Right time, this year for Theatre Aspen production | AspenTimes.com

Right time, this year for Theatre Aspen production

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesDirector Jay Sandrich, right, with actor James Ludwig, on the set of "Same Time, Next Year." Theatre Aspen's production of Bernard Slade's romantic comedy opens Friday, July 16, and runs through Aug. 20 in Theatre Aspen's season of rotating repertory.

ASPEN – Having spent the bulk of his career as a Los Angeles-based director of TV sitcoms, Jay Sandrich wasn’t intimately acquainted with the world of Broadway. He wasn’t a big theater-goer, never stockpiled a list of stage comedies that he might like to adapt, and gave no thought to making the jump from the small screen to the live stage.

With one big exception. In 1975, Sandrich saw the original Broadway production of “Same Time, Next Year.” Bernard Slade’s romantic comedy, about a couple maintaining an adulterous affair by meeting once a year over 25 years, wasn’t just an enjoyable night of theater for Sandrich. The play got lodged in his head. Sandrich doesn’t just remember bits of dialogue or scenes, he recalls the overall feel of the play, and how he responded to it, both as an audience member and as a director of comedy.

“I never forgot, as an audience member, how they got me. And that’s an unusual thing. I mean, a play you saw in 1975? That’s a lot of years ago,” the 78-year-old Sandrich, who has lived part-time in a house up Castle Creek for 16 years, said. “There were three or four moments I remember from the first time I saw it – I remember exactly how I felt, what I was feeling. It wasn’t the plot, wasn’t the lines. It was just how he set certain things up. I’ve always thought, If I were going to do a theater piece, this would be the one.”

As it happened, Sandrich didn’t focus his attention on theater, either on “Same Time, Next Year” or anything else. He was busy with sitcoms: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Soap,” “The Cosby Show” and “Golden Girls,” all of which he was instrumental in creating; as well as “The Odd Couple,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Night Court” and “The Office,” which he directed episodes of. When he ventured away from TV, to direct the 1980 Goldie Hawn-Chevy Chase movie “Seems Like Old Times,” he found the pace of filmmaking too slow for his liking, and headed back to sitcoms.

In his retirement, however, Sandrich was coaxed to try his hand at a new medium by Theatre Aspen artistic director Paige Price. Sandrich made his debut as a stage director in 2008, with Theatre Aspen’s production of the baseball comedy, “Rounding Third.” With that experience under his belt, he turned to his long-held affection for “Same Time, Next Year.” Theatre Aspen put the show on its schedule for its 2009 summer season, with Sandrich set to direct. But those plans were shoved aside by a proposed Broadway revival of “Same Time, Next Year,” rumored to be adapted as a musical. That meant that all other rights to perform the show were being revoked. In its place, Sandrich directed the Neil Simon comedy, “Chapter Two.”

When the schedule was drawn up for Theatre Aspen’s 2010 season, it included a new play, “Family Business,” the world premiere of which was to be directed by Sandrich. But late in the game – in mid-May, less than two months before it was set to open – that production was scratched, due to what Price referred to as “artistic differences” between Sandrich and the writing team of Charlotte Brown and John Baskin.

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Finding a replacement, though, was a simple process. The Broadway production of “Same Time, Next Year” had also been canceled, and before “Family Business” was even wiped off Theatre Aspen’s printed program, Sandrich was preparing his dream gig of staging “Same Time, Next Year.”

“Jay was thrilled,” Price said. “He had his notes in front of him when I called him with the news.”

Adding to the good news, “Same Time, Next Year,” which opens Friday, July 16, reunites Sandrich with actors Joan Hess and James Ludwig, who were featured last year in “Chapter Two” and happened to be available to return to Aspen. The continuity of cast members puts Sandrich on familiar ground, reminding him of the sitcom process which gathers more or less the same cast week after week.

“Having Joan and James is like making a series,” Sandrich said. “They know my attitudes, what I’m looking for when I can’t verbalize it. I know their strengths. We have a shorthand we speak.”

In the bigger picture, too, Sandrich finds himself on fairly recognizable artistic ground. The plays he has done for Theatre Aspen – the only work he has done in his retirement from TV – have been small-scale comedies. “Rounding Third” had two characters, “Chapter Two” had a cast of four, and “Same Time, Next Year” stars just Hess and Ludwig.

“This is not really a tremendous departure from what I did before,” Sandrich said. “If I were doing a big theater piece, a musical with sets and scenery, that would be a different story. What we would do in TV, we were putting on a half-hour play every week, basically.”

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“Same Time, Next Year” presents a fundamental challenge that Sandrich didn’t face in his last two stage efforts. The play doesn’t just take place over time, but it overtly measures the passing years, the changes in American society from 1951, when the couple George and Doris first meet, to 1975, when the final scene is set. The play catches George and Doris’ meetings every five years, and a significant factor in making the passage of time vivid for an audience is the costuming, and costume designer Rebecca Bernstein.

“It’s not just their changes as human beings. It’s how society has changed – the Vietnam years, the drop-out years,” Sandrich said. “They’re playing a variety of people. They’re both always in different places in their lives. And Joan, she goes through a lot of these changes in looks. It’s such a part of what’s happening – they have to look like the styles were in those years, and they’re very different styles. It’s got to be real; we can’t fake the type of look.”

The costuming was among the final elements to be put into place, as Bernstein was a relatively late arrival from New York. Still, Sandrich expressed an overall comfort level with how the show was shaping up. Hess and Ludwig had come prepared; even in the first days of rehearsal, Sandrich said, “I could see acting. They weren’t carrying scripts; they weren’t fumbling.” A full week before opening night, Sandrich added, “The three of us are ready to put this in front of an audience.”

Sandrich’s confidence is based on not just what has been going on in Aspen these last few weeks, but what he saw in New York City in 1975. With “Same Time, Next Year,” he has a script he has been thinking about for 35 years, and his view of the play hasn’t diminished over time.

“It’s fascinating how Bernie Slade met the challenge of caring about these characters,” Sandrich said. “They’re both in adulterous relationships, and it’s hard to get the audience to care about how they’re doing in their lives. And the way he shows the changes they’re going through, you see the yin and yang of this relationship. I love this script.

“If it’s writing that’s not as good as this, and the situations are not as fun, the challenge is just to make it work, to make the moments passable. With television, you just bring in the writers to rewrite it. But with theater, the writer isn’t there. But with ‘Same Time, Next Year,’ you’re not asking, ‘How did the writer get away with that? Why didn’t he add this here?'”

The question that is left hanging is: What does Sandrich do next?

“When this season is over, and if Paige invites me back, it comes down to, Is there a play I want to do?” Sandrich said. “I have to find the right play, that’s right for me to do.”

For the moment, Sandrich knows he has found the right play, the one that’s stuck with him for 35 years.

stewart@aspentimes.com