“Special 5 Questions”: Robert McCaskill Interviews Alex Lyras


“The mother of all delays of JFK airport.” Just think about that for a moment — think about the worst airport delay you or you’re nearest and dearest have ever experienced, and then double it, triple it, insert exponent here. That is the sad but stupendous setting for The Common Air, a six-character one-actor comic trip by Alex Lyras and Robert McCaskill that ran six months in Los Angeles (why not delays at LAX?) and has now invaded the East Coast.

Robert McCaskill and Alex Lyras
Robert McCaskill and Alex Lyras

Lyras and McCaskill may be familiar to New York theater audiences or they may entirely new. McCaskill is arguably the more redolent name of the two; he is an acting coach (Bernadette Peters, etc.) as well as a writer with a background in sketch. Lyras is a native New Yorker who has logged more than 15 years on Gotham’s stages, but he is also a part-time Angeleno, which is how opportunities like appearing on HBO’s Californication tend to come his way.

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Lyras and McCaskill are also a writing team — of 11 years standing. Their titles have a punny, I’m-tweaking-your-face sensibility, like Desperelics and Unequalibrium, yet their stuff is commercial enough that they’ve sold pilots to Fox and Brillstein Grey Entertainment. They have also written two feature films. In terms of whether the second, called Heterosexuals, is straight-to-video, well, darlings, you’ll just have to ask them.

And if you do, they’ll probably return to the conversation as quickly as possible to The Common Air. In it, Lyras has the job of playing all six of the aforementioned characters, which are described in the press materials as “a sample-stealing DJ named PJ,” an “Iraqi cab driver with a winning reality show idea” and, most notably, a “sinister philosophy professor mixing logic and irrationality in a west Texas accent.”

I mean, we always knew those philosophy professors were logical and irrational, didn’t we? Of course we did. But here at the Clyde Fitch Report, we decided to find out if Lyras and McCaskill are also logical and irrational, or whether any philosophical advice might be imparted by them.

The Common Air performs Fridays through Dec. 18 at 45 Bleecker (45 Bleecker St.). For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.

And now, McCaskill asks Lyras a few more than five questions he’s never been asked:

Robert: What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?

Alex: “Are the conflicts in your plays things you’re trying to work out in real life?”

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RM: Yeah, that’s a good question. How did you answer?

AL: “Not usually.” I had a debilitatingly functional childhood. Usually it’s just an interesting idea that merits exploration.

RM: I would say that my personality conflicts are definitely showing up in the writing. When you suggested a character who was railing against technology and I said, “Let’s make him rail against a guy who’s a purist,” I think I was reflecting my own split over moral questions. But wait — let me follow up and ask you what’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?

AL: In the age of the Internet, film and TV, why keep writing for the theater?

RM: What did you say?

AL: I said something like, “Just ’cause you own a microwave, doesn’t mean you cook Chilean sea bass in it.”

RM: How do you cook Chilean sea bass?

AL: That’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked me about my work.

RM: Do you remember why we set The Common Air in an airport?

AL: It’s a time and place people deliver monologues in the real world. You’re on the outside of your own life. Between destinations. That opens you up to bit. And when you’re delayed, there’s that amplified uncertainty. It sets your idle a little higher so that whatever emotional issues you have are burning a little hotter. When are we going to resume our lives? How long will our personal agendas be put on hold? People get reflective when norms are broken.

RM: I think air travel is also a metaphor for modernity, so the primitive conflicts of the characters are contrasted by their surroundings.

AL: Let me ask you one. Why do you think the play was so well received in L.A.?

RM: Who friggin’ knows.

AL: Maybe because there’s a cinematic quality to the show.

RM: That sounds cool, but I doubt it had an effect on the reviewers.

AL: People talked about being about to “see” it. We also attempted to combine humor with genuine character depth. We weren’t sure if it was going to work. Sometimes pathos kills a laugh, but I think, with three years of development, we found the balance.

RM: Yeah, it takes time. Occasionally a student will ask me to come see him in a “24-Hour Play.” I think, you’ve been working on this for a day and you want me to come see it? Call me in three years. But seriously, Ken Rich won two awards for his sound design.

AL: Ken is our secret weapon. He has a subtle touch that works on an audience’s unconscious, like when he puts an eerie pad under a serious section of a monologue. You don’t necessary hear it, but it affects you. And he knows the kind of harmonics that evoke different emotions.

RM: Some sections are overtly scored — the mix of music and language elevate the whole experience. It takes the audience on an emotional ride that wouldn’t be same without it.

AL: I’m happy he’s being recognized for his work, ’cause he the master.

RM: Yeah, but how come he won and we didn’t?

AL: Maybe we were supposed to sleep with someone.

RM: I’m at an age when sleeping with someone means you actually go to sleep. What’s it like writing plays with a partner?

AL: You mean with you? Awful. I pull my molars out thinking about it. Just look at these interview questions!

RM: And yet, we’ve collaborated on three solo shows, four television pilots and two movies.

AL: I guess writing with you is more fun than writing alone.

RM: I think we have complementary talents. You come up with characters, I give them a story. You find a lot of humor, I focus on the language.

AL: I still don’t think every sentence has to scan.

RM: We’re like Lennon and McCarthy.

AL: Those guys were hacks.