When he first auditioned for “Seinfeld,” Jason Alexander received a copy of the script and noticed a Woody Allen vibe in the character of George Costanza. So he put on a pair of glasses, a New York accent, and the affect of a hapless curmudgeon. He had no idea at the time that George was meant to be an alter ego for the show’s co-creator, Larry David.
The epiphany happened eight or nine episodes later when Alexander was taping a scene that felt implausible; he just didn’t understand why George would behave a certain way. Alexander reportedly mentioned it to David, who said, “What do you mean? That happened to me and that’s exactly how I reacted.” With that response, the deeper identity of George emerged. Alexander began to watch David for clues to developing George’s mannerisms, and the link between the character and the creator was solidified in the collective minds of fans.
This month, that connection stays firmly in place as Alexander takes on the role of Norman Drexel in “Fish in the Dark,” the Broadway play written by and originally starring David that opened in March. Norman isn’t George exactly, but one could say he’s cut from the same cloth. David had reportedly written the play with Alexander in mind, but producer Scott Rudin persuaded David to take the starring role. Thanks to an overwhelming demand for tickets, the show’s limited run has been extended, with Alexander in the lead role from June 9 through the final performance on July 18. It’s a brief window, but a milestone nonetheless: this is the second David incarnation of Alexander’s career.
During David’s run in the play, audiences recognized a likeness to his HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” perhaps more than “Seinfeld.” For devoted Larry David fans — and they are numerous in New York — the pleasure of seeing a familiar brand of comedy in real time is immeasurable. Directed with an eye toward fan satisfaction, the play is a live experience in the hilariously awkward world of David. Alexander considered the offer to play Norman an “unmissable opportunity,” so much so that he was able to bow out of another theater production in which he was scheduled to perform.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, held backstage at Broadway’s Cort Theatre, Alexander was everything that George Costanza is not. Where George is hostile, Alexander is personable. Where George deflects, Alexander intuits. A veteran stage actor, Alexander admits that seasoned theatergoers may notice that the play lacks character arcs and “does not have a classic two-act structure. But Larry never cared about those things. Larry loves the funny and the uncomfortable and he writes to those moments.”
Most “Seinfeld” fans don’t know it, but Alexander had an award-winning Broadway career in the years before he was known for a television show. Born Jay Greenspan, he was raised in New Jersey and looked to Manhattan with “get me there” urgency. By his early 20s, he had already starred in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, “Merrily We Roll Along,” a dream for any musical theater actor. Though the show was a commercial miss, it led to subsequent Broadway gigs including the 1989 production, “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” — a compilation musical of scenes and dances created by Jerome Robbins, the legendary director/choreographer of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “West Side Story.” Alexander, not a dancer but by then a trained actor and singer, was instrumental in shaping the production, performing multiple characters including Tevye. That year, Alexander — at the young age of 29 — won a Tony award and caught the attention of Rob Reiner whose production company, Castle Rock Entertainment, was developing a television show with standup comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
Almost exactly 25 years after taking his last curtain call bow, Alexander is back on the Broadway stage. But, while playing another David misanthrope may seem as effortless as slipping on comfortable shoes, Alexander’s training in the theater has conditioned him to approach each role with dedication and careful character study. “I cannot separate myself from the process I would use as an actor if this was ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’” he jokes with partial seriousness.
Alexander knows well that “the comic in me has to win” and yet the classically trained actor side of him is compelled by “what drives and motivates the characters, what physical and emotional conditions they’re dealing with. Even though Larry doesn’t necessarily carry the echo of scene A into scene B, I have to explore those tendrils to see what is there,” he says.
Beyond that, there’s another challenge: “to do no harm” to a character that David has already embodied.
To that end, Alexander has been at work with director Anna D. Shapiro (the Tony award winner for “August: Osage County”) and with David, who agreed to attend Alexander’s rehearsals in order to tinker with the script. David’s signature catchphrase, “Pret-ty pret-ty good,” for instance, may be replaced. “I could make an argument for or against it,” Alexander says. “It could be a fun moment for the audience to go, ‘I know that you know that I know.’ Or he could put in a George reference like, “Serenity Now!”
Similar to “Seinfeld,” the main objective in “Fish in the Dark” is, “funny trumps.” In one of the play’s storylines, Norman battles with his younger, wealthier brother (Ben Shenkman) over whose house their mother should — or shouldn’t — move into after the death of their father. For this narrative as with the rest of the play, the specific plot points are less essential than the punch lines. “When Larry puts pen to paper, his primary concern has been, ‘where are the pools of laughs,’” Alexander says. “Where can I create a situation where no one is comfortable and force them to tough it out.”
One principle that Alexander keeps in mind for comic roles is the importance of balancing authenticity and humor. “Larry taught me a valuable lesson during ‘Seinfeld,’” he says. “There was an episode where George thought he was having a heart attack. And I started performing the heart attack, and Larry said, ‘No good.’ And I said, ‘But that’s a heart attack.’ And he said, ‘I know. I believe you’re having a heart attack! That’s not funny.’” In other words, authentic must yield to laughable.
In David’s work, humor regularly operates from a defensive position. A David character usually feels that he’s been undermined and reacts in a misfiring way so that the person he ultimately harms is himself. And of course, he’s a bit of a schlemiel. In Norman’s case, that means holding the unenviable job of urinal salesman.
Since playing George, Alexander has worked continuously as an actor and director, though no single project has reached the success of “Seinfeld.” To be fair, it’s an inimitable benchmark. And the Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David orbit is so enduringly magnetic that Alexander has been pulled back into it repeatedly: there was the “Seinfeld” reunion on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and, more recently, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” in which Seinfeld and Alexander enacted a Jerry and George sketch. Alexander tries not to “over-intellectualize” why audiences still get excited about watching those old friends play off each other. “It just makes people extremely happy,” he says.
“Fish in the Dark” has made fans extremely happy too. Before the start of previews, the show broke records for highest advance ticket sales on Broadway. And though it opened to some very negative reviews, the show didn’t break a sweat, continuing to charm audiences and sell out performances through the end of David’s run. It’s probable that Alexander’s casting will maintain that winning streak.
As he molds a new character within a familiar comic form, Alexander recalls something Jerome Robbins taught him. For an actor perfecting a role, the work is never done. “Your opening night is not going to be your best performance,” he says. “Hopefully your closing night will be your best performance. That’s the goal: that it keeps getting better.” These days, the theater is where Alexander feels most gratified as an actor. Every performance is another opportunity to find a character’s identity.