Schramm on Ayckbourn, Accents and 'A Chorus'

The notion brought a look of polite demurral to David Schramm's face.

"No, I don't think so, and I'll tell you why," said the actor, leaving a generous helping of noodles uneaten on the end of his fork. "You see, I met Alan Ayckbourn, and he may be the quietest, shyest, most unassuming person I have ever been around."

It had been suggested that Schramm's role as the portly, voluble theater director in Ayckbourn's "A Chorus of Disapproval," which opened over the weekend on the Mainstage at South Coast Repertory, might be a sarcastic stand-in for the playwright. At least, he might be seen as the one character in the large cast of this backstage British comedy who voices Ayckbourn's ironic point of view.

"My guess is that the character I play is somebody he knew or met," Schramm continued, "some whirlwind creature who really excited him and pulled him along in the theater. That's my guess. He might have thought, 'My gosh! I want to be around this person because he's so full of life.' Because he certainly isn't the playwright I met. I even remember asking myself how anyone can write so much stuff and be so profoundly quiet."

That meeting occurred nearly a decade ago, when Schramm was cast as a bumbling husband opposite Judith Ivey in the Broadway production of "Bedroom Farce," Ayckbourn's 19th play (not counting musicals and children's works). This time, in Ayckbourn's 33rd play, Schramm portrays a glib, arm-waving Welshman with contradictory streaks of cynicism and idealism, bred in equal measure from his daytime vocation as a solicitor and his nighttime avocation as head of the hopelessly provincial Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society.

"A Chorus of Disapproval" unfolds during the amateur troupe's rehearsals for a musical production of "The Beggar's Opera" by the early-18th-Century satirical poet John Gay. The plot of Ayckbourn's play revolves around Guy Jones, a diffident widower from Leeds (played by Joe Spano) who is propelled into the limelight despite an utter lack of talent or theatrical experience and a paralyzing case of stage fright.

The play was originally produced in 1984 in Scarborough, the coastal town in Yorkshire where the 50-year-old Ayckbourn leads his own theater troupe and stages all his works before sending them elsewhere. Schramm saw the first major production of "Chorus" in 1985 at the National Theatre in London.

"It was glorious," he recounted recently over lunch in Costa Mesa. "Not only did I like the play enormously, but I thought the part would be fun to do. Now that I'm doing it, it's a lot of hard work. You have this damned accent. I sound like a motorboat sometimes, rolling those Rs."

In fact, Schramm has no trouble with Dafydd Ap Llewellyn's sonorous Welsh accent. The actor, 42, possesses a gifted ear for dialect that is comparable perhaps to perfect pitch in a musician. Moreover, only the faintest trace of Schramm's native Kentucky twang, which usually clings like moss to someone from Louisville, can be detected in casual conversation.

The twang was trained out of him in New York at the Juilliard School's Drama Division where Schramm was a member, along with Patti Lupone and Kevin Kline, of the first graduating class, and by five years as a founding member of John Houseman's repertory troupe, The Acting Company, during the 1970s.

"The hardest part of this role, if you want to know the truth," Schramm said, "is stopping myself from emphasizing its dark qualities. No matter what has happened to this man, he really loves the theater. It's his salvation. I have a tendency to emphasize the fact that there is a certain amount of desperation in him."

Schramm, who is making his SCR debut in "Chorus," added that because Ayckbourn is willing "to write dark"--allowing his characters to be bitter and even morose at times--comparisons frequently drawn between Ayckbourn's prolific, commercially successful output and that of Neil Simon are misguided and superficial.

"He's much better than Neil Simon," the actor contended. "Simon is a formulaic writer: setup, setup, laugh line. He's a technician who has that down pat, almost like a gift from God. What separates Ayckbourn from Simon is that Ayckbourn's not afraid to address all kinds of stuff you never find in Simon, or very rarely. Ayckbourn has always developed character first and comedy second."

Schramm cites "Chorus" as proof. Although it contains much that is hilarious, particularly scenes of outright farce, the resolution of the play has an unsettling pungency not usually associated with comic intentions.

The worldly wise Dafydd, who makes the play go round with his unceasing energy and his savvy wisecracks, turns out to be a duped innocent cut down by his inferiors. And the improbable Guy, played like a distant cousin to Chance the Gardener in "Being There," unhappily realizes he is merely a lightning rod for everyone else's ambitions or needs.

"The play is very British and it has very sour things to say," Schramm noted. "You just have to let that have its head. You cannot try to make it consistently funny."

The last time the actor appeared on a Southern California stage, opposite Rebecca de Mornay in the Pasadena Playhouse's smash revival of "Born Yesterday," he drew the sort of notices that actors dream about. Critics invoked the names of both Jackie Gleason and John Belushi to describe his comic portrayal of a boorish business mogul.

"Because of those reviews, I landed in every casting office in town," Schramm recalled. "I was the flavor of the month. I ended up doing movies, TV gigs and plays. If I told you where I've been this past year, you won't believe me."

He ticked off the places anyway:

* New Orleans, for the movie "Johnny Handsome" with Mickey Rourke (opening Sept. 22).

* Miami three times, once for the movie "Let It Ride" with Richard Dreyfuss and twice for TV's "Miami Vice."

* Hawaii, for television's "Jake and the Fat Man" with William Conrad.

* New York twice, for "A Shock to the System" with Michael Caine and for Norman Rene's off-Broadway play "Palace of Amateurs."

* Los Angeles several times, for TV's "Wiseguy" and for the pilot of a mid-season TV replacement series, "Loose Cannon."

* Moscow, for a play called "Rag Dolly."

"My specialty seems to be playing the loud, pompous, bombastic, verging-on-hysteria guy," Schramm said. "But I'd rather establish a totally different persona each time. It's why I act. It makes traveling more tolerable."

In the meantime, he is considering moving permanently to Los Angeles. Daily life in New York, where he has lived for two decades, has become too bruising, he said, and the life of the theater has lost its sense of adventure.

With a couple of exceptions--notably the Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizons--"nobody does brand new stuff," Schramm lamented. "You either have a hit or a flop. Those are the only two options. Regional theater is more thriving."

And Broadway? Don't ask.

"That's like franchised entertainment," he said. "It's not really theater. 'Les Miz' and 'Phantom' might as well be McDonald's and Col. Sanders."

"A Chorus of Disapproval" is on the Mainstage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, to Oct. 12. Performances are at 8 p.m Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $16 to $28. Information: (714) 957-4033.

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