Making themselves at home in the mezzanine of the Walter Kerr Theatre, Ben Stiller must remind Edie Falco that they've worked together before — and that he's still bitter about it. "We both did a celebrity edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 2001," says Stiller. "She won $250,000, but I went out with $32,000. 'What's a loofah made of?'"
"I love how you remember the question," says Falco.
"I'll never forget it," he insists. "I said, 'Sea plant.' It's 'tropical gourd'!"
Ten years later, the actors have reunited under less competitive circumstances in the Broadway revival of John Guare's seminal tragicomedy The House of Blue Leaves, now playing a limited engagement on Broadway. Stiller stars as Artie Shaughnessy, a zookeeper from Queens who wants to become a famous singer-songwriter. "In terms of our celebrity culture, the play is more relevant now than when it was written," Stiller says. "It's almost like John saw ahead into the future."
Looking back, Stiller is no stranger to the play, which is set during Pope Paul VI's 1965 visit to New York. Stiller's mother, Anne Meara, appeared in the original 1971 Off-Broadway production as Artie's mistress, Bunny, a role played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the current revival. "We have home movies from '71 where John's pretending to ask me for notes on his script, and I just look like a scared six-year-old," Stiller says. At 20, he made his Broadway and professional acting debut as Ronnie, Artie's bomb-making son, in Lincoln Center Theater's acclaimed 1986 mounting.
"I saw that production, but I didn't realize it was Ben until many years later," Falco admits.
"Clearly I made a huge impact on her," Stiller teases.
"All I remember is leaving the play and thinking, 'If what just happened in there can happen in a theatre, I deeply want in,'" Falco continues. "Like when I saw Sweeney Todd and thought, 'I would give my right arm to be a part of this magic.'"
No amputation necessary: Falco now stars as Artie's schizophrenic wife, Bananas. "She's nuts," says Falco of the character. "But as you learn more, you understand how that unfolded."
Crazier still is the fact that 25 years after playing Ronnie, Stiller has come back to Broadway for the first time, as Ronnie's father. "I'd been wanting to do Broadway again for years — the timing just wasn't right — but I never thought it would be in House of Blue Leaves," he says. When producer Scott Rudin suggested the idea, Stiller says that the biggest draw was director David Cromer, a recent MacArthur "genius" grant recipient best known for his acclaimed Off-Broadway staging of Our Town. "I knew David would give the play a very different interpretation, which is the only reason to do it again," says Stiller. "Revisiting the play was daunting. My biggest challenge was finding my own Artie. John Mahoney, who won a Tony, was so wonderful in that role. I had to exorcise the ghosts of those great performances."
Also haunted by Swoosie Kurtz's Tony-winning take on Bananas, Falco makes her fourth Broadway outing after turns as damaged women in the plays Side Man, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and 'night, Mother. Most recently, Falco appeared as an ex-con in Off-Broadway's This Wide Night. "Women who are lost and confused tend to be characters I'm most interested in," she says, "but in playing Bananas, I've realized that I'm done with them. I imagine the next thing I do will be different." A musical comedy? "Maybe Brecht."
Stiller is an actor, director and screenwriter most beloved for movies like Zoolander, Tropic Thunder and the Meet the Parents trilogy. "I like that somebody could come to this show because they're a fan of Ben's movies and fall in love with theatre by accident," Falco says.
Stiller modestly argues that audiences will be filled with fans of Falco's Emmy-winning work on The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie, but both agree that the scene at the stage door will probably be bananas either way. "I need to sneak out early so I can wait by the stage door for Kiefer Sutherland at That Championship Season," Stiller jokes. "I'm a huge 24 fan."
Playbill, May 2011 issue.