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The Commons of Pensacola
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"Changing Her Game: Actress to Author"
by Patrick Healy
The New York Times
November 1, 2013
Amanda Peet turned 40 last year deeply disillusioned about her acting career. After early success with off-kilter film performances as a would-be assassin in "The Whole Nine Yards" and a drug-addled mistress in "Igby Goes Down," she was mostly getting offers to play peripheral roles - girlfriends, wives, ex-wives. (Her furrowed brow was no match for the end of the world in "2012.") And she couldn't help resenting bigger stars who were nabbing plum cable series "that used to be for those of us who were waiting to do TV," as Ms. Peet put it.
So she changed up her game, as she used to do under pressure playing high school soccer, and rekindled an early passion for writing. Guided by the playwright Neil LaBute and a few other friends, as well as her husband, David Benioff, a creator of HBO's "Game of Thrones," Ms. Peet wrote a full-length play to star in: "The Commons of Pensacola," about a rudderless daughter confronting her mother over the Madoff-like crimes of her father.
And then came a turnaround where Ms. Peet surprised even herself: Once she felt her play was actually decent, she gave up the role and pursued one of those bigger stars - Sarah Jessica Parker, who is now in preview performances with "The Commons of Pensacola" in a Manhattan Theater Club production at City Center, where it opens on Nov. 21.
"I have a fairly realistic idea about what my gifts and limitations are," Ms. Peet said during a recent interview at the theater company's offices, as Ms. Parker rehearsed the play in a room next door. "First of all, if it comes down to Sarah Jessica Parker vs. Amanda Peet? Come on. I'm no dummy. I thought she would probably succeed in the role more fully than I would."
"But I also felt it'd be better for me as an actress, and better for the play, to try to concentrate on one thing," she continued. "I was scared I wouldn't have perspective if I was both performing and then making changes to the script. Especially my first time out. I thought I might get immersed and lost."
Some of her writer friends were initially perplexed. Tina Fey didn't write "30 Rock" and then cast a Sandra Bullock type as Liz Lemon. Lena Dunham stars as Hannah Horvath on "Girls" in addition to writing, producing and directing episodes. Was Ms. Peet selling herself short?
"Once Amanda explained that just getting through the play as a writer was enough, I realized she was right," said Nicole Holofcener, the screenwriter and director whose 2010 movie "Please Give" featured Ms. Peet in an acid-tongued role that reflects the actress's own sharp wit and quick timing.
"Amanda is cleareyed about everything, except how beautiful she is. It's her least favorite topic. If I tell her she looks beautiful, she goes" - and here Ms. Holofcener made a spitting sound over the telephone.
For Ms. Peet, who described herself a couple of times as having "a really healthy superego," the transition from actress to playwright seems to have little to do with vanity. She freely volunteered her shortcomings as a writer - "a preoccupation with who has sex with whom and who gets hurt by whom, which I'm outgrowing" - and recalled the humbling experience of being rejected, at 40, from the master's program in playwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles. She had submitted an earlier, unproduced play about the Reserve Officers Training Corps; her alma mater, Columbia, did accept her, but she ended up declining because Los Angeles is home for her two youngsters and "Game of Thrones."
"That can be the pull quote from this interview: Amanda Peet was rejected by U.C.L.A.," she said dryly, as she took gum from her mouth and balled it into a sheet from her white legal pad.
She also freely acknowledged her reliance on Mr. Benioff, whom she married in 2006, and other friends who coaxed her out of a writing block last year after months being stuck on Page 30 of her play. She had been dwelling on the mother-daughter relationship so much that she feared the play was "just a wispy, chick-lit, ‘wah-wah, I miss Bergdorf's!' ‘me too!' sort of thing," so she pushed herself to explore the Madoff-inspired angles like guilt by association and the fear of losing wealth.
"David always says one of the biggest things about being a writer is finishing," said Ms. Peet, whose blue eyes stood out more than usual that evening, with her hair pulled back and her face free of makeup and worn after a long week. "It's only when you finish that you can edit away what doesn't work. My writing philosophy is throwing spaghetti against the wall. That's how I take pictures, too. If I take 100, surely one will be good."
Put another way, Ms. Peet is persistent. Once she had Ms. Parker in mind to play the daughter Becca, Ms. Peet said she began "stalking" the actress (whom she did not know) by sending notes and emails. While Ms. Parker was busy at first, she was looking for a play to do - her last one in New York had been a dozen years ago in "Wonder of the World" - and one that might reunite her with Blythe Danner, her co-star in the Manhattan Theater Club hit "Sylvia" in 1995. (Ms. Danner portrays the mother in Ms. Peet's play.)
Ms. Parker described Ms. Peet as thoughtfully responsive about rewrites to dialogue, and not territorial about the character she once imagined playing.
"While Amanda has a veneer of juvenile silliness that I see in Becca, she didn't write the character to basically be herself," Ms. Parker said. "Amanda's silliness is an attempt to make people comfortable, to cut out formality. Becca is just adolescent in many ways."
Mr. Benioff said that it was his wife's sense of humor - fast, mischievous - that stood out in her writing.
"We met on a blind date, set up by a mutual friend, and midway through dinner, we decided to prank our mutual friend and tell him it was the worst date in history," he recalled. "The email Amanda wrote that night describing this horrible evening was one of the funniest things I'd ever read."
He said he encouraged her to pursue "Commons" instead of other ideas because her synthesis of family secrets, betrayal and empathy was well executed. As for whether she ever gave him advice on writing, he said she had a good eye for excess. Asked for an example, he described her feedback on "Game of Thrones" this way: "Ugh. Does it have to be so bloody? Really? You really need the blood just pumping out his throat like that?"
Ms. Peet's frankness seems almost involuntary. She answers questions directly and without hesitation, and she is frequently self-deprecating, lacing into herself in the third person. "I think you have to be in an insane stratosphere in terms of fame in order to get offered really well-written scripts," she said in answer to a question. "Amanda Peet is definitely not in that group."
Setbacks didn't help, like the 2007 cancellation after one season of Aaron Sorkin's NBC series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," which earned solid reviews for Ms. Peet as a television executive. Her one and only outing on Broadway, starring in the 2006 revival of "Barefoot in the Park," drew some awful reactions from critics. But other stage performances have gone well, especially the Off Broadway productions of Mr. LaBute's plays "This Is How It Goes" and "The Break of Noon."
"Amanda had no qualms about giving her opinions, always pushing to make the work better, funnier, sharper," said Mr. LaBute, who was one of her first readers on "The Commons of Pensacola." He declined to describe his feedback to her, saying he focused more on "cheerleading and reminding her that this is her work, so if she wants to make changes or try new things, right up until the last performance, then she should do it."
While her changing fortunes as an actress have taken a toll - her instincts often seize up during auditions ("I've tried out for tons of stuff and just failed miserably") - she has developed a thicker skin as a writer. (For the record, she plans to continue to act, and is 25 pages into writing a new play - but stalled again.) She said she particularly valued the "brutal" feedback from another friend, Craig Mazin, who wrote the 2013 movie "Identity Thief" (in which she appeared) and was a writer on the "Hangover" movie sequels.
"He'll say: ‘Don't bother with this. You want it to be this, but it's not. I know what you're trying to say, but this isn't saying it,' " Ms. Peet said. "When you're an actor, you can be hindered by your own narcissism. But Craig and David pushed me to see that writing is more about structure, suspense, making the audience uncomfortable. It's more about good storytelling than exploring my own feelings."
Most of Mr. Mazin's feedback involved pressing Ms. Peet about when to start a scene and ways to clarify the intentions of characters. But he described her as a natural writer, recalling that she suggested a funny moment for "Identity Thief" where the title character (played by Melissa McCarthy) insists that nothing lascivious happened during a road trip with the husband (Jason Bateman) of Ms. Peet's character.
"It got a nice laugh and ended on a sweet note," Mr. Mazin said, "and it reflected Amanda's sensibility. She is a goof - just a big goof who is instinctual and playful."
And a little scared, given the new spotlight. During a recent script meeting with Lynne Meadow, the director of "The Commons of Pensacola," Ms. Peet's body language grew tense as they discussed a dozen moments in the play that might be fuzzy for theatergoers.
"I feel like the section about the mother's finances will be clear," Ms. Peet told Ms. Meadow in a monotone at one point, "and hopefully the audience won't fall asleep, and we'll be O.K." Ms. Meadow said, "I don't think people will fall asleep, but what we'll learn during previews --"
"Is whether anyone is grasping a single thing?" Ms. Peet interrupted, then rolled onto her side on a bench and tucked her legs into a fetal position.
"During previews we'll have audience talkbacks," Ms. Meadow said, "so we'll learn if people are unclear."
"Oh my gosh, it's like focus groups," Ms. Peet said, covering her face with both forearms.
"I think it'll be good," Ms. Meadow said.
"O.K. O.K. O.K.," the writer replied. "Keep it simple, Amanda Peet."
Erik Hellman (Gabe) is happy to be returning to Northlight after appearing as Uncle Louie in Lost in Yonkers. Chicago credits include Luna Gale (Goodman); Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, Proof (Jeff Award Nomination - Supporting Actor), The Comedy of Errors, The Mystery of Irma Vep (Jeff Award Nomination - Lead Actor), Titus Andronicus, and Arcadia (Court); Eastland (Lookingglass); Hesperia (Writers); The Madness of King George III, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, and Edward II (Chicago Shakespeare); Honest, The Elephant Man, and Huck Finn (Steppenwolf); All My Sons (TimeLine); as well as shows at Next, Chicago Dramatists, Remy Bumppo, The House Theatre of Chicago, and as a company member of Strawdog. Outside of Chicago, Erik has appeared at Milwaukee Repertory, Geva, Syracuse Stage, Indianapolis Repertory, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Houston's Stages Repertory, and Off-Broadway at The Mirror Repertory. Film/TV work includes The Dark Knight, The Chicago Code, Boss, Betrayal, and as Dr. Alec Willhite on Chicago Fire and Chicago PD.
Leah Karpel (Lizzy) is making her Northlight debut. Chicago credits include: Buena Vista, The Glass Menagerie, and The Hot L Baltimore (Steppenwolf); Appropriate, The Whale, and We Are Proud to Present... (Victory Gardens); Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom (Strawdog); and Punk Rock (Griffin). Regional credits include: 4000 Miles (Long Wharf), Ten Chimneys (Milwaukee Rep), Half And Half (Penguin Rep), The Play About My Dad (CollaborationTown), and Evanston: A Rare Comedy (HERE Arts/PS 122). Leah received her BFA from Boston University and is a graduate of The School at Steppenwolf. Next up: the world premiere of Sam Hunter's Pocatello at Playwrights Horizons.
Linda Kimbrough (Judith) has appeared at Northlight in Ten Chimneys, A Life and Better Late (both opposite John Mahoney), She Stoops to Conquer, Red Herring, The Gamester, Hearts, and The Old Neighborhood. Most recently she played Feste in Twelfth Night (Baltimore Center Stage), Silda in Other Desert Cities (Goodman), and the Mother in GNIT as part of the Humana New Plays Festival (Actors' Theatre of Louisville). She is proud to have originated roles in four of David Mamet's plays: Edmond, Reunion, The Water Engine, Squirrels, and in his adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Movies include State & Main, Spartan, Red Belt, Homicide, and The Phil Spector Story (with Al Pacino) for HBO.
|Lily Mojekwu (Lorena) is tickled to be working with Northlight for the first time. This summer, she performed in King Richard III and Twelfth Night (Lakeside Shakespeare). Some favorite Chicago credits include Welcome Home Jenny Sutter, The Overwhelming (Jeff Nomination – Best Production), and Well (Next – where she is an Artistic Associate); fml: How Carson McCullers Saved My Life, The Elephant Man, and The Brother Sister Plays (Steppenwolf); Romeo and Juliet (Chicago Shakespeare); A Twist of Water (Route 66); and Greensboro: A Requiem (Non-Equity Jeff Nomination – Best Supporting Actress) and In Arabia We’d All Be Kings (Non-Equity Jeff Award – Best Ensemble) at Steep. MANY thanks to the loves of her life: husband Jim, stepdaughter Sophia, and their adopted pound pup Hudson. Lily would also like to thank Robin and Lynn for making this possible. She dedicates this performance to her dear sister Angela, who passed away in May.|
|Lori Myers (Ali) was last seen as Maggie in Robin Witt's critically acclaimed Men Should Weep (Griffin). Favorite roles include Julia Gibbs in David Cromer's Obie & Lucille Lortel Award-winning Our Town (Hypocrites) in a record-breaking run in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles; Theresa in Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation (Victory Gardens); Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children (Vitalist); and Paula in Mrs. Klein (London, UK). Mrs. Myers has worked with Steppenwolf, Upright Citizen's Brigade, The Building Stage, Bailiwick Rep, Theatre Wit, Shattered Globe, Vitalist, Redmoon, Next, and countless other vibrant storefronts in Chicago, New York, and London. For Geoffrey.|
|Lusia Strus (Becca) is so happy to be at Northlight where she earned her Actor’s Equity Card in their inaugural production at the North Shore Center, Atomic Bombers. Select Chicago credits include Ironbound, Good People (Jeff Award nomination), her own solo show It Ain’t No Fairy Tale (LA Weekly Award - Solo Performance), Hysteria, Our Town, and Whispering City (Steppenwolf); Love’s Labours Lost, Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry IV (Chicago Shakespeare Theater/Royal Shakespeare Company); Go Away Go Away (Jeff Award - Principal Actress) and Slavs! (European Rep); and many years of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (Chicago and New York City) as a Neo-Futurist. Other recent credits include Enron and Elling (Broadway); The Retributions (Playwrights Horizons); Travesties and Are You There, McPhee? (McCarter). Film and television credits include Restless, 50 First Dates, Cotton, Kelly and Cal, The Mend, Modern Family, Blue Bloods, Wayward Pines, and recurring roles on web series Jack in a Box and Whatever This Is. Lusia lives in New York City but is Chicago to the bone.|
ROBIN WITT (Director) is an artistic associate at Steep where she has directed Motortown, Love and Money, Pornography, Harper Regan, Parlour Song, and Breathing Corpses. She is also an ensemble member at Griffin where she directed Men Should Weep, Flare Path, and Stage Door. Other theaters Robin has worked for include Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, A Red Orchid, The Artistic Home, and Everyman (Baltimore). Last year she directed Juliet: A Dialogue About Love for 'sacred playground theatre' at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Robin is an Assistant Professor of Directing at UNC Charlotte, and she is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts (BFA) and Northwestern University (MFA). She will be directing Alistair McDowall's Brilliant Adventures for Steep in July 2015.
AMANDA PEET (Playwright) has starred in numerous films including Something's Gotta Give, Igby Goes Down, Syriana, The Whole Nine Yards, and Nicole Holofcener's Please Give. On television she starred in the WB drama Jack and Jill, as well as Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Her theatre credits include the Broadway revival of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park (opposite Patrick Wilson) and Off-Broadway productions of Break of Noon and This Is How It Goes, both by Neil LaBute. Peet will next be seen in the HBO comedy Togetherness, created by the Duplass brothers. Her play The Commons of Pensacola premiered at the Manthattan Theatre Club with Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker. A native New Yorker, Peet resides in Los Angeles with her husband, the writer David Benioff, and their two daughters.
JEFFRFEY D. KMIEC (Scenic Design) Chicago Credits: Tom Jones (Northlight); Spelling Bee (Drury Lane), Les Miserables (Paramount-Aurora); Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, Double Trouble, Ain't Misbehavin', How to Succeed, Sweeney Todd, Sondheim on Sondheim (Porchlight); Good Boys and True, Dividing the Estate (Raven Theatre); Watch on the Rhine (Artistic Home). Regional: Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, Heritage Theatre Festival, Children's Theatre of Charlotte. Awards: Southeastern Theatre Conference 2012 "Ready to Work" Award, 2011 KCACTF O'Neill Festival Fellowship. Education: MFA, University of Virginia.
EMILY MCCONNELL (Costume Design) is thrilled to be working with the Northlight team for the second time after making her Northlight debut with Black Pearl Sings!. In addition to being the Resident Costume Designer for Roosevelt University's Chicago College of the Performing Arts. she also freelances for such companies as Lifeline Theatre (Monstrous Regiment, True Story of 3 Little Pigs), Oak Park Festival Theatre (Amadeus, Twelfth Night, Inherit the Wind, Richard III), Redtwist (Reverb), Artistic Home (American Plan), Dog & Pony (Roadkill Confidential), Gift Theatre (Suicide Incorporated), among others. She is a proud Artistic Associate of Steep Theatre, and has her MFA in Costume and Set Design from Northwestern University.
SARAH HUGHEY (Lighting Design) is pleased to be working on her third design with Northlight after Tom Jones and Black Pearl Sings!. Chicago credits include work with Court, Writers, House, Chicago Children's Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, About Face, Fox Valley Rep, Steep, Lifeline, Provision, A Red Orchid, Lookingglass, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Sarah is the resident lighting designer for Silk Road Rising (Jeff Award - Lighting, Scorched). She is the 2013 recipient of Chicago's Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award. Sarah earned her MFA from Northwestern University and teaches lighting design at Northwestern and Columbia College.
NICK KEENAN (Sound Design) is thrilled to be working with Northlight for the third time after Lost in Yonkers and Detroit '67 last season. Nick has designed over 125 shows in the Chicago area, including shows at Court (Sizwe Banzi is Dead, The Illusion, The Piano Lesson), Next (Everything is Illuminated, End Days), Millennium Park (Guerra: A Clown Play), Neo-Futurists (The Sovereign Statement), Rivendell (These Shining Lives), A Red Orchid (The Iliad, Not a Game for Boys), and New Leaf (Arcadia, The Man Who Was Thursday, Touch, The Dining Room). He recently served as associate sound designer for Smokefall at Goodman. Nick teaches sound design at DePaul University and serves as a digital and web experience designer for a number of Chicago theatres, including the Neo-Futurists and the Paramount in Aurora.
RITA VREELAND (Production Stage Manager) starts her 8th season at Northlight with The Commons of Pensacola. Most recent Northlight credits: Chapatti (Galway Arts Festival, Ireland), Lost in Yonkers, Tom Jones, 4000 Miles, Stella & Lou (including its run at the Galway Arts Festival), and Woody Sez. Recent credits elsewhere in the Chicagoland area include Little Shop of Horrors and many other productions at Theatre at the Center; the annual Christmas Schooner (Mercury); and the world premieres of A Twist of Water (Route 66), El Nogalar (Goodman), and We Are Proud to Present... (Victory Gardens). In addition to stage management, Rita was the set designer at Harold Washington College from 2001-2012, and is a member of the Route 66 Theatre Company in Chicago. She is the proud wife of actor Tom Hickey and mom to one-year-old Charlie.
Production photos by Michael Brosilow.
View opening night reception photos here.
Photo GalleryClick on any image to start the slideshow
The Commons of Pensacola discussed on Chicago Tonight (segment starts at 6:10)
The Commons of Pensacola homes in on shattered family
by Hedy Weiss
Some might describe The Commons of Pensacola — the tremendously accomplished first play written by actress Amanda Peet, now receiving a deliciously fierce Midwest premiere at Northlight Theatre — as a tale of survival. Others might call it a picture of the afterlife, or a study in collateral damage, guilt, denial and our uniquely 21st century form of tabloid narcissism. A few might even call it an American tragedy.
In fact, it is all these things, and more. Peet has managed to spin her story into an airtight 90 minutes full of memorable characters and painful truths. And director Robin Witt, who is enjoying a stellar year (The Commons follows on the heels of her extraordinary helming of Griffin Theatre’s Men Should Weep), has gathered a cast of six that is pure perfection ...
As mother and daughter, [Linda] Kimbrough and [Lusia] Strus, veteran Chicago actresses who can flip from tragedy to comedy in a single breath, are a match made in heaven as two women imprisoned in a web of love, loss, fear and need. Their blistering mother-daughter firefight is a stunner.
Bernie Madoff story inspired darkly comic Commons of Pensacola
by Catey Sullivan
...For director Robin Witt, the questions Commons asks are as significant as they are vexing: "What happens to a family that's been destroyed from within? What happens when you're so hated, when the things your husband or father has done are so heinous that you don't even have the right to mourn his loss?"
As Judith, veteran Chicago actor Linda Kimbrough has a personal connection to Madoff and the ruinous schemes that cost people their homes, their retirement and even their health. "I have a relative who worked in Madoff's office. She didn't do anything wrong. Doesn't know anything. But, you know, they're still trying to find out what happened to all that money. Every year, she gets reinvestigated and polygraphed," Kimbrough says.
Whether you have a tie to Madoff or not, The Commons of Pensacola tells a compelling story of a family struggling with crippling guilt and trying to mend relationships that seem irrevocably broken. Peet's drama is set on Thanksgiving, as Ruth's daughters Becca (Lusia Strus) and Ali (Lori Myers) arrive for a visit that unleashes the demons buried just below the surface at Judith's new Florida home.
50 shows for fall: The game's just beginning
by Kerry Reid
The Commons of Pensacola: With the recent death of Bernie Madoff's last surviving son, Andrew, Amanda Peet's play about the wife of a Madoff-like figure coming to terms with her husband's crimes may have extra poignancy. Robin Witt directs the local premiere. Northlight Theatre, Skokie; Sept. 12-Oct. 19
Theater for fall 2014: Looking local, Airline Highway to Native Son
by Chris Jones
The Commons of Pensacola: One persistent critique of the American theater is that writers are too slow to react to current events. This is why we've seen such a rise in the prestige and currency of television. But you could not apply that charge to the new play at the Northlight Theatre, written by the actress Amanda Peet. For legal and, perchance, aesthetic reasons, the names have been changed. But The Commons of Pensacola, which has not been seen before in Chicago, is about the fallout from the Bernie Madoff scandal. Peet wisely does not focus on the man himself, or on some stand-in for the convicted trickster. Instead, her play (seen and acclaimed in New York) focuses on the members of his family, who must come to terms both with the scale of the crime committed on their watch and with the total upheaval of their lives. Robin Witt, fresh from her recent triumph with Men Should Weep at the Griffin Theatre is at the helm. Sept. 12 to Oct. 19 at Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; $25-$78 at 847-673-6300 and northlight.org
This guide is suitable for audience members of all ages. Included in The Commons of Pensacola guide:
- Extended playwright profile
- A detailed synopsis
- Character descriptions
- Background information on the Madoffs and the effects of white collar crime on the families of the perpetrators
- Discussion questions and further reading