"If people are going to walk out, that's OK," declared Jack Coleman. "People (who are offended) should walk out."
The actor was referring to Bill Cain's "Stand-Up Tragedy," a harsh, fast-paced drama--set to a loud rap beat--about a tough boys' school on New York's Lower East Side. After a premiere last March at Taper, Too, "Stand-Up" opens Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum.
It's staged by Ron Link, who has employed the same hard edge and visual/kinetic energy he brought to "Shakers" (1988) and "Bouncers" (1986)--which also co-starred Coleman. "The style is not completely dissimilar," the actor said. "Ron gives everybody a tremendous amount of freedom to come up with things. Then he edits, imposes his vision on it. The play has a real kaleidoscopic feel to it. It jumps in and out of time, takes a lot of theatrical license. And nobody has a chance to relax."
Or edit their language. "Maybe there should be a warning"--the former "Dynasty" star shrugged--"because there are plenty of four-letter words. It's a play that picks up on the language and rhythms of the street, and it will be offensive to some people. But as it goes on, you realize it's not about swearing. It's not about being vulgar. It's part of a depiction of inner-city life. I hope the force of the characters and story will take over and people will be drawn into something that, at first, may be jarring to them.
"We don't give people time--at least in the first act--to worry about the kind of language going on because we're throwing so many ideas and pictures at them, so many truths and theatrical conventions, that they can't help but sit there and take it in," added Vaughn Armstrong, who plays Father Ed Larkin, the school's hard-nosed principal. "Hopefully by the time the first act is over, they will have reached a deeper understanding than they had before."
Armstrong, 38, believes the play can have an effect outside the theater too. "I don't want to sound like I'm going on some kind of crusade because we're not. But as actors, you want to be part of the greater element of life. So if we can change one point of view for the better. . . . Like someone saying, 'Somebody down there needs some kind of help.' Or giving money to an institution or time to a child, or voting in a direction that will make education better. Anything."
"What the play does is humanize a group of people who may be threatening to some people," added Coleman, who plays a teacher trying to rescue a student from the influence of family violence and societal oppression. "Despite the harsh language and (crudeness), they're human beings who suffer and have real human feelings and want what everyone wants, which is a life. The most cogent thing I ever heard about this play came from (playwright/former New York teacher) Bill Cain, who said that poverty has nothing to do with money. It has to do with having your life taken away from you."
Bronx-born and raised, 26-year-old Michael DeLorenzo (who plays the central role of the troubled student Lee) knows firsthand the realities of the play's setting.
"I'm very lucky to have the parents I have," he said. "They're both very intelligent, very book-read and cultured. But I went to a lot of public schools in New York, so I got to see the other side of it too. I know a lot of people like (the ones in) the play. A lot of my best friends are like that. . . ." He grinned. "All kidding aside, I think it's because as kids, my parents never let me have time on my hands to get into trouble. I was always in outside classes. I started dancing when I was 7. I always had places to go, things to do."
The California-born Armstrong (who's married and the father of two boys) also credits his mother for setting him on the right track. "We were quite poor," he said. "As a girl, my mother picked cotton with her father. She was married to a laborer; it was the only life they ever knew. But she kept saying: 'There's something better'--and getting me involved in classes."
Armstrong, who was one of the cast members of the acclaimed 1980 war drama "Tracers" (created by a group of Vietnam vets), is clearly enjoying this play's integration of politics, art, conscience--and style. "I've been doing theater for 23 years," he noted, "and you don't often get an opportunity to do something that has real social benefit. And it's a hell of a lot of fun."
It's also uncharted territory. "I wanted to do new work," Coleman said bluntly of his exit from "Dynasty" 14 months ago. "I feel like I'm just starting out in my career. Although I'm 31, I'm a young 31. So I'm just beginning to hit an age where most of my work is. I felt that it was important for me to start establishing, as soon as possible, my identity (away) from 'Dynasty.'
I made a lot of money in five years, I'm single, I don't have any kids. I mean, I could've stayed another year and made a lot more money--and sometimes," the Pennsylvania native grinned, "I think about that. But it was just time to go."
DeLorenzo (who pulled a similar exit from the TV series "Fame" after three years) also looks to the stage for artistic nourishment.
"This is the most demanding role I've ever done in my life," he said. "After the workshop, I did a situation comedy--and I got paid like 10 times the amount I got for the workshop. But it meant nothing. I was depressed. Not that I don't want to make money, mind you. But having gone from this to the sitcom . . . well, it changed me. I'm not doing this play for anybody else. I'm doing it for me."