Covid, crutches, surgery: for Christopher Abbott, the show somehow went on


Christopher Abbott was halfway through a performance of “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” when he sensed something went wrong. The 37-year-old actor had been sitting on stage (his character, a brutal truck driver, proposing to a tormented woman played by Aubrey Plaza) and when he went to get up, he couldn't straighten his leg.

That injury at the beginning of December (he had a bucket-handle meniscus tear) was shortly followed by a case of Covid and arthroscopic surgery. And then she returned to the stage, performing for several weeks on crutches, until the end of the show's 11 weeks on Saturday night.

The two-actor play is a 1984 drama by John Patrick Shanley about two hardened people who meet in a Bronx bar and end up spending a night together. The run, presented Off-Broadway at the 295-seat Lucille Lortel Theatre, was unusually eventful.

A performance was canceled the day after Abbott's knee injury; another was canceled when Plaza tested positive for Covid, while Abbott also had the disease. (Plaza, making his professional theater debut, is particularly popular thanks to “Parks & Recreation” and “The White Lotus.” Abbott is best known for independent films, Off Broadway plays and a stint on “Girls,” and his next project is a studio movie, the monster movie reboot “Wolf Man”).

For four shows, when both actors were away, the producers refunded all previously sold tickets and then offered seats for $30 to anyone who wanted to see the understudies. And for three shows, while Abbott recovered from surgery, first-time director Jeff Ward, who is also an actor, continued in the lead role.

But whatever alchemy makes some productions successful was present in this case. These actors really wanted to do this play. The public was eager to see these actors and some were willing to pay high prices. (Ticket prices ranged from a low of $59 at the start of the race to a high of $349 at the end, and there were $20 lottery tickets everywhere.)

Last week, the “Danny” production team (Play Hooky Productions, which includes actor Sam Rockwell along with Mark Berger, as well as Seaview, Sue Wagner and John Johnson) announced that it had recouped its $1.25 cap cost. million dollars, which is a rare feat, particularly for commercial off-Broadway shows at a difficult time for the theater industry.

In conversations in Abbott's fourth-floor walk-up apartment in TriBeCa (yes, he's somehow managing a fourth-floor walk-up apartment on crutches) and on the phone, he discussed “Danny's” career. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

How did it feel to get to the end?

It seems that we did two versions of this work. From the previews to opening night and the first few weeks, it grew, and then the injury happened, and then that version grew. I really felt like until the last show we were still figuring things out. The work was only done due to the date we had to close; otherwise, it would have evolved even further.

You learned?

What the role and the play demand, for Aubrey and me, is sustained agitation. I've never had to maintain that level of intensity. In every job you learn something, you grow, and all those tropes, but with this work, it was a new level, a new kind of test for me.

So how did you get hurt?

It was something totally strange. I sat back on my heels and went to get up, and I must have gotten up quickly, or awkwardly. I felt a pinch. I felt like my knee had locked up. While we were still doing the scene, I tried to straighten him out and put weight on him and I couldn't. So I limped through the rest of the show. Apparently it was still a good show, but I was on another planet. A couple of minutes later I thought: I have to go to the hospital after this.

Did you think about finishing the program?

I thought about it, of course. I thought about stopping the show. I thought about just walking off stage. I thought, “Should I say something to the audience?” But at that point we only had about 30 minutes of work left, so I thought I'd finish it. It hurt, but it didn't hurt as much if I kept my leg bent and didn't try to walk on it. Fortunately, Aubrey and I had been doing the show long enough for her to know something was wrong and she moved on.

What did you do then?

This happened on a Saturday. We canceled that show on Sunday. The director, the choreographers and Aubrey came here, and right here in my living room we tried to come up with a new staging.

And medically?

On Monday the doctor told me that I would have to have surgery. It wasn't something I could avoid or postpone. It was very disappointing, but the next day I went in, rehearsed and did a show. My surgery was scheduled for the following Wednesday, so we do the program that week; I simply keep my leg bent, with a brace and on crutches. And then, that weekend, I also got Covid, and the next day, so did Aubrey.

Did you think about just finishing the race?

No. I had already figured out the staging, how to do it with crutches, so I knew I would be able to return to that version. Honestly, showering is more precarious for me than what I do on stage. Or go up and down my steps. I didn't think I was going to back out. We worked very hard on this and there is a sense of ownership that I feel and we all feel. You'd have to take it off my hands. I wouldn't want anyone else to do it.

Of course, when the show starts, your character is coming off a fight.

Exactly. It works strangely. It adds an inherent vulnerability that, for Aubrey's character and mine, levels the playing field in terms of the type of threat they pose to each other. Physically I am bigger than Aubrey and it is a violent work. So it created a more equal danger for both of us.

Do you think the public knows this?

On the first show, when I came back, Jeff made an announcement and it distracted me, so we stopped telling people. Now people think it's just part of the show.

This production was distinguished in part by a dance interlude between the two scenes.

It was elaborate and beautiful, and that's what I miss most. The dance carries you along beautifully from scene one, which ends with him deciding to go with her, and then scene two is post-coital. The dance is not just to represent them having sex, but it is the courtship and the journey, which goes from these two animals biting and scratching each other, to tenderness. The dance is representative of the people they both dream of being.

There's still a dance interlude, but you're mostly sitting in a chair. Were you able to communicate those same ideas with less mobility?

Yes. It may be less physically impressive, but the idea is still conveyed.

So let's back up. What attracted you to “Danny”?

It's one of those plays in acting class that everyone does. He had never seen a production of it, but he had worked on it back in the day and seen people work on it. I hadn't really thought about it for a while, until Jeff brought it to my attention; He brought me a copy, and I re-read it and thought, “This could be my swan song, in terms of the angry young man.” “Man thing, given my age and where I am.” And it's great to do that. I love the work. It's poetic, but also very real. And it's a fun and beautiful dialogue to analyze.

It seems that you are attracted to roles with rage.

This is a business where work begets work, so if you do one thing and people see you do it, then they will think of you if there is similar pathos in a character. But I find beauty in characters who have difficulty speaking. I don't mean stupid, but they have a hard time expressing emotions, so things are very guttural; They do not come from a cerebral place, but rather from the gut and more from the heart. I'm attracted to things like that, I feel like I understand them.

What is it like to endure so much anguish, night after night?

You let it go after the show. But it's a level of excitement that I don't have in my daily life. It's exhausting, but I think it's good. Simply subjecting the body to those emotional spikes is not something we do often enough when everyone is so self-aware, thoughtful, and has an answer for everything. There's something very old school about the way these characters express themselves: they're clear about it and they're not hiding anything, and that's refreshing.

What do you think about ticket prices? There has been a lot of discussion about this industry throughout the industry, and they got pretty high for this one.

I'm not excited about that. I don't claim to know the business, but I suppose there have to be certain prices for investors to get their money back. I'm not sure why it's so expensive to make a piece. If I ever produce something, I'll look into it more. But of course, I would like the prices to be cheaper.

Whats Next?

I have to improve my leg for the next job. I'll continue to see my physical therapist and just work on it and get better so I can do the next job, and that will be in March in New Zealand: “The Wolfman.”

Will you do theater again?
Of course.

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