Abingdon Theatre Company (Tony Speciale, Artistic Director; Denise Dickens, Producing Director) is presenting The Gentleman Caller, a new play by Philip Dawkins (Charm, Le Switch, The Homosexuals) as the first production of its 25th Anniversary main stage season.
Daniel K. Isaac (Showtime’s “Billions”) will play William Inge and Juan Francisco Villa (Oedipus El Rey) will play Tennessee Williams in the New York premiere production. Directed by Tony Speciale (Unnatural Acts, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey), the limited engagement runs May 5 – 26 at Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, NYC) in Greenwich Village. The official opening night is May 10 at 7PM. Tickets are currently on sale at abingdontheatre.org or by calling Ovationtix at 212-352-3101. $25 Tix available for the first week of performances w/ Promo Code: “CALLER25”
Although now regarded as two of history’s finest American Playwrights, back in 1944, William Inge and Tennessee Williams hadn’t yet experienced anything close to success. The Gentleman Caller takes us back in time, before the Chicago premiere of The Glass Menagerie. Inge, a dissatisfied newspaper critic, invites Williams to his St. Louis apartment for an interview. This sexy, fraught rendezvous sparks a relationship, which radically alters the course of their lives and the American Theatre.
Daniel invited me to his rehearsal room at Shetler Studios to chat after a rehearsal.
Lia: How did you get cast in The Gentleman Caller?
Daniel: One of my best friends, Keelay Gipson, is a playwright. He was the playwright assistant to Philip Dawkins when he was doing Charm in the fall with MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. I met Philip briefly then. And then when Tony Speciale and Abingdon Theatre Company were doing a reading of this play in December, Philip’s boyfriend recommended me to be a part of the reading after seeing me on “Billions”. And here we are today!
Lia: What was the thinking behind the non-traditional casting aspect of this play?
Daniel: Philip has always said while these are two historically white people, he has no interest in seeing two white actors portray these characters on the stage – that is not the society we are in or the storytelling that we should be doing in 2018, etc. He’s been committed to that. In Chicago, there is a Latinx actor playing Tennessee Williams and here in New York we have Juan, who is Columbian American, in that part. And I’m obviously Korean American. And, frankly, it’s a big deal. Until, one day, it won’t be. Which will be a wonderful day. Juan and have talked about it in the room. There is a lot of healing happening for us in that we never imagined that we would get to play these characters.
Before Hamilton, I could not fathom any actor of color getting to play our founding fathers, let alone anyone from American History that wasn’t white. And in school, I didn’t get to study Williams or Inge with the same fervor as my white classmates because I never thought there would be a place for me in their work.
NAATCO, the National Asian American Theatre Company, has been a great healing presence for me because they are committed to revivals of shows with full Asian American casts. Their production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing was stunning and heart wrenchingly beautiful.
I never fathomed that I would get to play William Inge. Even when I did the reading, I viewed it as a gift – that I would love and appreciate this day of workshopping and presenting a staged reading for a small audience. And that would be that. But then I got that magical phone call that so rarely happens, “Hey, you remember that reading? We want to slate that show into our season. Are you available?” I workshop so many new plays. I love them and I want to do new plays for the rest of my life. But I am realistic that you don’t often get to do the final production, because it’s out of town or scheduling conflicts. In this instance, I got to do the reading and the production – it’s a gift. And to have the playwright in the room. He really knows and loves these people. The play started for him when he did a residency at William Inge’s house. It was birthed from William Inge’s home in Independence, Kansas.
Lia: How are you conducting your research to portray William Inge?
Daniel: I’d seen the Picnic revival at Roundabout Theatre Company several years ago. I’d maybe read Picnic and Bus Stop in college and that was it. So I had no real knowledge of him. In fact, Inge was a very private person in his personal life. There isn’t as much documentation on him. Our dialect coach, Ron Carlos, found me an Oscar winning speech clip of Inge when he won for Splendor in the Grass. It’s less than 30 seconds because Oscar speeches were much shorter back then. But it’s just enough of his voice. Philip recommended two biographies and one veiled autobiography, My Son Is a Splendid Driver, for me to read. I also set about reading all of his plays that were done on Broadway. He had four successive Broadway hits: Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. I read all four of them. After that, his Broadway success rate drastically declines and it really devastates him. He does some movies in Hollywood successfully, but only for a spell. I’m reading his short plays now and his other less successful plays, in addition to the biographies and autobiography. It’s an ongoing balance with research and learning all of my lines.
Lia: How old is Inge in the play?
Daniel: Our play is set in 1944. Inge is 31 and Williams is 33 – but they both lie about their ages for various reasons.
The play is in two acts and takes place over two different evenings- one prior to Glass Menagerie’s premiere in Chicago and one after Glass Menagerie premieres. They both had met in real life – in St. Louis and in Chicago. But there has been some fictional liberties taken about what actually happened in those meetings. Inge was an arts critic at the time and he interviewed Williams. Philip likes to joke that the article that Inge wrote about Williams is so full of errors and falsehoods – that even though Tennessee was always one to mythologize his origin story and the origins of his name and such – to Philip the article is proof that they did very little interviewing and probably much more whatever. The other thing that Philip always brings up is that Williams was notorious for shading everyone he encountered. He had something to say about everyone, and not in a positive light – bitchy, catty, just shade. With Inge, he doesn’t. There is something telling in that. Williams also introduced Inge to his Lit Agent. There is this whole generous side of Tennessee Williams that no one knows about.
Philip brought up this story in rehearsal of when Inge committed suicide, his girlfriend at the time called Williams to ask, “What do I need to get rid of before the authorities come?” There was a deep level of intimacy and closeness even though at that point they weren’t seeing each other regularly. There was a frenemy or competitive edge between them. But there was a level of intimacy that no one knows about. What bravery for that time period. This is pre-“Will and Grace,” “Queer and Folk,” and legalized gay marriage. They were trailblazers in their art but neither Inge nor Williams could survive their time period, which is the tragedy of their actual lives. This plays captures a beginning between the two of them.
Lia: Are there other things that Philip Dawkins draws upon to help inform the two of you?
Daniel: One day during table work Philip said, Williams and Inge were trying to create safe, queer spaces at a time in which there were no safe, queer spaces. The world conspired against them during their time. The fact that they even attempted to make that space for themselves is beautiful and tragic and what makes this story worth telling.
Lia: How does that particular point speak to you and the artist that you are?
Daniel: I went through so much self-hatred and repression and internalized homophobia. I had to come out multiple times before I finally did come out and not fight it as a “sin” or resist or suppress or deny. It’s been an ongoing journey and I think I’ve come a long way in my own personal life. I’ve been able to heal by sharing my own personal story, especially my relationship with my mom and our religious background. But I don’t think I’ve ever been able to explore that on stage. I don’t often play gay characters and it’s a privilege to get to play a historically, albeit closeted, important one. His repression and self-loathing and fear and baggage and depths of depression—I am bringing something very personal to that. Mining my own experience, so to speak. And that is a gift to get to explore in the safe space of the theatre.
Lia: Who is Ben Kim in “Billions”?
Daniel: Ben Kim is an analyst at Axe Capital. He starts out in the pilot as a promising and potentially cocky new hire who brags about an education at “Stanford-Wharton.” But he is immediately eclipsed and humbled by Damian Lewis’ brilliant Bobby Axelrod. Over the course of two seasons you see Ben Kim navigating the trials and tribulations of the finance world with increasing neuroses and awkwardness. When I auditioned back in December of 2015, Ben Kim was only in one scene of the pilot. And here we are, three seasons later. It’s been incredible.
Lia: What has your experience been like, working on this show, with this cast and this crew?
Daniel: I was realizing after we wrapped season three that I’d never done 36 of anything! Maybe performances of a play? Maybe. But to do 36 episodes of this show with this cast and crew is truly mind-blowing. I’m so grateful that I’ve gotten to explore a character for this long, while also getting closer to the people I am working with. And I got to quit waiting tables and bartending! It has changed my life. And I have a new family!
Lia: Have you gotten to know the writers?
Daniel: Yes, they’re amazing! They’ll sneak in stuff from my personal life and add it to Ben Kim to enhance the character. I talk about my mom a lot in my own work and they’ve used that for Ben Kim in really hilarious ways. In the first season you learn that Ben Kim’s parents were Korean immigrants who had a convenience store. In episode three of this season Ben Kim has a mini-breakdown about his mom with Wendy, the brilliant performance coach played by Maggie Siff. The baggage of being an immigrant’s child is a very familiar theme in my own life. It is a privilege to get to portray Ben Kim with the personal experience of being a Korean American child of immigrants myself, and with such mature writing behind it. The trap with a character like Ben Kim would have been for him to be one-dimensional or stereotypical. Instead, the writers are so great about fully fleshing out the ensemble. This season we are seeing so many different sides of all these supporting characters that you maybe thought were ancillary, but are actually integral towards what makes the world of “Billions” so rich and vibrant and authentic on both the government and the finance side. It’s been a real joy to work on.
Lia: Who are your favorite cast members to work with?
Daniel: Dan Soder, who plays Mafee, is a brilliant standup comedian and we both live in Astoria so we travel to and from set together. I‘ve gone to see his shows in the city and in Philly; and he has a brilliant Netflix special everyone should watch! We also both have single mothers and are only children so I think the bond is strong there. The whole Axe Capital gang gets to shoot together so we’ve gotten really close. I carry a flask around because of Kelly Aucoin (Dollar Bill). I love seeing David Costabile (Wags) and Chris Carfizzi’s (Rudy) baby pictures. Asia Kate Dillon and I had oysters the other week. Zina Wilde (Helena) just made a short film with Kelly and Stephen Kunken (Spyros). And we even cross-pollinated over to the #TeamChuck’s side and had a viewing party at Toby Leonard Moore’s (Connerty) place.
Recently, I had the privilege of attending Condola Rashad’s (Sacker) Opening Night on Broadway in Saint Joan. She is a goddess! She’s so wonderful, so talented, so generous, and so humble and kind. I love seeing theatre. And I love seeing friends in theatre.
I guess it’s hard to pick a favorite! We’ve become a family!
“According To My Mother” update:
I’ve learned to take pain and turn it into art.
The director and writing partner of “According To My Mother,” Cathy Yan, did really well at Sundance with her debut feature film, Dead Pigs, and now she is set to direct the new Harlequin spinoff movie with Margot Robbie! It is so exciting, an Asian American female identifying Hollywood Blockbuster filmmaker. This is huge. We need to have more.
First Look Media has a production company called Topic and they are our biggest supporters. Now we are looking for the right network and the right people who want to present this story.
Other people have been trying to tell our stories for so long. It’s important that we get to tell our stories now, more than ever. Look how successful they have been in recent years, with Black Panther and Moonlight. I’m really excited for Crazy Rich Asians.
The Kevin Kwan connection
Daniel: I used to be a waiter at a steakhouse that Kevin liked to go to. I became friends with him by being his waiter. He offered me his first book to read and of course I devoured it. And then I was a reader for his second book! It was my first time getting to be a reader on a piece of fiction and I love fiction. I read mostly fiction. When he told me about the movie, I was so excited for him. I can’t wait to see it. Kevin has lots of projects in the pipeline. And he was on the 2018 TIME 100 List, and just got honored this past week.
Lia: What next for you?
Daniel: It’s been announced that “Billions” has been renewed for Season 4! Yay! I have some writing deadlines as a playwright so I’ll have a couple readings in June. One I have to finish is for Youngblood at Ensemble Studio Theatre. And I’m currently working on my second full length play, Sex Play. In June we’ll have a public reading of it. More details to come!
Lia: What does it take for you to switch your gears as a multi-hyphenate artist?
Daniel: I will say that I am so thankful for “Billions” because it has allowed me the financial independence to not have to wait tables. I was waiting tables and bartending even between Season 1 and 2, as Season 1 was airing. Finally around Season 2—I had this deal with this steakhouse that I would pick up shifts when I could – I went to try and pick up a shift during the holidays and I could no longer log into the restaurants online database. I realized they had taken me off of their list of servers and bartenders. I thought that was my sign from the universe that you are not going to do this anymore. It was around that time that I dove head first into writing more because I had the privilege of time and resources to get to explore that voice more fully. Now I am a part of Youngblood at EST and Page 73’s Interstate Writers Group, my first two writers groups giving me support and feedback and structure.
It’s not hard for me to switch hats. I believe being a multi-hyphenate artist helps you in whatever artistry you are currently focusing on, because all the other hats help inform it. Your level of empathy for all the other artists in the room is so much deeper. Especially with theater which is such a collaborative art form during rehearsals. For example, with The Gentleman Caller, Juan is a playwright, Tony, our director, is a playwright and the play itself is about two playwrights. We have such deep empathy with their fears of failure and dreams of success and their ambition and torment and and and. And this enhances our story telling in the room.
Lia: Why should people come see The Gentleman Caller?
Daniel: It’s a two-person show. I’ve never been more vulnerable and honest. I’m given the privilege and the vehicle to get to bring these two people to life on a New York stage in an Off-Broadway capacity with the support that isn’t always offered to Others, artists of color, artists that are queer, etc. Anyone who has ever felt like a minority or the underdog, I hope, will see themselves in this show. And isn’t this the type of theatre we want to support so we can see more of it happening? Inclusive, queer, empathetic, radical in love and pain. There are risks being taken by not hiring two white actors to play these roles, these two historically recognizable and still relevant artists. I want that risk to pay off. And it should. I hope the community comes to support it. More than ever. All of that only deepens the storytelling. I want it to be the norm, the standard.
The Gentleman Caller features a scenic design by Sara C. Walsh (Queen of the Night), costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski (The Dork Knight), lighting design by Zach Blane (Too Much, Too Much, Too Many), and sound design and original music by Christian Frederickson (Antigone, Trojan Women).
Daniel K. Isaac (William Inge) is an actor and writer based in New York City. You can currently see him on the small screen as ‘Ben Kim’ in Showtime’s “Billions.” Select NYC: Sagittarius Ponderosa (NAATCO), Underland (59E59), La Divina Caricatura (La MaMa, Under the Radar & St. Ann’s Warehouse), Anna Nicole the Opera (BAM). Select Regional: The Ballad of Little Jo (Two River Theater), Miss Electricity (La Jolla Playhouse). Film/TV: MONEY MONSTER (dir. Jodie Foster), “The Jim Gaffigan Show” (TV LAND), “Search Party” (TBS), “Crashing” (HBO), “The Following” (FOX), “Person of Interest” (CBS), “Believe” (NBC, pilot), TOO BIG TO FAIL (HBO), and “According To My Mother” (NYTVF Best Drama & Best Actor, Inaugural Sundance New Voices Lab, www.AccordingToMyMother.com). Daniel is a member of Page 73’s 2018 Interstate 73 Writers Group, Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Youngblood, and a Lambda Literary Playwriting Fellow. Training: UCSD, BADA. www.DanielKIsaac.com
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
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