Powerhouse Couple Dooley and Holzman Brings "One of Your Biggest Fans" to George Street Playhouse
“One of Your Biggest Fans,” a play that will be on the George Street Theater stage from January 28 through February 23, is notable for several reasons.
First, the play marks the return of veteran actor and Second City alum Paul Dooley, last seen at George Street in 2007 opposite Jack Klugman in “The Sunshine Boys.” Second, Dooley’s co-star is none other than his real-life wife, writer-extraordinaire, Winnie Holzman. And third, the play is the first full-length piece on which this talented pair has collaborated.
I read that they started work on the idea for this play 30 years ago, and I asked Paul and Winnie to tell me about that.
“It was something we came up with when we were first married,” Holzman told me. “We had met acting together,” she said, “and we thought that if we wanted to do that again, we might have to do something about it.”
They both chuckle.
“The story was inspired by this small stack of fan mail that had sat unopened on Paul’s desk for months,” Holzman said.
“When we finally read the letters, we thought they were so humorous – and also so touching,” Holzman said. “We made notes on onion skin paper with wite-out.”
But, as Dooley quipped, “life got in the way and we got busy with other things.”
Dooley has appeared so regularly in movies and on television that even a partial list of his roles would be unwieldy. And Holzman’s writing credits include scripts for landmark television series such as “thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life,” and “Once and Again,” as well as a year-plus-long project with composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz that yielded the exceptional Broadway musical “Wicked.”
Yes, I’d say they got busy.
Over the years, they noodled a bit with the script, but as Holzman said, “the last thing you think you want to do when you are married is to write a play together.”
Then, in 2012, Holzman and Dooley were in New York when Hurricane Sandy hit. “We were stuck in the hotel,” she said. “Nothing was open, the subways weren’t running, we had nowhere to go,” she continued. “So we started working on the play.”
“We figured that we had so much done on it,” Dooley said, “we may as well finish it.”
“It was a simple story to begin with,” Holzman said, “but as we went along, it became deeper. It started from one place, and then it grew and transformed.”
“We both believe that people can change,” Holzman said, “and that’s really what the play becomes about – how other people make you change, and how the things that happen in everyday life – the interventions and interactions – change you.”
When creating the characters, Dooley and Holzman drew on personal experiences and observations, and– in some cases–on actual people they know.
There is Frank, a soap opera star worried about the future of his career; Emily, his former make-up artist and longtime romantic companion; Heather, Frank’s “biggest fan;” and Edgar, Heather’s grumpy and unapproachable father.
“We have a friend who’s been in a soap opera for two decades,” Dooley said, “so there are parts of the principal role that are loosely based on him.”
“But,” Holzman clarified, “the part of the girlfriend is NOT ME!”
And the plot, which we now know grew from Holzman and Dooley’s early story idea, unfolds over the play’s three acts to reveal the unexpected and unlikely connections that occur among this quartet of people.
“What I was thinking with Frank is that he is older now. His role in the soap opera is less and less important. And he is feeling like he doesn’t matter anymore,” Dooley said, “which is something that is hard for all of us as we get older,”
And, the playwrights explained, the other characters are also struggling with similar issues. They feel unappreciated, and their reactions are rooted in paranoia and fear.
“When this happens to people,” Dooley said, “they either get bitter or they open up.”
In “One of Your Biggest Fans,” the characters all find a connection, and they begin to imagine new possibilities. “What happens is almost mystical,” Holzman said, “and these people affect each other without knowing it.”
So, Holzman and Dooley wrote the play, and they star in the play, and they are married to each other in “real life.” I couldn’t help but ask them how this process of first writing, and then starring together in this play, has been going for them.
Holzman speaks up. “It’s hard,” she said. “I was very sensitive to Paul’s comments about my acting and sometimes was offended. That exposed my fear of criticism.”
“But that’s also why this is such a greatexperience,” she said. “I feel like I am challenging myself and letting myself learn. And that is thrilling!”
Holzman also noted that the daily work required to prepare for a show – the memorizing lines, the blocking out scenes, the rehearsals – is demanding. “Paul is very practiced at it,” she said. “I’m not used to so much acting.”
Holzman also mentioned that being both the writers and the performers is an unusual situation. “It makes you feel a little schizoid,” Holzman said. “We’re rewriting every day, making actual changes,” she said. “It’s inevitable.”
“The other day Paul ad-libbed a line and we liked it and made the change,” she said. “It’s like the actors in us are talking to the writers in us.”
Both Dooley and Holzman agree that this give-and-take has been good for their personal relationship. “Creating together is another kind of bonding,” Holzman said.
“What is really funny is that - as an acting couple - we find ourselves doing scenes that are not far from our normal breakfast or dinner conversations.”
“People who visit us are always amazed that we are putting on a show in the kitchen.”
"One of Your Biggest Fans" opens Tuesday, January 28 and runs through Sunday, February 23. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.georgestplayhouse.org. Jersey Arts Members can get a 25 percent discount with their card on Tuesday-Thursday evenings, Saturday afternoons and Sunday evening performances.