Back Stage West
Men Behaving Badly
Veteran actor Brian Kerwin thrives on button-pushing fare.

By Les Spindle
February 3, 2005


Brian Kerwin has just finished a rigorous day of rehearsals, and he mentions that he plans to wind down by having a drink with a fellow actor from the show. "It's been one of those 'have-a-drink-after-work' kind of days," he says. But workday pressures notwithstanding, he immediately seems energized, animated, and enthusiastic during our conversation. As he speaks of working in projects he loves, Kerwin's passion for his craft flows forth in candid anecdotes and incisive comments. This seems especially true as he discusses his most thought-provoking, controversial projects, such as his current lead role in the Southern California premiere of Edward Albee's 2002 Tony-winner for Best Play. The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?.


There's plenty to talk about, as Kerwin has an amazingly lengthy resume of stage, screen, and TV credits amassed during the past three decades, during his journey from matinee-idol-handsome twentysomething rookie to middle-aged character actor extraordinaire. "I was recently at home in my basement [in New York, where he resides with his wife and three children], packing stuff up." he says. "I save scripts from all my work, and I was surprised to see that what was in all those boxes was quite hefty. It's all been good for me, even when the end product hasn't been the best--particularly some of the TV work. I'm in a very good place in my career now. Like many actors, I have spent my life doing theatre that I care about, and TV that pays the bills." Some would agree that not all of Kerwin's TV work has been in stellar projects. Few are likely to remember the country-fried Smokey and the Bandit-type series that he appeared in on NBC from 1979 to 1981, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. On the other hand, there has been considerable acclaim for many of his TV projects, such as the 1999 Showtime series Beggars and Choosers, and the 2000 Showtime anthology film Common Ground, which Kerwin appeared in and executive produced.


But it's clearly the stage that gets this thespian's juices flowing, and at present he's intensely focused on the Albee play, the second work of this revered playwright that Kerwin has tackled. He played the opportunistic college professor Nick in the Albee masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in an Ahmanson Theatre production at Hollywood's Doolittle Theatre in 1989, directed by Albee and starring Glenda Jackson and John Lithgow as Martha and George. Kerwin considers working in another Albee play--and this one in particular--to be a fabulous opportunity. "This is a bit of a tour de force for me, one that I hopefully succeed in pulling off," he says.


This play has one major aspect in common with the last one Kerwin performed at the Taper, Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize--winning How I Learned To Drive, in 1999. In both plays, Kerwin has taken on characters whose sexual behavior is considered shocking and taboo--even criminal. In the Vogel play, he played a man who has sexual relations with his teenage niece. In The Goat, he is an ostensibly "normal" family man who abruptly drops a bombshell: He's having a romantic relationship with a goat. Both plays have elicited lavish praise accompanied by shock waves, ruffling feathers not only because of the hot-button subject matter but also because these characters are depicted sympathetically, or at least not judgmentally. "The interesting thing is that no matter what perceptions we have about older people, conservative people, religious people, or Republicans, audiences will embrace a well-written play," says Kerwin. "This is true even when the subject matter is something they don't talk about at the dinner table. Many people prefer not to talk about bestiality. or pedophilia, but the fact is, they are there. And in these plays they are metaphors for much larger subjects. How I Learned To Drive was wonderful because it was saying these situations don't necessarily occur between a villain--a horrid awful person--and a poor victim. They can occur between two people who love each other very dearly. People don't want to hear of a pedophile depicted as a wonderful, loving, caring person."


Kerwin believes that Albee's new play raises fascinating questions that need to be explored. "Edward has taken an antisocial behavior of enormous proportions, and his character is trying to make a case for it. What you end up with is a play that is really asking, 'Where do we draw the line in any kind of behavior? How do we decide what's acceptable? How does one person draw the line in one place, and another person in another?' One of the sort of classic conundrums or twists in this play is that my character, Martin, has a teenage son who's gay, and Martin has started taking issue with that. He seems to have some problem in accepting that, even though he acknowledges it, and the son is out of the closet, and that's fine. Martin has no problem with his own sexual behavior: having sex with a goat. What do we need in society in terms of having tolerance toward other people's behavior?"


Kerwin appears to be the epitome of an open-minded human being, with a charitable "live and let live" spirit. But like everyone else, he has experienced moments of culture shock. His introduction to the Harvey Fierstein play Torch Song Trilogy, in which he later appeared onstage and film, is a prime example. This is the play that sent actor/writer Fierstein's career into the stratosphere, a heartfelt semi-autobiographical piece about the joys and heartbreaks of a warm-hearted gay man, who happens to be a female impersonator. "That play was another example of a groundbreaker when it came out in 1982, in a big way," Kerwin asserts. "I went to see it when it was playing on Broadway. Someone had suggested that I should go see it; that it's supposed to be wonderful. I got a date to go with me, and when I was talking to my friend, the day before seeing it, he said, 'Make sure you take a nap or something beforehand, because the play is three and a half hours long.' Then he said, 'But it's supposed to be very good for a gay play.'"


Kerwin says he was, at that point, taken aback--to put it mildly. "I said to myself, 'Oh, Jesus. Don't do this to me. Not a gay proselytizing play--I've got to be me, I've got to be me--and for three and half hours.' I told my date, 'Look, I don't care what time it is, or how much the tickets cost. If you feel like leaving, we're just getting up and walking out.' Then, by three hours and 20 minutes into it, I hadn't looked at my watch once. I found it to be one of the most wonderful plays I've ever seen. And, for that time, it wasn't just groundbreaking because it was about gay lifestyles. It was because of the crossover audience it was attracting. It was not a gay audience going to see a gay-themed show. It was really about love and family, with all kinds of audiences, particularly a heterosexual audience. So I ended up doing productions in San Francisco and L.A. I did more than 200 performances, then did the film with Harvey." Kerwin played the bisexual lover of Fierstein's female-impersonator character, suffering a homosexual panic attack and fleeing from the relationship, but eventually returning. Perhaps signifying that audiences nowadays are more open-minded, in general--or at least that they find out what they are going to see before they attend--Kerwin says there were more walkouts during Torch Song than the very few that occur during The Goat.


Kerwin further explains that during audience discussions following The Goat--when he appeared in a production in Seattle in 2003. with the same co-star Cynthia Mace and same director, Warner Shook--the reactions were surprisingly accepting. "The audiences, of course, felt strongly about the play. Yet very few' said they thought it was wrong depicting bestiality as something okay. I don't think anybody came out with the message it's all right to fuck a goat. But I think they understand that this sexual practice is the backbone of the story. It's why the characters do such funny and tragic things in this astonishing play. When I was talking to Jack O'Brien [of the Old Globe Theatre and many Broadway directing credits] before going into the play, he said, 'I not only love this play. I love what it does to audiences.' And that's what I love about it too. Audiences are definitely made uncomfortable, but in a way that's very energized and thought-provoking. I believe that in years to come this will be considered among Edward's finest works."