Filmmaker Paul Weitz’s new play, a dark comedy called “Roulette,” is a departure from the raunchy “American Pie” movies that helped make him a hot Hollywood commodity.
But don’t expect gags about bodily fluids or band camp jokes in this sophisticated turn about a dysfunctional suburban family. The ensemble production debuts this month at the John Houseman Theatre.
“Not everything makes a good film,” Weitz says. “There’s just literally certain stories that occur to me that are more appropriate for theater.”
“Roulette” delves into the lives of six people forced to come to terms with their emotions when the family’s father (Larry Bryggman), pulls out a handgun at the dinner table and decides to play Russian roulette. The family grapples with suicidal tendencies, infidelity, teenage angst, borderline addictions — not to mention, really neurotic neighbors.
“With this sort of play, certain audiences, I’d imagine, would laugh at a particular line and not at another,” Weitz says in an interview at the West 42nd Street theater. “With this kind of comedy ... there is that feeling of people laughing but they’re not sure if it’s appropriate or not.”
He insists it is all in good humor and does not intend the work to be ponderous.
A refreshing change of pace
Ensemble Studio Theatre, a nonprofit developmental theater company, produced the play, featuring Academy Award-winner Anna Paquin and actors Leslie Lyles, Mark Setlock, Shawn Hatosy and Ana Gasteyer.
“Theater is such a relief after working in television, which demands a laugh every 15 seconds,” Gasteyer, a “Saturday Night Live” alum who plays a “real, fragile character” named Virginia, said.
Gasteyer was immediately drawn to Weitz’s script, and she said that the play has big laughs but makes audiences “sit down in the muck of discomfort.”
“I think he’s a marvelous, marvelous writer,” she said. “I’m always attracted to people who can show the darker underbelly of comedy. He’s written a play that really inhabits the in-betweens of life, the very uncomfortable things in life. You never know if the audience is going to laugh or cry.”
Weitz, casually chic in sweater and slacks, was born and raised in New York City and wrote his first play at 16. “I didn’t know what to do with it,” he recalls. “My mother entered it in the Young Playwrights’ competition.” He went on to graduate from Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
His resume now includes director, producer, screenwriter and actor — a quirky role in the quirky 2000 film, “Chuck and Buck.”
The dark-haired and charmingly polite Weitz leans in to relate his early impressions of Broadway. His eyes widen as he talks about seeing Liv Ullmann in 1979 in “I Remember Mama,” and Frank Langella’s seductive vampire in “Dracula,” which won him a Tony nomination in 1977.
“I grew up in New York going to the theater,” says Weitz, whose parents are actress Susan Kohner and fashion designer John Weitz. “My grandfather was an agent who, among other people, had a lot of actors who did theater. That was such a cool thing because my grandfather was Langella’s agent at the time.”
Brothers and partnersWeitz and his brother, Chris, co-wrote and made their directorial debut with “American Pie” in 1999 and together produced the sequels. They co-wrote and co-directed “About a Boy” and “Down to Earth,” and co-wrote “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” and the animated film “Antz,” which featured Woody Allen.
“It’s pretty funny because my brother and I started out writing ‘Antz,’ so we actually started out doing children’s stuff. Then, with ‘American Pie’ we were suddenly these smut mongers,” Weitz laughs, shaking his graying head. “We were trying to make it less misogynistic than the genre tends to be.”
Weitz is laid-back, engaging, a family man at 38 who becomes almost giddy when talking about his 3-week-old daughter, Jane, and the day-to-day discoveries of fatherhood. He can’t wait to return to Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Patricia, a Los Angeles Times editor.
“It feels great,” the soft-spoken Weitz says about being a dad. “It’s like a war zone, though, trying to figure out why the baby is crying. I had a friend who said you haven’t known terror until you’ve had a child. Now I sort of understand. ... It also makes me less stressed out about stuff.”
Following the success of “American Pie,” the Weitz brothers did “Down to Earth,” a critically panned remake of “Heaven Can Wait,” the 1975 Warren Beatty film about the mistake an angel makes with a quarterback’s death, which was a remake of 1941’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.”
But they brothers felt that the movie had not allowed them to really grow as filmmakers, Weitz says. “We consciously wanted to do more of a dramatic, emotional piece ... along the lines of Billy Wilder.” Both brothers had read the Nick Hornsby book, “About a Boy,” the story of a hedonistic bachelor and an adolescent boy. The brothers pursued the project for two years and made the movie version, which was nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay.
Weitz has several projects underway, including the new movie, “Synergy,” which he wrote. The film, starring Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Scarlett Johansson, is expected to be released this fall. He’s also working on another play, called “Chamber Piece,” and is in production with his brother on the Michael Moorcock epic novels, “The Elric Saga.”
“That’s one of the seminal fantasy series which we read when we were kids,” Weitz says. “We looked into it just to see, if by fluke, it hadn’t been bought for film yet.”
The brothers eventually met with the author, who “liked the idea of us doing it because we had come from a sort of pulp background with ‘American Pie,’ and with ‘About a Boy’ we’d done something different.”
An original voice
Weitz is especially pleased with the casting of “Roulette,” and credits director Trip Cullman.
Cullman, 29, describes “Roulette” as the “evil stepson” of “About a Boy.”
“We really hit it off well,” said Cullman, who recently worked as a creative assistant on the critically acclaimed HBO production of Tony Kushner’s Tony winner, “Angels in America.”
“I hope people can walk away from the theater thinking about their responsibilities to the people they love in their lives.”
Weitz’s approach to humor, Cullman said, was impressive. “It’s tricky trying to find a balance.”
Curt Dempster, founder of Ensemble Studio Theatre, said the play definitely intrigued the company, which produced Weitz’s previous plays, “All for One,” with Calista Flockhart and Liev Schreiber, and “Mango Tea,” which starred Marisa Tomei and Rob Morrow.
“His early work was very clearly an original voice and he’s maintained that,” Dempster said.