5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Michael Hardart

Both Your Houses
A scene from Both Your Houses
Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg

The superb press photo for the Metropolitan Playhouse’s revival of Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses, courtesy of photographer Jacob J. Goldberg, expertly captures the furrowed brows, sub rosa scheming and worrisome earnestness that characterizes more than a few elements of the 1933 play, which won the Pulitzer Prize and has rarely, if ever, been seen since. This makes Metropolitan’s revival highly unusual even for a producing organization that has long specialized in revisiting dusty American plays.

The original Broadway production of Both Your Houses lasted 72 performances — exactly two months. But the play, a satire of political wheeling and dealing in the nation’s capital, is in fact not dusty at all; it’s arguably as powerful and relevant to the jaundiced, eyebrow-raised audiences of 2012 as it was for those who were suffering through the bottom of the Great Depression. The central character, a freshman representative from Nevada, is so shocked, so appalled to discover how pork-addicted his fellow members of Congress really are that he lards up a critical piece of legislation with such a porcine plethora that he is sure, thoroughly sure, that the bill will fail. In Washington, D.C., however, you never say never — and thus the satire begins.

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As a mainstay Metropolitan actor-director, Michael Hardart has formidable challenges staging Both Your Houses. Artistically, he bears responsibility for locating the beating heart of the nearly 80-year-old play and proving that, indeed, it is resonant enough to our current political atmosphere that it might as well have been written yesterday. Second, and as with most Metropolitan mountings, the play must be squeezed onto a far more modest stage than the original one on Broadway (it ran at the Royale, now the Jacobs) without losing any of its sense of grandeur and grand ridiculousness.

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And third, there is the playwright himself, for Anderson is arguably the most neglected American playwright of the post-World War I period. (For the pre-World War I period, if we may say so, that exalted honor goes to Clyde Fitch.) Starting with 1924’s What Price Glory?, written with Laurence Stallings, Anderson’s astonishing output included the blank-verse plays Winterset and High Tor and the screenplays for Death Takes a Holiday and All Quiet on the Western Front. It also included a slew of commercially successful historical plays, including Anne of the Thousand Days, Elizabeth the Queen, Mary of Scotland, Valley Forge and Barefoot in Athens, but when not inking dramas about Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, George Washington and the philosopher Socrates, respectively, Anderson found time to write book and lyrics for two musicals with Kurt Weill — Knickerbocker Holiday and Lost in the Stars — each of which deserve as rich, rigorous and respectful a treatment as the one Metropolitan is giving to Both Your Houses. And just when you think you know a thing or two about a playwright’s core sensibility, there goes Anderson one last time, wrapping up his career, more or less, by turning a William March novel into a stage play, later a film, called The Bad Seed. (Lovers of kitsch, read your Anderson! And, yes, Maxwell L. Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, is the playwright Anderson’s glamorous grandson.)

Both Your Houses (which features John Blaylock, Jonathan Cantor, Matt W Cody, Ray Crisara, Matt Gibson, Warren Katz, Teresa Kelsey, Kelly King, Lianne Kressin, David Lavine, Brad Makarowski, Jenelle Sosa and Robert Lee Taylor — see the terrific photo that captured our attention), runs through Oct. 21. Click here for tickets.

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And now, 5 questions Michael Hardart has never been asked — and a bonus question.

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
A friend asked if, when directing, I enjoy being “in charge, being the boss.” While I can’t deny the occasionally ego-stroking thrill of being “the decider” (usually offset being the stress of having to make so many decisions), my friend’s question got me thinking about what truly gives me pleasure when I direct. What kept coming to mind were the moments I was able to give a note to an actor or designer that gave them an a-ha moment. And then watching that talented artist take that note and improve upon it tenfold. It’s those kinds of satisfying and humbling moments that make it fun being the “boss.”

Avoiding the pox: Michael Hardart

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“So, you directed that show. What part of it was your idea? Just what did you do?”

It’s not really an idiotic question at all. I think, in my ignorance, I’d ask the same of a music conductor. I think the two jobs can seem amorphous and superfluous to an outsider. My usual answer is “everything and nothing at all.” If the process has been, I hope, truly collaborative between actors, designers, crew, producers and director, there is no way to untangle just whose contribution was what. It would be like determining what part of a child comes from which parent. Only in theater, you have a score of parents, all contributing their own strands of DNA. But I’m pretty sure this play has my nose.

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I couldn’t think of a weird question, so I’ll give you the most common question I’m asked. When I tell people I’m a director and actor (I do that too), they almost invariably ask, “Which do you enjoy more?” For me, it’s like a farmer rotating his crops. When I direct I feel like I’ve contributed to every facet of the show and that is eminently satisfying and rewarding for me. But it’s also stressful and exhausting. When I act, stepping onto stage every night and living a character for a couple of hours is thrilling and fun. But my contribution is limited to that one (albeit cool) job. Bouncing back and forth between the two jobs keeps me fresh, and, I hope, helps me do both jobs better. I’ve been lucky to be able to do both, and pray I always will.

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4) It’s easy to see why Both Your Houses is the perfect play for an election year. Yet the play (with the exception of a TACT concert reading some years ago) is not often revived. Why do you think this is? Does anything about Anderson’s satirical tone, or the period in which the play was written, have something to do with it?
I couldn’t tell you why it isn’t often revived. It seems like a swell play to me! It was written during the depths of the Great Depression, when public opinion of the American government was at a spectacular low. It seems to me that there have been numerous other periods since then that would have been rife for such a play. The play has always struck me as a more cynical and raw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (which came out six years later). Perhaps with the threat of fascism and the war effort, and then the advent of the Cold War, we wanted our political satire to be a bit more optimistic. We wanted to believe in, at least, the potential of decent governance. All I do know is we’re terribly excited to be producing it today.

5) Have you had any personal experience with politics? If so (or if not), what emotional or psychological impulses that are specific to you do you bring to your direction of the play? As a director, what is your biggest artistic hurdle in taking the play on?
Honestly, I try to steer well clear of politics. Except, of course, for voting. I love doing that.

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I told my cast at the first rehearsal that I didn’t want them focusing on the politics of the play. We can leave that up to Maxwell Anderson and to our audience. I asked my actors to focus on the personal relationships and conflicts of the human beings they are portraying. It’s my firm belief that that is the most effective way to bring a play, political or otherwise, to life. In that way, we can be a clear conduit between the playwright and the audience. And they can make their decisions for themselves. Just like voting!

No, seriously. Vote! It’s important.

Bonus Question:

6) How do you turn Metropolitan Playhouse’s decidedly intimate space from a challenge into a virtue? Specifically, how will the intimacy of the space change the impact of Both Your Houses on the audience?
At Metropolitan, we are frequently challenged to bring the epics of American stage to life on our intimate stage. Exploding steamships and harrowing icy river crossings create unique staging tests in a theater with 52 seats. And, in my humble opinion, I think we rise to those challenges with creativity and aplomb. But Both Your Houses is actually perfect for our cozy confines. It really is a chamber piece. We invite our audience to sit in on the backroom dealings of the U.S. Congress. Anderson has tried to capture what these lawmakers are like when the radio mikes and cameras aren’t on them: unvarnished, petty, selfish and occasionally, heroic. That sort of fly-on-the-wall atmosphere is perfect for our fantastic space at Metropolitan.