The first time David Proval walked into Chin Chin restaurant in West Hollywood, the waitresses were afraid to wait on him. They'd seen Proval on "The Sopranos." They knew him as Richie Aprile, the tightly wound gangster he played on the HBO series in its second season, and they were afraid of what would happen if they botched his order.
Recalls Proval, "The manager comes up to me and says, 'They're nervous about making a mistake because they know that character you play, and they don't know how you're going to respond.' I said, 'You got to be kidding.' He says, 'No it's absolutely true."'
During a break from rehearsals for his new play "Seltzer-Man," which opens today at the Tiffany Theater on the Sunset Strip, Proval comes across as a rumpled mensch, not a hair-trigger Mafioso. He frets before, during and after his lunch break about the ding he put in his car that morning, afraid of how his wife, Cheryl, would react. "Maybe I should park it so the damage is facing away from the house and she won't see it," Proval says, half-joking.
Proval, now a familiar face at the restaurant, lays out an array of vitamins and holistic pills on the table as he awaits his Chinese chicken salad. He needs to keep his strength up for this, his first one-man show.
Written by Los Angeles playwright Richard Krevolin ("King Levine" ), the play stars Proval as a Manhattan insomniac who delivers seltzer bottles by day and suffers writer's block by night, while struggling, day and night, with the predicament of being a Jew in an unwelcoming world.
"'Seltzer-Man' investigates a part of my life that I've been very protective of," Proval says. Like the seltzer man's mother, Proval's mother was a Romanian Jew who played poker and smoked cigars. Like the seltzer man, Proval was beaten as a child because of his religion. Like his character, Proval spent his boyhood in a Jewish-Italian Brooklyn neighborhood.
"Now, in this piece, I'm able to say, here is what it was like. Remember, when I was growing up in Brooklyn, this is just five years after World War II and the fear of that [the Holocaust] happening again was constant. I had teachers who had concentration camp numbers on their arms."
"Seltzer-Man" is, in short, a deeply personal project, the kind of to-die-for showcase actors dream of. Proval has Richie Aprile to thank. Before "The Sopranos," he'd been shopping the "Seltzer-Man" script for seven years with no takers.
Then Proval joined the second season of the HBO series and everything changed. Jo DeMarco signed on to produce "Seltzer-Man" without even reading the material, strictly on the strength of Proval's performance.
Even "Seltzer-Man" director Lisa James, who has known Proval for 20 years, suddenly became gung-ho about the project in the wake of his TV success.
"Before 'The Sopranos,' we had talked about working together," James says. "Then his first 'Sopranos' [episode] came out. He was just so fabulous, so then when he said, 'Do you want to work on this play?' I went, 'Well, now that you're huge, and it can further my career"'--James laughs at her own naked ambition--"yes, let's go!"
Richie Aprile proved to be the right role at the right time, although "Sopranos" producers didn't see it that way at the beginning. Proval had to fight to make the part his own. "Everybody and their brother-in-law were chasing that role," says Proval. He auditioned four times.
"When I first went in, they kept likening the character to Joe Pesci's 'GoodFellas' character, and I didn't see that at all," he says. "They had me back and they said, 'You don't get it, we think you're great, but could you, you know ...."' Proval shakes his hands wildly, bugging out his eyes. "But I felt very strongly that was not what Richie was about. He's not a frenetic guy at all."
"Sopranos" executive producer David Chase was out of town during the first three auditions. "The 'Sopranos' people said, 'Well, come back when David comes back from Italy,' which I did. And David understood. And it turned out to be a lot more frightening."
Proval says the Richie role offered a rare confluence of personal and professional vindication. "When I read the part, it offered to me a clear image of what was at stake for that man at that point in his life, and it fused, in a way, with my own. That's very rare. What my life was about, what Richie Aprile's life was about, it did this," Proval places his two index fingers together. "It came together."
Just as Richie came out of prison to reclaim his turf, the role itself offered Proval a chance to prove that he, too, was back and was operating at the top of his game.
He never quit acting, but show biz, with its attendant hype, was something he'd bitterly given up long ago.
'I'd Rather Do My Little Plays in a Basement'
Proval, 59, started his career with a bang, studying with renowned Method acting teacher Uta Hagen. His first movie was Martin Scorsese's groundbreaking "Mean Streets." His first starring stage role was as the title character in "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel," in a much-heralded 1976 Los Angeles staging produced by acting class pal Jon Voight. His first starring movie role was in "Nunzio," playing a retarded man with delusions of being Superman.
For his work in "Nunzio," Proval won the best actor award at the 1978 Toronto Film Festival and was singled out by the New York Times as the most promising actor of his generation. Proval ruefully remembers the build-up. "You go, 'Oh, maybe I can do this,' you know. Everybody was saying, 'You made it kid."'
Then the let-down. "Shhhhooo," Proval's hand makes a swan dive. "The marketing on the movie fell apart, and then the editing, unghghh, whatever.
"So when that happened, I said 'I want no part of this city; I want no part of the movie business, they just break your heart.' I'd rather do my little plays in a basement somewhere and have fun, you know? So I just dropped ... off ... the map."
Proval taught acting. He moved back and forth, seven times, between Los Angeles and New York. He played a plumber in "The Brady Bunch Movie." "Things started happening again, but no skyrocket stuff," Proval recounts. "I didn't want to hear from skyrocket," he mutters. "No, I wanted to hear from just working."
By now on his second marriage--he has three grown children--Proval began working his way back to quality stuff, playing A-level regional theaters and earning a 1984 Drama Desk nomination for the Broadway revival of "Requiem for a Heavyweight."
Two years ago, despite himself, Proval again found himself dealing with the "skyrocket stuff" via "The Sopranos." And now this play, "Seltzer-Man," will finally make it to the stage.
Director James says the piece allows Proval to show off his comedic sensibility. "David in this role emerges as this combination of Zero Mostel and Woody Allen and his own special blend of humor."
Proval says, "Lisa found a way to make this guy kind of funny, kind of zany, kind of Looney Tunes, really. She has not allowed me to go so easily to the places of darkness and anger which are very available for me as an actor. You can fool a lot of directors; they'll let you go and suddenly I'm just this whirling dervish of emotion and people go, 'Yeah, I'm impressed, but what is this play about?"'
'I Don't Want to Be Part of This Fear'
So, what is the play about? A blocked writer, yes, with a drinking problem. But beyond that, Proval says, "Seltzer-Man" deals with the sense of paranoia that defined his own upbringing. "Jewish people have always been running, all their lives, from country to country, always frightened. When I was growing up, it was always about, 'We have to learn, we have to be smarter.'
"Well, for my character, for that childhood, I'm saying, 'I don't want to be part of this fear anymore. I'm a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. I'm an American kid. We're not frightened.' But they would sort of throw in that fear. Still hiding. And they still are in a certain way. It'll never end.
"In 'Seltzer-Man,' I reveal my tears for these people, and my anger, at the same time. Every minority has a self-loathing aspect to it: You go, 'It must be me that they hate; I must be doing something wrong.' Well, I didn't do anything wrong. I rooted for the Dodgers."
"Seltzer-Man," Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 14. $25 and $30. (310) 289-2999.