Do you love movies and want a slice of the old-fashioned movie going experience? Try a bit of theater and head on over to Pasadena Playhouse’s production for “Stoneface.” Vanessa Claire Stewart’s play invites the audience to step into the memories of an older alcoholic Buster Keaton as he remembers his youth at the top of the silent movie industry.
French Stewart stars as Keaton in a play that began as an equity waiver small theater production and was a birthday present from his then-girlfriend and now wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart.
French calls it “a physically and emotionally dangerous show.” This show has become a homemade homage to one of the silver screens pioneers. Known for his deadpan face and physical comedy, Keaton at his prime starred, wrote and directed his films.
The play came about because Vanessa remembers, “At the time, I was so poor, I thought it was all I had to offer him (French).”
French Stewart might be best known for his role in the 1996-2001 comedy “3rd Rock from the Sun” in which he played one of four extraterrestrials on an expedition to gain information about earthlings while attempting to appear like a normal human family. French played the communications officer Harry Solomon who would periodically and usually inconveniently have to use his arms as antennas when the foursome received an incoming message from their superior, the Big-Giant Head.
More recently, he’s been added to the cast of CBS’ “Mom” as a regular in the role of the arrogant Chef Rudy.
In a recent phone interview, French explained, that he first learned about Keaton after he had left his hometown of Albuquerque, NM and come to Los Angeles. He first watched “Seven Chances,” and he recalls, “I just thought, ‘I wish I could do that.’ He was like the Michael Jordan of movies. The closest we have now is Jackie Chan. I just thought he was miraculous. I started watching his movies and fell in love with what he does.” At the time, French was 19 and an usher at the Pasadena Playhouse, attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts which was still in Pasadena. He wanted to someday play Keaton
Those familiar with the Los Angeles theater scene might also know French from his days as a member of the fabled Cast Theater (1989-2000) where he was an original cast member in Justin Tanner’s “Zombie Attack” (1989) “Party Mix” (1991), “Intervention” (1995) and “Pot Mom” (1994). “Zombie Attack” was one of Tanner’s longest running plays (co-written with Andy Daley) and came well before zombies became cool and French Stewart’s turn as a scientist in the 2012 Syfy movie “Rise of the Zombies.”
French won an LA Weekly award for his portrayal of the movie house part-time usher son (“Yes, I’m an usher, but I want to direct.” ) of the eponymous mother in “Pot Mom.” “It’s about a mother whose children have not left her home and their stepfather is growing pot in the backyard and all the kids are stealing it,” French explained. “It’s a Salinas white trash epic.”
French confesses, “I owe everything I have to Justin Tanner. He came out of LACC with a bunch of other people. There was just a really solid group of actors when I was a young, young man. He basically became the David Mamet of Los Angeles. He made epic white trash art. We still do.” French met Tanner through a mutual friend who happened to also be doing children’s theater for Kaiser Permanente.
Tanner not only wrote, he directed his plays as well. Rehearsals were chaotic. “I would come in. We would drink; we would work for a while then we would drink some more, then we would have an argument and rehearsal was over. Right up to the point of the show, we wouldn’t be ready. It would happen time and time again when I would just say, ‘I’m never going to work together again,’ and I’d take a year off and be back..’”
Laurie Metcalf who was a cast member of the TV show, “Roseanne” at the time, dropped in to see the show, met Tanner and eventually was cast as a replacement. In 1998, Metcalf took the play to Chicago’s Steppenwolf.
French is still in touch with Tanner and recently starred as vocal teacher who must deal with a tone-deaf clueless wanna-be diva played by Metcalf in a recent production of “Voice Lessons” at French’s new theatrical home, Sacred Fools.
Opening in 1997, the Sacred Fools company produced a show in 2008 written by and starring Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder called “Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara” which proved to be so popular that it was transferred first to the Matrix Theatre and , in 2009, a revised version opened at the Geffen Playhouse. The Geffen also had a production of “Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas” playing with French in a supporting role. And that’s how French met Vanessa.
Soon, they were dating, stopping by a tiki bar and talking in a booth and French began talking about Buster Keaton. One of the things he mentioned was he regretted was that he was too old to play Keaton. Yet Keaton had a long career, making his last appearance a year before his death at 70 from lung cancer in the 1965 “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
In a separate telephone interview, Vanessa explained “I knew he (French) has such a love for this man that as I was falling in love with French, I wanted to know about his hero, too. So I picked up a bio so I would know more. I thought the most interesting part of his life was after his success.”
French would be away, working gigs in Canada and Vanessa would use that time to read about Keaton. “I finished the first draft in five months and I’m still re-writing it. French received draft number three for his birthday present. By the time “Stoneface” came to Sacred Fools, it was in its eighth or ninth iteration.
Vanessa commented that “Once French had it in his hands” the play became pretty collaborative, mostly with his own dialogue. “Some words feel better in his mouth and some things he wanted to be shorter.” French and Vanessa trusted each other’s instincts and they trusted the director they brought on board: Jaime Robledo.
Robledo had previously worked with Vanessa and recently directed French in the play “Watson” at Sacred Fools.
French explained, “What we did with ‘Stoneface’ (at Sacred Fools) was grow it. It’s like growing a flower out of the pavement in a tough neighborhood.”
Neither Vanessa nor the play’s director Jaime Robledo knew French during his time at the Cast Theater or were fans of “3rd Rock.” That show may have actually limited the roles French was getting, as French put it “On TV or in a movie, I can either play a small goofball in a big movie or a big goofball in a small movie. In the theater, I do whatever I want because basically, I’m doing it for free.”
The full title of the play is “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton.” What was later recognized as his greatest achievement, the 1927 “The General,” broke Keaton financially and resulted in his loss of artistic independence. Faced with financial and personal problems, Keaton drank himself into has-been-hood.
This is the Keaton that French is playing. French explained, “I play him middle-aged, who’s a little drunk and physically depleted.” A younger actor plays Keaton in his youth. “The show starts with him in a straight jacket in a drunk tank, having married a nurse. He doesn’t even know who she is.” The Stewarts are working with Keaton’s family “to make sure they felt he was being respected.” In the end, French added, “It’s a beautiful story. It’s an elegant story, but a rough story.”
Keaton’s story is told through scenes from his movies that are worked into the context of the show as metaphors.
The team wasn’t sure they had a hit, particularly after a stressful opening weekend which saw French leaving Los Angeles after the last show, a Sunday matinee, for a family emergency. Vanessa was en route to pick him up at LAX when she read a text sent by the director (while she was safely waiting at a stoplight). “I had to pull over the car and cry. I was so relieved. The LA Times has a glowing review and made it a critic’s choice. I looked up the review on my phone. When I met French at the airport, I was crying. At first he thought something horrible had happened. I think I quoted the LA Times review which said he was a revelation. I pulled up the review on my phone at baggage claim. It wasn’t just a good review; it was an amazing review.”
If you loved the show in its Sacred Fools phase, don’t worry. This team has worked hard to keep its homemade feel. According to Vanessa, they did listen to the critics and make sure that the audience will be able to keep the timeline straight as the action flashes back and forth. Robledo describes the transformation as “We’re keeping the heart and putting it in a better body; the heart and soul aren’t changing.”
Rehearsals now are a family affair. French and Vanessa have a baby and a nursery has been set up with a nanny. Complainers get sent to the nursery. “Take care of a baby is like taking care of a drunk person all day long. They can’t really walk. They can’t really talk. They might throw up and they never sober up. Over the course of years you get to sober them up. That’s your job. Until then you have a full-time Gary Busey.”
Robledo also found parallels between French and Keaton. “There is such great dignity in both French and Buster, their trials and ups and downs in life. They aspire to something greater to what they were pigeon-holed as.”
“This is very much a Cinderella-like story for me. I was worried that I was a one-hit wonder. Whether you know Buster Keaton or not, this is a human story, a story of redemption about an artist who like French was also very underrated in his time. This is a bigger, better version than the one at Sacred Fools.”
Yet in this story it’s hard to tell who plays the part of the prince—Vanessa or French. Robledo said. “French found his happiness doing this show; it’s the best thing I’ve seen him do and he gives so much to the audience, “ but moreover “Stoneface” has become a family affair, a really sweet love story about how by working together French and Vanessa have found success again in the theater and the production at the Pasadena Playhouse might just be the another step toward bigger and better things.
“Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton” opens on June 3 and continues until June 29 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena. Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.Tickets are $39-$74 . Visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org or call (626) 356-7529 for more information.
—A shorter version of this interview appeared in the Pasadena Weekly.