Director Alex Timbers on Bringing Underground Comedy to Broadway
SEP 13, 2016
Oh, Hello sneaks into Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre this month. Just what can we expect from the two-person, part-scripted, part-improvised production that begins performances September 23?
“It’s really smart and outrageous. I think it is in the tradition of the Nichols and May, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner performance pieces and The Play What I Wrote,” explains the director, Alex Timbers, invoking two of the most famous comedy routines from the 1960s and a Tony-nominated special theatrical event from 2003.
The perpetrators of this new comedic provocation are two seventysomething geezers named Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland. Those familiar with Comedy Central’s Kroll Show will recognize them as the recurring reprobates in the sketch comedy series, played respectively by the show’s cocreator Nick Kroll and Saturday Night Live writer and stand-up comedian John Mulaney.
“Nick and John are playing these elderly men from New York’s Upper West Side who consider themselves theatrical titans,” director Timbers continues. “They have somehow managed to get their way to Broadway and they are going to show you this play that they have created. Even though these characters are on some level idiots — maybe idiots is the wrong word; they are assholes — it ends up being a love letter to Broadway.”
It’s not hard to see why Timbers is attracted to this show. A little more than a decade ago, fresh out of Yale University, he burst into New York’s downtown theater scene with his own experimental theater company: Les Freres Corbusier. He created and directed a series of scrappy productions that were hailed for their subversion, anarchy, and aggressive comedy before making the transition to Broadway in 2010 with Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, his irreverent emo-rock musical about America’s populist seventh president.
“My background before theater was improv and sketch comedy, so I’ve always been interested in alternative comedy,” Timbers continues. “I’ve been friends with Nick and John for some time now. I think the first time we spoke was after I directed The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway. We had coffee and talked about working together someday. Then about five years later, last fall, Nick called and said they were working on this show and said they could use some help. I was fan of the Kroll Show and just loved the opportunity to work with them. Not only have they created these two extraordinary characters, but they have this kind of dangerous and exciting mix of scripted and improv within the show that makes every performance unique. What I have been able to do is help them out a little bit in terms of structure and design, and acting as a common outside eye. Of all the comedies I have worked on, this is by far the funniest thing I’ve ever been a part of, so I consider myself very lucky that they have invited me into the fold.”
New York audiences got their first taste of Oh, Hello last December during an Off-Broadway run at the Cherry Lane Theatre downtown. Timbers says that the transition from sketches on television to live theater was extraordinary. “The audience was going nuts,” he reports. “The show just kept building and building and building as it went. It felt like you were at a rock concert or something and that the walls were about to blow off the place. What’s exciting is that since then, they have been on tour, filling these huge venues in Boston, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles, and not losing that sense of anarchy and intimacy that is key to their performance. So I’m really excited to see what it is going to be like at the Lyceum.”
“There are other shows where you could dim the houselights and the show would start no matter what the audience does,” Timbers continues. But with Oh, Hello, he says — just as with the ringside boxing match, the coup d’theatre in Timbers’ Broadway production of the musical Rocky, or with the immersive staging for his Off-Broadway production of the David Byrne musical Here Lies Love — “the audience is equally a costar in the piece.”
That doesn’t mean that audiences should be wary about getting dragged up on stage and being shamed, as one might at a Dame Edna show, he clarifies. “As someone who does a lot of shows that are immersive and environmental, I’m not a fan personally of audience participation,” says Timbers. “I don’t think Nick and John really are too. The show is actually very respectful of the audience in that way. There is participation in the sense that it is a comedy just by you being in the audience, and there is a back-and-forth because of that.”
“What is great about Nick and John is, not only are they performers, but they are sharp and witty writers as well,” Timbers continues. “The script is in a constant state of evolution and they are coming up with new lines and new ideas that replace the old. It is really so cool to work with writers who are so eager to rewrite. That is not something that you always experience. People get a little precious with their own material. These guys are not like that. If the joke is not landing in a big way, it’s out. Every moment has to earn its way into the show. That is not how plays and, certainly, musicals get made. It is kind of fun to be in an environment where people are so aggressive and single-minded about the material it needs to deliver as it relates to the audience.”
Timbers’s next project is Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, a musical in the form of a pop concert written by David Byrne, which debuts at the Public Theater next February. In the pipeline are two big-scale stage musical projects based on successful movies: Beetlejuice and Moulin Rouge. But for now, he is focusing on shepherding Kroll and Mulaney’s irreverent and subversive foray into Broadway.
“Nick and John have created these two guys who are tried-and-true New Yorkers, who miss the days of Ed Koch in the 1970s,” the director explains. “It is kind of fun to see characters who really celebrate a gritty version of New York that has gone away. But I think it has an inherent sweetness to it. It is a valentine to Broadway, to the theater, to trying to make art, going to see art, and to being a New Yorker.”