August 15, 2006
Max Zirinsky, the protagonist of the new play “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,” is a do-first, think-about-it-later type of character. Whether it’s doing a shady favor for a friend or taking an Aspen ski trip as an adult, Zirinsky leaps in without considering the consequences – which usually turn out for the worst.When I asked Andrew Kole, the Aspen talk-show host and serial candidate for public office who makes his debut as a playwright with “Seemed Like a Good Idea,” what he had in common with Max, the words – as they often do with Kole – flowed.”He’s a risk-taker,” said the 56-year-old Kole, the host of GrassRoots TV’s “Andrew Kole: Unsolicited,” and a current candidate for mayor of Aspen. “He’s not afraid of failure. He doesn’t look at failure as a negative. And look at all the things I’ve done here. I’ve run, what, four times? I always lose. But I do it because it’s interesting to go through.”Max doesn’t necessarily think out the consequences of his decisions. He’ll just wing it, so he finds himself in odd and awkward situations that he talks his way out of. Max is pretty good on his feet, and so am I. He can talk. That’s what he does best. And people think that’s what I do best – and worst.”My next question caught Kole in a rare moment of silence. How, exactly, does impetuous Max Zirinsky differ from the character who created him? For this one, Kole had to do some reflecting. Finally, he finds the spot of daylight that separates him from Max.”I think Max more represents someone who gets himself in a situation, and is unsure of himself in that situation,” said Kole, whose play opened Thursday at Theatre Aspen and gets an extended run through Sept. 9. “He worries, like most people do. I don’t always worry – and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
With a past that includes careers in film marketing and Broadway advertising, and as host of Aspen radio and TV shows, Kole’s plunge into playwriting can seem like another instance of a plan not thought through. But “Seemed Like a Good Idea” has been years in the making, and Kole has paid enormous attention to his script. Witness the two boxes, mostly full, which contain some 70 separate versions of the play.In the earliest form of the project, Kole actually was his own main character. Kole, who had written several screenplays and TV pilots, none of them produced, wrote a series of short memoirs, his project in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Weekly Writers’ Group. He found that autobiographical short stories by an unknown author are the coldest of commodities. But he showed the work to Alan Osburn, the past artistic director of Theatre Aspen – then known as Aspen Theatre in the Park – who suggested he turn it into a fictional, comedic play. After Osburn resigned, Kole got his project in the hands of his replacement, David McClendon. McClendon, who saw promise in the play, scheduled it for a reading last summer as part of Theatre Aspen’s Sunday Series of events.Kole has been even more insistent in writing the play than he was in pushing for its production. He says that over a five-month period, spanning last August to December, he wrote every single day. Since early March of last year, not a day has gone by that he hasn’t worked on the play in one fashion or another. His daily routine, around taping his GrassRoots TV show, was to write at night, at home, and edit in the morning, over coffee at Jour de Fête.The writing and editing, Kole found, was the preliminary work. Three weeks ago, Theatre Aspen, with McClendon directing, began rehearsals, and Kole learned the truth of the saying that plays are not written, they are rewritten.”The biggest change came after the actors started reading it. Because it was the first time I saw people do it – act it out, read it out loud,” he said. “I got input from David, from the actors. The actors have come up with lines; one character who used to have two lines is now in three scenes. I’d rewrite when the actors took a break; I’d go out with the actors. It’s been overwhelming, to say the least.”
Kole didn’t go easy on himself regarding the play’s structure. Max Zirinsky is captured in moments of his life from ages 11 to 46; Max, played by Michael Thomas Holmes, never leaves the stage (another trait he shares with his author). The cast consists of just two more actors: Neil David Seibel and Brandy Burre (who both also star in “Dinner with Friends,” which concluded its Theatre Aspen run this week).
But between them, Seibel and Burre portray 30-plus characters, including Max’s girlfriends and guy friends, mother and father, business associates and housekeeper. The play is set in four locations – New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Aspen – and each of the various settings, both place and time, are pinpointed precisely. In addition to the live action, a video screen, in the shape of a light bulb (“a good idea”), flashes some 100 still images that serve as punch lines or move the plot along. The play is presented without intermission.”It’s not an easy play to do because of the video component and the audio,” said Kole, who becomes the first local playwright, at least in recent memory, to have a featured presentation in the Theatre Aspen season. (Janice Estey has written several of the organization’s children’s theater pieces.) “The fact that it’s got a mixed-media element to it has not been a walk in the park to make it work. There are so many moving parts to this thing. “It’s not even close to simple. But I didn’t purposely make it complicated. This is what was funny to me, and it happened to have a lot of elements.”
Kole likens the play, in form, to the first season of “Saturday Night Live”: “It’s a play, sketch comedy, video, music,” said Kole, who grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, and moved to Aspen in 1998 from Miami’s South Beach. “The audience is like the fourth wall, because Max tells a story to the audience. I know it’s not like anything that’s been seen here, at least at Theatre Aspen. It’s not like most plays. There’s stuff everywhere.”What Kole said about not worrying turns out not to be true. He has said he was “absolutely petrified” during last summer’s one-night workshop. The encouraging response he received – “Most comments were, ‘I thought it would be good, but not this good,'” he reports – still hasn’t calmed him completely; Kole, who has logged nearly 1,000 hours on local TV, admits he is still nervous about the reception.But Kole has a way of turning a deaf ear toward public opinion, and a blind eye toward his own fears. When it was proposed that he take “The Andrew Kole Show” from radio, where it had begun in 1999, to television, Kole wasn’t eager.”I couldn’t even imagine myself doing this, because I didn’t know if I’d be comfortable,” he said. “But I took the attitude, what’s the worst thing that could happen? It fails. I could handle that. There are worse things.”That approach became even more ingrained in Kole on May 9 of this year, when his mother, Helen Nemeroff, suffered a stroke. She has recovered physically, but can’t speak. Kole spent some weeks with her in Los Angeles, and returned, deep into his play, convinced, more than ever, that “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” was a good idea. And if, like Max Zirinsky’s many misadventures, it turned out to be not such a great notion … well, Kole would rather live with failure than regret.
“It told me, that’s far worse,” he said of his mother’s condition. “Having a stroke, someone passing away, being injured – those are awful things. The worst that could happen to me is, it’s not as good as I think. And I can’t take away from me that I’ve had a great year doing this.”There could be more good times ahead; Kole has no shortage of projects that look like good ideas for the moment. “aspenBeans!” a pilot for a sitcom based on Kole’s routine of having coffee with a group of guys, is in the hands of TV executives. “The Wrong Room,” his screenplay for a Hitchcock thriller, has been looked over by a potential director. And Kole has producers who are interested in bringing “Seemed Like a Good Idea” to Broadway, as early as fall of 2007.Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,” by Andrew Kole, at Theatre Aspen tonight and Saturday, Aug. 18-19, and through Sept. 9Also showing, in Theatre Aspen’s Sunday Series: “Squatter,” by Barry Smith, on Sunday, Aug. 20, at 7:30 p.m.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com