There won’t be any scuffles breaking out onstage in James Naughton and daughter Keira’s collaboration on the play “Cedars,” now running on the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge.
For years, Keira, an actress, was part of a theatrical rock band called The Petersons, which performed around New York. Special guests often joined the faux family folk group onstage. James, a two-time Tony Award winner for “Chicago” and “City of Angels,” appeared several times as Keira’s “father,” an angry, militaristic arch-conservative who was upset at his progeny for what he saw as her provocative way of performing.
“We would get into these tremendous imbroglios in the course of the show. And at one point, I got into a physical altercation with the guy who played Keira’s husband and bandmate, and I knocked him off the stage. It was an awful lot of fun,” James recounts by phone recently.
“A lot of the audience didn’t know whether it was real or not,” adds Keira, laughing. “It was like, is he playing a character? Or is that really her father?”
The two have experienced considerably less contention with “Cedars,” a bracing one-man play written by Erik Tarloff and directed by Keira. James plays Gabe, whose father lies comatose in a hospital bed. The action unfolds as a series of visits Gabe makes to his unseen father’s bedside as he confesses to the catatonic man — whose presence is suggested abstractly (there is no dummy in a bed) — his slew of personal troubles: a busted marriage, strained relationships with his two teenage children, a mentally unstable mother, an ebbing career as a defense lawyer, a hilariously depressing dating life. The midlife crisis is compounded by the stormy relationship he had with his now-unresponsive father.
“Cedars” marks Keira’s second foray into directing, after a one-act play she helmed last summer at Berkshire Theatre Group. James, too, has directed before, including the 2002-03 production of “Our Town” on Broadway, starring his close friend the late Paul Newman.
The Naughtons discussed the play, Keira’s transition into directing, and following her father into the family business.
Q. James, what first attracted you to the play? Why did you want to do it?
James: This all came about because Erik Tarloff was thinking for quite some time about the possibility of what it would be if you were talking to somebody who couldn’t hear you. It would allow you a kind of honesty and emotional candor. There’s nothing you wouldn’t say or nothing you couldn’t voice. It’s about my character, Gabe, confronting all the most important relationships he has in his life. . . . And they’re all really complicated. What you learn is that Gabe’s father was very abusive. His mother is crazy. His sister is some sort of whack job; she’s following some married guy across the country. His wife just left him for a younger man. His law practice is failing. And it’s very funny! But it’s very dark, gallows humor.
Q. What’s the appeal of the central conceit: this guy talking to his comatose father in a series of monologues?
Keira: It allows the audience to really get inside this character’s head. And it allows the character to express himself with a kind of candor that he wouldn’t otherwise be able to, which is incredibly liberating and cathartic for him — and hopefully also for the audience. It’s funny because he’s able to say things that I think most people want to say but can’t say. I keep saying that he’s a truth teller, and that in other plays I’ve done, those characters are the most exciting to the audience.
Q. How did this project come about?
James: Erik called me about three years ago and he said he’d written a piece, and he’d kind of always heard my voice as he wrote the character. We’ve known each other for about 25 years. . . . I read it, and I called him and I said, “I think this is extraordinary writing.” So we did a reading of it for some friends and invitees in New York.
Keira: I saw the reading. And I remember thinking that I would like to direct Dad in it some day. At the time I wasn’t working as a director. So it was actually [BTG artistic director] Kate Maguire’s idea for me to direct it. . . . I was slightly apprehensive at first. But mostly I was excited to be here at this place that I consider a kind of artistic home. It’s like a big family theater camp.
Q. James, what did you think about the idea of Keira directing you in the play?
James: If I perform something and Keira has seen it or seen a rehearsal of it or a dress rehearsal, she’ll say, ‘Hey, Dad, you know what I think would be good?’ and then she’ll tell me what she thinks. It basically amounts to a director giving
me a note. And I’ve almost always thought, jeez, you know, that’s a really good note. In fact, the last few times I’ve performed anything, the best notes I got were from Keira.
Q. What are the biggest challenges with this play?
James: Well, it’s a big hunk of meat, in terms of the mental and physical aspect. But also it’s very emotional. . . . There’s anger. There’s hilarity. There’s mourning. There’s embarrassment. It’s one thing after another. So you kind of get wrung out doing it. It’s quite an experience to go through in an hour and a half.
Q. Keira, your brother, Greg, is an actor and a singer-songwriter. Your sister-in-law is Broadway star Kelli O’Hara. Did you always know you wanted to go into the family business?
Keira: I always loved being in the theater and being around it and being on set and playing. I think I spent a lot of my childhood making up stories. . . . I still do that! [Laughs] So I feel pretty lucky that I get to do it and actually get paid for it — sometimes.
Q. James, did you caution your kids about going into show business?
James: When my son was a teenager, he was always very fond of quoting the statistics that about 90 percent of Actors’ Equity performers are out of work [at any one time]. It can be an incredibly cruel business. So you have to figure out how to manage the disappointment, because otherwise it’ll destroy you. But my kids spent a lot of their formative years in summers [at the Williamstown Theatre Festival], where I worked for many years. So they kind of saw the best of the business. And I was able to actually forge a career and make a living in the business, so they never really saw the downside. But Keira had a lot of different careers on her mind when she was a kid. She was going to be a primatologist. She was going to work with dolphins. But finally all that drifted away and she entered the family business.