NEW YORK — It’s a few minutes after a performance of his debut play and Hamish Linklater looks like he’s got indigestion.
The actor-turned playwright sat through the preview alone in a corner of an off-Broadway theater and now seems to be in some gastrointestinal pain, which he admits isn’t far off.
“Sort of by the end of it, I feel like I’ve been through a blender and then someone’s eaten the smoothie and then they’ve pooped it out again — that’s me,” he says with a wry smile.
Sounds glamorous, right? Well, Linklater, a stage and TV actor perhaps best known for his role opposite Julia Louis Dreyfus on The New Adventures of Old Christine, loves it, despite the discomfort.
“I really just want an audience to have a good ride and for actors to have fun things to do and then if it’s a good play at the end of all that, it doesn’t really matter,” he says.
Linklater, who has flown back and forth to Los Angeles to film episodes of The Newsroom, may have accomplished all three with The Vandal, a moody, three-actor meditation on death at The Flea Theater that the playwright calls “a little grief story.”
Starring Zach Grenier, Deirdre O’Connell and Noah Robbins, the hour-long play takes place one night at a bus stop outside a hospital in Kingston, N.Y. Three strangers dealing with mourning — a middle-aged widow, a laconic teen and a convenience store owner — become connected in surprising ways.
Linklater’s script mixes wistfulness and sadness with humor and riffs on the genius of Cool Ranch Doritos. Flirtatious sparks fly, family histories are told and twists may sneak up on even the most jaded.
“This was a very intricate piece of writing which is completely unusual for a neophyte or a beginning playwright,” says Jim Simpson, the founder and artistic director of The Flea Theater, where “The Vandal” is playing.
Though only 36, Linklater learned how to write plays by being in them, including an award-winning turn in David Ives’ The School for Lies at Classic Stage Company, several visits to Central Park to appear in productions of Shakespeare’s plays at the Delacorte Theater, and performing opposite Alan Rickman on Broadway in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar.
It was during the Seminar run last year that art imitated life. In that play, Linklater played a budding playwright frightened to share his work with his crass, pugnacious novelist-turned-tutor, played by Rickman.
Backstage, Linklater showed Rickman a draft of The Vandal and braced for criticism, hoping that might even fuel his onstage rage. Rickman, however, proved too sweet a mentor. “He turned out to be so nice and so it wasn’t terribly useful,” he says, laughing.
Linklater, whose grandfather was Scottish novelist Eric Linklater, was raised on the Massachusetts estate of Edith Wharton, where his mother — Columbia University theater professor Kristin Linklater — co-founded the theater group Shakespeare & Company. He thinks being the only child of a single mom surrounded by actors desperate for attention may have had something to do with his eventual career choice.
He dropped out of Amherst College to come to New York to be an actor and married playwright and screenwriter Jessica Goldberg, from whom he’s now divorced. They have a 6-year-old daughter.
The split and several recent deaths of people close to him sent Linklater, a 6-foot-3-inch slender man with nervous energy and a remarkably thick thatch of brown hair, into a dark period that fueled his first play.
“Death was around and I kept thinking, ‘Gosh, it would be great to talk about this and I feel like nobody is talking about this correctly around me,’” he says.
“I didn’t know what the play was going to be and then it turned out that I really wanted to talk about death a lot.”
Simpson, who directed the play, says Linklater’s background as an actor helped him be sensitive to the needs of the performers and creative team. “I think all of us — the cast and myself included — were really in his thrall,” says Simpson. “He knew exactly what he wanted and because of his work in the theater was very knowledgeable about what he was going for and how to get it.”
Linklater says he writes without always knowing where the work is taking him, which he instantly mocks.
“What’s so nice to discover is that if I have to be a playwright, at least I’m a deeply pretentious playwright,” he says, laughing.
He started The Vandal with the image of a sad woman at a bus stop and it evolved from there.
He has a few more plays in the works, including a new one he just handed to Simpson.
“When there’s something that feels intimate and taboo and transgressive and compulsory, then it sort of works its way out,” he says. “And then I get to have a play out of it.”
Though he remains deeply uncomfortable watching his work being performed, he is enjoying his life as a TV actor, stage veteran and now playwright.
“I’m living my ambition. This is the dream, right now. Lightning is going to strike me. I’m going to implode,” he says. “It’s the embarrassment of riches. I’ve never blushed so deeply red.”
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