Goodbye, Dr. Carter; hello, Dali
From Los Angeles Times
By playing the surrealist in the comedy 'Lobster Alice' at his home stage, Noah Wyle picks up his post-'ER' career.
By Diane Haithman, Times Staff Writer
COUNT four red plastic lobsters — three on the floor, one on a table. Human beings sharing space with the scattered sea creatures speak of giant eyeballs, jellyfish and squirrels. Also curious: on one wall, there is a clock that runs counterclockwise. The "11" is where the "1" should be; 2 is 10 and 10 is 2. The face of the clock features the White Rabbit from "Alice in Wonderland."
"The mechanism is actually running backward. If you look at the clock in a mirror, it is telling time the right way," says Daniel Henning, artistic director of the Blank Theatre Company. "The way we look at things is just a little twisted." The clock will not be part of the set during the show, but will be hung backstage to keep the actors in an off-kilter frame of mind.
Rest and pic under the cut
Given the quirks of the setting, it seems no more out of place than anything else to see actor Noah Wyle, best known for his longtime role as Dr. John Carter on NBC's "ER," cavorting barefoot, throwing prima-donna fits in a heavy Spanish accent and prodding fellow actor Nicholas Brendon with his gold-handled cane.
The actor most associated with the gritty realism of the emergency room is rehearsing a role that seems exactly the opposite: flamboyant artist Salvador Dali in Kira Obolensky's surreal comedy play "Lobster Alice." The Blank Theatre production opens Saturday at the 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood.
Wyle has held the title of artistic producer of the company for nine years — a catchall title that has mainly involved fundraising and publicity, but also has called for partnering with Henning on some artistic choices, including the selection of "Lobster Alice." He moved into a leadership role in 1997 by donating the money for Henning to acquire the 2nd Stage Theatre business, and secured a $160,000 donation in 1998 from Novartis, the company that produces Maalox, used to upgrade the lighting system, seats and such.
Wyle first appeared with the Blank Theatre in 1991 — pre-"ER" — in David Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." "That was a terrible production, but it gave me a home base from which to operate," he says, with affection.
"It's a funny little story," Henning says of his first contact with the actor. Wyle's name, he says, had been submitted for consideration for one of the roles, but the Blank held auditions and Wyle didn't come in. "We were seeing some great people — Matthew Perry being one of them — but we didn't find what we were looking for."
But Wyle, he continues, "had met our director at some party months before that and had written his number down on a napkin. And he went into some old jacket in the back of his closet and found this napkin. He walked in, and at 19 years old I knew, I knew he was going to be a star. The fact that he was 10 years too young to play this role made absolutely no difference to me."
Although his TV-doctor rounds precluded much performing, Wyle continued to work with the Blank, taking on wide-ranging roles in the company's workshop series and becoming involved in the theater's Young Playwright's program, which nurtures plays by writers 19 and younger. In fact, since "Sexual Perversity," the only Blank production in which Wyle has appeared was 2000's "The Why," which originated in the Young Playwright's Program and made it to the main stage.
In recent years, Wyle has preferred to stay mostly behind the scenes. But last year, he left "ER" after 11 seasons, the last remaining member of the original cast, which included George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Julianna Margulies and Eriq La Salle. And now — older, wiser and a good deal richer — he is returning to his roots, so to speak.
Wyle's "ER" fame perhaps could have opened doors to Broadway or the country's more celebrated regional theaters — or, locally, to the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum or the Geffen Playhouse — instead of leading back to a 53-seat venue in Hollywood, earning — in this case — $7 per show .
But Wyle says: "There's something about sticking with the horse that got me here. It just seemed natural that after the 'ER' chapter of my life was closed, I would go back to my touchstone, back to the gym, and kind of build up that foundation all over again.
"Plus, I love our theater, I love our space, the intimacy. If a production is good, it's something that just these few people get to enjoy. And if it's bad — well, you're only falling on your face in front of 53 people."
There are also, he acknowledges, practical reasons for going back on the boards at this time — both for the company and for himself.
The Blank, riding high on the success of last year's long-running production of Amy and David Sedaris' "The Book of Liz," as well as Henning's critically acclaimed staging of Michael John LaChiusa's "The Wild Party," is, according to Henning, angling to become "the legitimate regional theater in Hollywood," moving up from a 53-seat theater to a 499-seat space and operating under a League of Resident Theatres contract. A star turn onstage could help the theater toward that goal.
Ready to roll
IT also might inject new life into the career of the 35-year-old Wyle. "The idea is hopefully to build on the momentum the company has coming off of last season and to polish up my luck a little bit," he says.
"When 'ER' ended, I sort of figured there would be a fallow period — I really wanted to dedicate a lot of time to my family, to my kids, and so the last couple of months have just been about that. And then this came along right when I was ready to scratch that creative itch again."
During a Sunday rehearsal at a Woodland Hills dance studio, Wyle does, indeed, seem to be dancing his way through the very physical role — poking, pontificating, posing. Two weeks into the process, fellow cast member Brendon — doing his first play and loving it — is still struggling with his lines. But Wyle's script is nowhere in sight. "He has a photographic memory — it's not normal," says Brendon, known to TV audiences as Xander Harris on the series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Actually, the bare feet do not represent an affectation of Dali's, but rather an actor's quirk of Wyle's. "I like to rehearse barefoot," he says. "It makes me feel grounded."
Wyle is also looking forward to adding Dali's signature waxed mustache. "I think that will change a lot about how I speak and whatnot," he says.
Despite its apparent oddities, the play is based in reality. In 1946, surrealist Dali spent six weeks at Walt Disney Studios, commissioned to create "Destino," a short animated film. The play is a speculation on what might have transpired between Dali and the animator assigned to work with him — portrayed by Brendon. The fantasy also blends in elements of "Alice in Wonderland" through the character of studio secretary Alice Horowitz (Dorie Barton). The four-member cast also includes Michael Grant Terry.
"Destino" was never completed by the artist, but nearly a half-century later, Roy E. Disney — Walt's nephew — brought in animators to finish the work. The seven-minute film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004, but lost to the Australian offering "Harvie Krumpet."
Like "Destino," Wyle was a work in progress when he took the role of Dr. Carter. He began, he says, as a relatively unknown 22-year-old "living in an apartment with a cat and a dog, driving a sky-blue, 1988 Dodge Shadow with dents in it. And I stepped off the freight train 12 years later with two kids, a ranch, a ton of animals and more money than I ever thought I'd make. How did I get here? That takes a certain amount of quiet and soul-searching, just to put that in perspective."
His success has also had a profound effect on his role with the Blank Theatre Company — leading him to approach his involvement with calculated care.
"I never wanted to do anything that could be perceived as a vanity project," he asserts. "I didn't want it to feel like I was funding a theater company so I could work when I wanted to.
"In this play, Salvador Dali isn't really the lead," Wyle continues. "He's certainly the most colorful character, but the others really have to carry the play."
Wyle also says he never plans to carry the company with his checkbook, although he acknowledges that he helps fill in any funding gaps at the end of each year.
"I think when I sit down and ask CAA or ICM or William Morris or Brillstein-Grey to make a donation, it's easier for them to make it because I'm the one asking for it. But it's not a burden that I've had to shoulder alone," Wyle says. "We've had ongoing grants from both the city and the state. We adopted a subscription season about four years ago so that we're able to garner a little bit of a nest egg at the beginning of the season that goes into the production fund."
In the past, Wyle has declared an interest in moving from his TV career into film, but is philosophical about the fact that his movie career has not taken off the way "ER" colleague Clooney's has. "The fixation on wanting to do movies instead of TV is really a schedule-oriented decision. I made a vow that I won't be gone for 80-hour weeks on a soundstage, nine months of the year," says Wyle, who with his wife, Tracy, have a 3 1/2 -year-old son Owen and 9-month-old daughter, Auden, named for the poet. "I think ambition plays a large part of it too," he adds. "I have real push-pull feelings about ambition. I need to pull back, to reassess, to reinvent, to put some distance between that period of my life and the next."
But, at least in the foreseeable future, there will probably not be too much distance between Noah Wyle and John Carter in the audience's mind, and the actor is OK with that.
"I reconciled that for myself a long time ago," Wyle says, with a wry laugh. "I used to say: 'Maybe I should have left after five years, like George, maybe I should have left after three, like Sherri Stringfield.' But then I looked around and I said: I love Alan Alda. I love James Garner and Peter Falk and all these guys who have done a lot of work but are by and large associated with a particular role."
Wyle says he has a hankering to do more theater, but not necessarily bigger theater. And, of course, movies — when they fit into his family lifestyle. Says Wyle, "I'll always be eternally grateful to 'ER' for granting me the financial security to exercise that kind of freedom of choice."