On the Road in Pursuit of Laughs

July 5th, 2012

On the Road in Pursuit of Laughs

Published: July 5, 2012

THE comedian and actress Susie Essman, who plays foul-mouthed Susie Greene on the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is starring in the revival of the Neil Simon play “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” at the Williamstown Theater Festival, which opens on July 11.

Though she’s no stranger to the stage — she has done stand-up comedy across the country and abroad — it will be the first time she’ll be acting in a play in 35 years.

“This is going to be challenging for me,” she said, “but there’s a tremendous amount of community here. It’s incredibly supportive.”

Still, she knows her limits for camaraderie. Which is why she’s renting her own place instead of staying in the beautiful Victorian house that cast members share.

“I’m an adult,” she said. “I need my own bathroom.”

Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Ms. Essman on her travels to comedy clubs and festivals. 

Q: What kind of theater experience does Williamstown offer?

A: It’s much more intimate and relaxed than what audiences can get on Broadway. Cast members stay five weeks for rehearsals and performances, so it’s like camp: everyone’s away from home, partying with each other, and I think that it shows onstage. There are a lot of interesting, quirky productions going on. One night you can see something traditional like “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and the next see something offbeat, like puppet theater based on David Byrne music. The apprentice actors and directors are doing a whole bunch of plays and cabarets, many of which are free. So come up here for a few days — you’re right in the Berkshires — go antiquing, do the restaurants and the cute shops, then see a different production every night.

Q: What about comedy festivals? Can you recommend any?

A: My favorite is Just for Laughs, which takes over Montreal for the month of July. There are dozens of performances every night, some going well past midnight, in French and English. They’re in concert halls, clubs, theaters, bars, even outside on the plaza, all in the Quartier des Spectacles, their Times Square. Every big comedian has been there. This year Aziz Ansari, Chelsea Handler, Mike Birbiglia, Lewis Black are performing. But what’s really exciting is the new acts. Every comic is auditioned beforehand, so you’re only seeing the best; you don’t have to sit through anyone bad.

Q: Any favorite comedy clubs?

A: Zanies in Chicago does a great job. I love the Comedy Store in London; the audiences there are so smart. And New York, the scene I came up in, has some of the greatest clubs. Carolines on Broadway and Gotham Comedy Club are both headliners, so you’ll be seeing big comedians. Comedy Cellar is the old-fashioned showcase club, so its lineups include new comics and big names — Colin Quinn and Dave Attell always stop by unannounced to work on material; Chris Rock and Louis C. K. have been known to, too. Some acts will be fantastic, some not so good, but that’s part of the fun.

Q: Any resources you recommend for finding out about comedy shows?

A: For all of the big cities, Time Out lists the lineups of who’s playing where and recommends shows. And the critics are pretty sharp. It’s really a great resource. But I probably shouldn’t be saying this to The New York Times, huh?

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