Don Stephenson gets out of his chair in a Pittsburgh Public Theater conference room to demonstrate what it has been like filling in for Tony nominee Jefferson Mays in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder," this season's most nominated Broadway show with 10.
He performs as eight characters in the play, the doomed heirs to a family fortune, requiring light-speed costume changes. "Jefferson," Mr. Stephenson says with admiration. "I'm amazed he made it as long as he did before getting sick. You're drenched and you're panting like a dog."
The actor-director extends his arms to his sides and stands perfectly still. "You think, 'I can help,' " Mr. Stephenson says of the team who zipped and Velcroed him together. Then he momentarily flexes his arm. "Dead," he concludes, meaning one false move, and a wardrobe malfunction is inevitable.
"They descend on you like buzzards and you're like Yul Brynner [being robed] in 'The Ten Commandments.' You're suddenly naked and then you are dressed and you just turn, and your back onstage. The quickest change is 18 seconds."
He didn't miss a beat during the week he was on, an experience that was a perfect primer for his current job, as director of the ultimate backstage farce, Michael Frayn's "Noises Off," the finale to the Public's 39th season.
Mr. Stephenson gave his regards to Broadway on a Sunday and a few days later was in Pittsburgh, deep into rehearsals for the show that opens in previews tonight and has its official opening June 5.
Pittsburghers may recall Mr. Stephenson as Leo in the national tour of "The Producers" that debuted here. The busy actor seesaws between stage and behind the scenes, and was directing the Lincoln Center "Titanic" concert in February when the call came for him to step in for Mr. Mays.
He had a contractual out to not do "Gentleman's Guide" during that time, but he had fallen for the part on the page and to play it was an offer he couldn't refuse.
"One day I went and did 'Titanic' from 10 to 1, then I went up to the Walter Kerr Theater and did the matinee of 'Gentleman's Guide.' I went back, did two more hours of 'Titanic,' and then I went back and did the evening show of 'Gentleman's Guide.' And the next morning, I was at the 8:15 daddy-daughter breakfast at my daughter's school. So I was tired," he said, able now to laugh at the memory.
The actor has four young children with actress Emily Loesser -- the pair performed in "By Jeeves" at the Public in 2001 -- which has curtailed his touring as an actor for now. Directing jobs, though, offer a bit of breather, because he can leave after opening night.
For a physical musical-theater guy such as Mr. Stephenson, "Noises Off" would seem a natural for his acting resume, but not so. He has directed it once before, at the Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina.
"When I first read it I thought, 'Oh no, this is a grizzly bear.' I talked to Greg Boyd, who is the artistic director of the Alley Theatre in Houston and he's directed it a few times. He said, 'Oh Don, 'Noises Off' will kill you.' "
He took it on anyway and was prepared to say "Yes" when Ted Pappas called to invite him back to the Public for his Pittsburgh directorial debut.
"The great thing about 'Noises Off' is it's this love letter to the theater. I think Michael Frayn said he was backstage at one of his shows and he thought, 'This is better than the show.' That's how he got the idea -- sitting backstage, watching all the craziness, the changes, the running, the mistakes and the trying to cover it up," Mr. Stephenson says.
"It's a tribute to actors touring around and getting progressively meaner and nastier to each other and how it all sort of deteriorates, you know? It's fun for the audience to see how it all happens."
"Fun" being the operative word and something the director knows something about when it comes to stage roles, including that production of "By Jeeves." In his review of that production, PG senior theater critic Christopher Rawson wrote, "Don Stephenson's ferociously hapless Bingo is one of the funniest turns the Public has ever hosted."
"Noises Off" is a randy play within a rowdy farce, about an ambitious director and a troupe of mediocre British actors trying to put on a sex farce titled "Nothing On." The show ran for more than 500 performances after opening on Broadway in 1983, and scored four Tony nominations, including best play. It will have its second New York revival, this one starring Andrea Martin, early next year.
From directing that first production, Mr. Stephenson took the lesson of "being very clear about the story you are telling in the pantomime in the second act. You don't want it to be frantic. You need them to be physically still and then do something. ... I tell [the cast] it's like an orchestra. If one person goes haywire, it all falls apart."
The cast, including Michael MacCauley making his Pittsburgh debut as director Lloyd Dallas, had already impressed the real-life director.
"I'm working them like dogs, like working in a Chilean coal mine. I just love them," he said. "They are so specific about what they do and they have such nice timing. Familiar and new faces to the Public include Karen Baum, Scott Cote, Preston Dyar, Garrett Long, Noah Plomgren, Ralph Redpath, Helena Ruoti and Laura Woyasz.
Everyone has a contribution to make, all in the name of keeping things moving, fast and funny.
"I have told the prop people if a prop is right, it's their laugh," the director says, then offers an example:
"There's one bit where they come out they have an ax, and the next scene, they come out, and the ax has part of a toilet door attached to it, like they've hacked somebody out of the toilet. So the toilet door has to be just right. It has to say 'Gents,' or at least part of 'Gents,' and have the right kind of details. And all of those details have to make the audience instantly recognize it's a toilet door. So if the prop isn't right, it isn't as funny."
When he's done bringing the funny here in Pittsburgh, Mr. Stephenson will move on to direct a brand-new farce, "The Cottage" by Sandy Rustin, for Theatre Aspen. He doesn't rule out returning to his stand-by role for "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," especially if it gets new life after the Tony Awards are handed out on June 8.
For now, he said, "It's fun to be in charge, and then I'll be happy to go back and have someone tell me what to do."