Steve Martin isn't just a "comedian." His restless mind has led him into becoming a stand-up giant, a movie star, a screenwriter, a producer, a novelist, a songwriter, a banjoist, an art curator — and, increasingly these days, a playwright.
At his core, he's a thinker. He studied philosophy in college before dropping out to write for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" — but "all this study of true and false, ethics, logic and contradictions," he said, "has influenced me my whole life."
"When people say, 'You do so many things,' I say, 'Well, I don't have a job,' " Martin, a still youthful 70, said in a recent interview in San Diego, where his new play will debut. "So every morning I wake up and go, 'What's to do?' "
"Meteor Shower," Martin's third play, will premiere at the Old Globe theater on Aug. 7 (previews started July 30), directed by Gordon Edelstein with a cast headlined by Jenna Fischer ("The Office") and Greg Germann ("Ally McBeal"). The surrealist comedy uses a cocktail of two dissimilar couples, gathered at a backyard party in Ojai, as a prism into the nature of relationships.
Martin wrote the first draft 20 years ago. "I was very into studying relationships between men and women, and the psychology of it," he said. "Any kind of self-help book, or psychological book or Jungian book, I was very interested in. And I've always been interested in astronomy — not that this is a play about astronomy in any way, but its context is astronomical."
But if that sounds dry, not to worry — it has sexier aspects. "It's very bawdy," Martin said. "I don't find it vulgar, though. I find it Shakespearean bawdy."
He staged an early reading at the Largo with a cast that included John Ritter and Rita Wilson, but he "got busy" — and kept fiddling with it until last summer, when the Old Globe's artistic director, Barry Edelstein, (no relation to Gordon) approached him about bringing it to life.
This is a stage-heavy time for Martin. "Bright Star," the Tony-nominated musical he co-wrote with Edie Brickell (with whom he's recorded two bluegrass albums in his banjo-man mold), finished its run on Broadway last month. The Old Globe will also produce Martin's first play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," in February.
Martin, who hosted the Academy Awards multiple times and received an honorary Oscar in 2014, first dabbled in theater in high school and then performing at the Bird Cage Theatre at Knott's Berry Farm (four times a day, five on Sunday) during college. Then came a form-altering stint in stand-up, a hot streak guesting on "Saturday Night Live" and a lucrative movie career. The next time he returned to the stage was in Mike Nichols' famed 1988 production of "Waiting for Godot" with Robin Williams.
A few years later, while watching a New York production of Tom Dulack's comedy "Breaking Legs," Martin felt the first stirrings to write his own play.
"I heard the audience laughing," he said, "and I thought, 'Wow, this is so earned. To not be in the play and still get laughs — that would be a good challenge.' "
He was reading about Picasso at the time, so the impulse manifested itself in the comedy "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," which opened in Chicago in 1993. Martin had already written several screenplays ("Roxanne," "L.A. Story"), and playwriting didn't require unlearning any particular muscles, "because everything I was essentially making up as I went along anyway," he said, laughing.
Martin, relaxed in a suit and Panama hat during his lunch break, is only slightly jokey in conversation. The "wild and crazy guy" is really a quiet, warmly stoic persona just a little hidden behind sunglasses. He chuckles as he relays a new joke he wrote for the show he's been doing with old pal Martin Short, and interrupts the interview only to take a call from his wife of nine years, writer Anne Stringfield. The two had a daughter, Martin's only child, in 2012.
"I was surprised that for being as famous as he is, for as long as he has been, that he has no walls," said Fischer, who plays hostess Corky in "Meteor Shower." "He reminds me of Steve Carell in that way. He's just a very available, approachable person — very easy to talk to, and very present, and very interested in other people."
Fischer, who admitted an obsession with Martin's 1991 film "L.A. Story," said he's constantly getting tickled in rehearsal. "I'm making mental notes of every time I've made him laugh," she said, "and storing them away in a little box in my mind for days when I'm not feeling so great about myself."
For Martin, one of theater's advantages over film is that "you can tweak every night."
"I remember when I first wrote 'Picasso' — if an actor said, 'Why is this line there?', I had a reason for every line," he said.
There's also the unique opportunity to respond to the living organism of an audience.
"When we did 'Bright Star' — which eventually developed its comedy chops, but it's essentially a drama — I had to learn to listen to silence, and find how attentive the audience is," Martin said. "I learned a whole different language of response. It's like the negative to laughter. Laughter is verifiable."
Martin's musical also premiered at the Old Globe, in 2014, before traveling to Broadway. The sincere, folksy tale set in a bygone North Carolina was a crowd-pleasing production that received generally favorable reviews, but it closed last month for financial reasons.
Broadway is "cutthroat," mused Martin. "We're actually really proud of the show, and I think we're going to have a big afterlife for it."
Audiences, understandably, didn't know quite what to expect walking into a "folk musical from the mind of Steve Martin" — a mind that, though multitudinous in its moods and creative manifestations, still comes linked to a laugh.
"The show had laughs all the way through it, but you don't call it a comedy," Martin noted. " 'Meteor Shower' is definitely a comedy — in fact, it's a scary comedy. It's a psychological comedy. So I think the way will be greased a little more than it was for 'Bright Star.' "
"He has this wonderful way where he can have just the silliest, most absurd joke next to the most touching, romantic sentiment," said Fischer. "He can swing back and forth, and that's something that's uniquely him."
Fischer drew a comparison to Martin's film "L.A. Story" (another SoCal-based comedy with meteorological elements): "There's that scene where they walk through the garden and become the child versions of themselves. That is such a beautiful, powerful expression of holding your true love's hand for the first time, and things like that are in this play."
Martin is currently back in stand-up mode in his traveling, joke-filled revue with Short. (They'll perform in Santa Barbara, Martin's home for 30 years, on Aug. 14.) In November, he'll make his first big screen appearance in five years: a dramatic role in Ang Lee's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk."
Frank Oz has described Martin as a genius who "was doing comedy while he was commenting on comedy" — but Martin insists "Meteor Shower" doesn't make any commentary on the current state of the world.
"I stay away from politics in public," he said. "I like what I do, and I don't want the audience to see me and go, 'Oh, he's a liberal.' 'Oh, he's conservative.' "
Still, the thinker pondered: "There's a line in the play that I wrote 20 years ago, where one of the actresses says, 'Put a weapon in the hand of a stupid belief and it kills you.' When I re-read it last week, I thought, 'Geez, wow — wonder what that line means now?'."
Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego
When: Through Sept. 11