During his working hours, John Sanders sports a Groucho Marx mustache that looks like it has been applied with an extra wide black marker. The actor portrays the dashing, malaprop-dropping, always-hopping villain Black Stache in "Peter and the Starcatcher," now on national tour at the Ahmanson Theatre through Jan. 12.
The Tony Award-winning play presents the back story to the Peter Pan tale, but it also imagines how a foppishly dressed pirate came to trade in his name and his notable facial feature for a hook. And even though it is not Black Stache's story, which makes clear he is inept at plundering, the character nevertheless steals the show. (The play, based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, was written by Rick Elice and is co-directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.)
Below is an edited transcript of a conversation with Sanders, who understudied the role on Broadway.
What attracted you to the material? How did you come to get this part?
I was sent the script and .... well, I ran a new play development program in Chicago for five years and I've read a lot of new scripts and there have only been two scripts that I had just as good a time reading as I did experiencing it. One was Conor McPherson's "Shining City" and the other one was this one. I fell in love with it.
How do you describe your character to someone who hasn't seen the play?
Oh, man, he's such a bundle of contradictions and weirdness. His humor is so arcane and a little elusive. Because he's alone, and he's surrounded by idiots. He's trying to make the best of it. I guess I usually say he's the villain of the piece and that villains are always a ball of fun, especially in a comedic fantasy like this one.
Your character eventually becomes Captain Hook, and we've seen that character quite a bit. Did that change the way you approached the role?
We're all familiar with the Peter Pan story, and the characters are in our DNA. I've seen "Hook" and a lot of the other Peter Pan iterations over the years — it's really just in me. But I didn't go back and study for this character. It's important to me that, even though it's such a showy, fun time in the play, to present something that has some psychological plausibility.
Peter Pan gives Hook a goal, but this is before that, of course. What's driving Black Stache?
When we meet him at the beginning, he's this guy who decided a long time ago that he was going to be a pirate and in a time when pirates weren't really a thing. And so there's not a lot of apparatus for him to succeed. And he's surrounded by fools because none of the smart people are going into piracy. He's perpetually disappointed with his lot. And as he goes along, he's really searching for what we're all searching for — money and a reason to exist. He admits early on that what he really wants to be is a hero, but [he'll] take the money. It's really about that.
The staging of the play is very clever but also very simple.
It's a play about playing and imagination and having fun and going a little bit wild and crazy like when you're a kid and you accept that the chair leg is a sword and that the rope is the ocean. "You be a pirate and I'll be the captain." That sort of play is so central to it that Black Stache, he's the funnel for that idea and that style in the show.
Your role seems very demanding physically.
All I can say right now is that I tried to schedule a 90-minute massage for later this week and they weren't available and I'm heartbroken. I have to find someone else. This is definitely the most physically demanding thing that I've ever done.
Did you train for it specifically?
I've never had this happen before until this play, but there's a half-hour at the beginning of each rehearsal where there's physical training. They run us, make us do sit-ups and push-ups and squats and all the things we need to do to perform this show.