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David Hyde Pierce: A convivial conversation at the Guthrie

David Hyde Pierce on the Guthrie's production of "The Seagull": "I didn't know you could take a classic play and just ruin it... provided you have a good reason."
REUTERS/Eric Thayer
David Hyde Pierce on the Guthrie's production of "The Seagull": "I didn't know you could take a classic play and just ruin it... provided you have a good reason."

Sunday night, the Guthrie Theater brought David Hyde Pierce to the theater for a discussion with artistic director Joe Dowling. You know the actor. He spent 11 years on the television show "Frasier" as the title character's nervous, arch, lovestruck, rivalrous brother, Niles Crane; the abundance of adjectives in the preceding sentence gives some indication of the depth of characterization the show provided Pierce.

For those of you with longer memories, you'll also remember Pierce from a three-year tour of duty he did with the Guthrie from 1983-86, back when the theater recruited actors for entire seasons, rather than individual shows. The Guthrie was then under the artistic directorship of the brilliant Romanian director Liviu Ciulei, who returned to Romania after the revolution of 1989, where he has become one of that country's defining filmmakers, a fact that is scarcely known in the Twin Cities, which suggests to me that a retrospective of his films may be overdue.

In a convivial hourlong chat, Dowling gently nudged Pierce to look back on his career; Pierce is a wry conversationalist with a taste for wry anecdotes. He recalled auditioning for the Guthrie as a young actor — he was one of three called back for "Peer Gynt." Another was a young man named Brian Hargrove. "I don't know if you know Peer Gynt," Pierce told the Guthrie audience. "It's inverse and it's Norwegian and it's trolls." At the callback for the audition, Pierce turned to Hargrove and said, "Can you believe we were both called back for the worst play ever written?" Hargrove has since gone on to be a television writer and producer of no small accomplishment; Hargrove and Pierce have also been longtime partners, and it was Hargrove's move to Los Angeles to pursue television writing that caused Pierce to look for work as a television actor.

Neither were cast for "Peer Gynt," but both were remembered and cast in later shows — just barely, in Hyde's case. He recalled being cast in the Guthrie's production of "The Seagull," directed by another Romanian, Lucian Pintilie, who also has become quite an accomplished filmmaker in his home country. After the first day of rehearsal, Ciulei came up to Pierce and told him, "You are doing very well. You should not feel bad that you were not the first choice for the role."

"Until that moment, I hadn't known that I wasn't," Pierce said.

This production of "The Seagull" was experimental in a way that could charitably be considered daring and uncharitably be called reckless — for instance, it started well into its final act, which was then played out to its end, and then the play started over in entirety.

"It was quite an education," Pierce told the audience. "I didn't know you could take a classic play and just ruin it." Here, Pierce held for laughter, his clockwork comic timing still precise. He then added: "Provided you have a good reason."

An audience member later asked Pierce about that role. She had gone back and read Mike Steele's review from the Star Tribune (the mention of Steele's name caused Pierce to visible shudder). According to the woman from the audience, Steele hadn't liked the production very much — he found it to be overly broad — but he had singled out praise for David Hyde Pierce, who then was calling himself David Pierce. "You had more hair then and less name," she said, causing Pierce to pitch his head backwards with delight.

"First of all," he told her, "I love you." He then went on to say that Pintilie recognized that Pierce's role, as the doomed playwright Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov, was the core of the play, and had not directed him to exaggerate his acting. Also, before he began the role, he was given a book by actor Austin Pendleton that discussed the possibility that there are suicidal personalities — that some people may be careening toward their own terminus regardless of what else is going on. "That kept me grounded," Pierce told the audience.

It was, from all accounts, an ungrounded play — a radical reconceptualization of Chekhov, with monochrome costumes and a set made of steel and mirrors, so that the whole of it played as though the play were flashing through Treplyov's dying memories. Pierce described getting lost, thanks to the set's mirror maze quality — in one scene, he was supposed to march off the set through one of the mirrors at the back of the stage, but he couldn't locate the one that opened, leaving him wandering the back of the stage in confusion. Additionally, the show made use of some sort of petroleum-based smoke effect, which left the stage slick enough that, during one entrance, Pierce and his leading lady found themselves spinning circles toward the front of the stage like figure skaters. "Somehow, Lucian blamed us for that," Pierce said.

Let me close with two comments Pierce made on the subject of acting. He had considered being a concert pianist, but decided to pursue acting instead. He was, as he explained, not a very good concert pianist.

"If there's something else you can do badly, that's a good reason to become an actor," he said. When asked if he has any advice for aspiring actors, he gave a one-sentence response: "Do it because, and as long as, you love it."

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Comments (1)

Interesting article, well written in the run-on sentence style.