Dallas — Actor and singer James Wesley was known locally a few years back for memorable roles in The Wild Party at Uptown Players, and in 110 in the Shade and Ragtime at Lyric Stage. Now he’s back in town, but this time, as a playwright.
Wesley’s Art and Science opens for Uptown Players this weekend in Dallas in the intimate Frank’s Place upstairs in the Kalita Humphreys Theater. It’s a story of the relationship that develops between a voice teacher and one of his students, who comes for a lesson and finds the teacher has suffered a stroke.
Along with the Wesley play Unbroken Circle—which went on to a successful off-Broadway run in 2013, starring Eve Plumb (Jan in The Brady Bunch)—Art and Science was first showcased in New York last year with actors Tony Sheldon and John Tartaglia [Avenue Q] playing the roles. Uptown co-producer Jeff Rane saw the play and thought Art and Science would be “a perfect fit” for the company. The Dallas production features actors David Bean and Christopher Cassarino; New York-based performer/director Jason St. Little (who helmed Unbroken Circle in New York) directs the show.
Wesley told TheaterJones in a recent interview that he’d already written a good chunk of Art and Science before he left Dallas. “It was my first play,” he said, but not the first to be produced—and for a very personal, “aw, that’s nice” reason.
TheaterJones: You’re back in Dallas after being away for almost a decade. What do you see that’s changed?
James Wesley: I’m from Dallas originally; I had worked in LA and New York, was back in Texas for a few years—and left for New York again in August 2006, after doing shows at Lyric Stage, Theatre Three, and with Uptown [Players]. The biggest change is that when Stacey Oristano [Friday Night Lights] and I did The Wild Party, Uptown was in a really small, black box space, and now they’re in the [Kalita] Humphreys. It’s amazing to see how much Uptown has grown: the last few shows I saw, their production values were like those you’d see in New York.
I’m happy to be back with Uptown, but also to be in this space. The Dallas Theater Center had plays for children every Saturday morning, at least in the mid-‘70s; my mom would take me, and I remember where I sat. So, it’s cool to come back to the city where I was born, to come into the building where I fell in love with theater when I was five years old, and to be back at Uptown Players where I had my favorite musical theater experience with [The Wild Party].
When you left here, you were known as a performer—a singer, an actor. Were you always a budding playwright?
I was talking to Suzi Cranford at Uptown, who did costumes for The Wild Party and is now doing them for Art and Science, and I was telling her that really about a third to half of the play was already written when I did The Wild Party here 10 years ago. But I put it in the proverbial drawer, and moved back to New York in my late 30s, almost 40 years old.
I was auditioning and getting callbacks for parts in Mamma Mia! and Phantom and other shows—but I wasn’t getting the parts. I talked to a casting director friend, who said “Here’s the truth, James: you are as good as everyone else, but now you’re 40, you’re competing against people with a lot of Broadway credits, and you’re not wanting to go on the road because you have a family. If you’re not willing to go on the road, it’s going to be really hard for you.” [Wesley is married to Sirius XM Broadway guru/host Seth Rudetsky and has a 13-year-old daughter, Juli.] I loved his honesty. My husband Seth saw I was depressed, and said “What about that play you’ve talked about?” He loved it, and said I had to pursue this. So that’s where it began.
Art and Science is based on a real-life event in my life; I wrote the first draft of it when I was 29, and now I’m 44. It was my first play. And we did Unbroken Circle first because I’d written the part of the youngest girl for my daughter, and I knew she was on the brink of turning into a young woman. The clock was ticking, and sure enough, it’s a year since we did it, and she’s four inches taller and looks like she could play the 18-year-old daughter in the play.
Unbroken Circle was very definitely a Texas story. Does Art and Science have a specific setting?
It takes place in Santa Monica, California—where the real-life incident happened, in an apartment there.
Both these plays come out of your own life. Do you think an “autobiographical” spark is something you’ll always be looking for as you develop your plays?
I have so many ideas based on incidents from my life or my family, and I enjoy taking those and re-imagining them. Movie ideas for some reason are different; my imagination goes in a very different direction with those. But for stage, maybe because of the intimacy, the germs of ideas I’m exploring seem to be inspired by real life. The spark of Art and Science is the simple fact that it’s based on me discovering my voice teacher who had had a stroke, and he refused to go to the hospital because he was a Christian Scientist. I spent quite a while, hours and hours, trying to convince him to go to the hospital. And during the next few months, I learned a lot about his past.
In the course of the play, age issues come up, certainly, and respecting someone’s religious beliefs even when you disagree with them. It’s about following your dreams, and about family responsibilities. We did the play last year [in a multi-play “Midtown March Medley”] with Tony Sheldon and John Tartaglia in the roles, and before that Len Cariou and Mario Cantone [in an earlier workshop]. And people would come up to me and say, “Oh, my gosh, I have a parent and we’re right now making decisions about nursing homes”—and about how heartbreaking that is. And also these characters are two gay men, and the generational differences about what it’s like to be gay are components of the piece, too.
Two person plays are tough. You can talk about issues, but ultimately they are about human connection, on the most basic level of forgiveness and love.
How did the play come to be produced in Dallas?
Jeff Rane, Uptown’s co-artistic director, saw the play at the March showcase. We’d done a reading at Manhattan Theater Club, but nothing was happening. We thought about doing the play in a site-specific way, in our own apartment, but we heard about a space we could rent for $1,000 a week, and decided to do it ourselves. So Seth and I each did our two plays [in a rotating schedule]—I think with a total of 55 performances in 21 days. One day, we did all four plays together. It was crazy, but because of that exposure, several people came forward and wanted to invest. We did Unbroken Circle off-Broadway, then got Disaster! going and now have a producer who is helping us bring it to the Broadway stage next season, we hope—it’s a lot of work, but great fun.
Is there any singing in Art and Science? Between you and the director, Jason St. Little, who has a lot of musical theater and cabaret background, it seems like that would be natural.
There’s a little bit, but I don’t want to give too much away. When the character is a voice teacher and his student, it would be hard not to have some music in it!