have a core of young actors who don't have a theatre background and feel no obligation to the theatre; therefore, they don't go back. See, I blame my fellow actors for the demise. Moreso than critics. Because if these young stars would go back to the theatre with new plays, it would build a whole new audience. I did a play with Fred Savage (The Wonder Years) about 7 years ago. It was his first professional play and we played Westport, Cape Cod and Algonquin, Maine and we sold out every night."
Lauria wishes that there was one major regional theatre close enough to New York City that it would attract the stars on a regular basis. The theatre would be committed to developing new works. Critics would be encouraged to come to only the last night so the plays would not be about success or failure but development. He feels that stars would feel safer going there if the critical pressure was removed.
In the magazine coverage area, Lauria is encouraged by the work of George Street Playhouse (although he keeps pressing David Saint to add more premieres each season) and the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Lauria has known Gabor Barabas, NJ Rep's Executive Producer, for quite a while.
"I wish Gabe was the Artistic Director of a major theatre," said Lauria. "See, he only does new plays. And he went from two-week runs to three-week runs and now they're up to four-week runs. He's built an audience. You cannot pick a style because every style is done there. They do abstract plays, realistic plays - but they do new plays. And his audiences are young and old.
"I think it's a terrible thing to assume that the old people only want to see old plays," he continued. "One old fan told me, 'I was there when Willy Loman first walked on the stage. I was there when Blanche first walked on the stage. What makes you think I don't want to see a new Willy Loman or a new Blanche?' I think it's so insulting to assume that they're only going to see Kiss Me Kate."
You can see Dan Lauria in action during this month's run of The Winning Streak at the George Street Playhouse. After the run is over, Lauria will probably be seen in some television shows or maybe a film or two. His passion is the theatre, but the other mediums help financially to keep his passion alive. His work on The Wonder Years will always follow him wherever he goes, but he says that he regards it as a blessing.
"They wouldn't be considering me for these regional theatres if I didn't have some kind of name. John Ritter always said the same thing and he was right. He said start worrying when they stop bothering you about The Wonder Years. That's when you're in trouble..."
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.