In this installment of Unscripted Moments, we get to sit down with director Tony Lifonti to talk about The James Downing Theater’s production of the Neil Simon comedy classic “Come Blow Your Horn”.
“Come Blow Your Horn” is Simon’s first play to debut on Broadway in 1961. It is the story of two brothers, Alan and Buddy. Buddy is a late bloomer compared to his older brother Alan, the ladies’ man. But as we progress through the story, we see the conflict unfold as Alan discovers he has true feelings for one of his man-flings, and Buddy becomes what Alan used to be. All the while we have several wonderful eccentric individuals stopping by to stir up a little trouble.
Leigh Yenrick: I would just like to know a little about you.
Tony Lifonti: Outside of graduating from DePaul with a Bachelor’s Degree in Speech and Drama and taking classes from a great acting teacher Ted Liss, I was proud to be part of a production team of a theatre company called SCT Productions, which presented several Chicago premieres at the Athenaeum. These included “Follies”, “1776”, “Two By Two” and “Celebration”, as well as Chicago non-professional premieres of “Fiddler on the Roof.” SCT Productions was in the group of the first five non-professional theatre companies to be recognized by the Joseph Jefferson Committee, along with Steppenwolf, back in the early 1970s.
LY: Why did you decide this particular show? Neil Simon has quite a plethora of plays to choose from. So what story did you see within this show that you wanted to tell?
TL: The James Downing Theatre Company asked me to pick a list of plays that I thought they should consider, and of those, they decided on “Come Blow Your Horn”. I love this play for a number of reasons, not the least of which that this is Neil Simon’s first Broadway show. It deals with real situations and with real people. The main reason though is the challenge of directing a work written by a comedy genius. Every time I read this play (and I read it a minimum of ten times before auditions), and every time I’ve seen it in rehearsal, we have found another dimension, another level. Good writing is like that. We’ll have 47 people in the audience for each performance, and each audience member will be touched in a different way. Our goal for this production is to see how much we can discover and present. I would feel sorry for anyone who simply felt this story was only a caricature of a typical Jewish family, and turn the play into one big joke. This is a story about family, and that family just happens to be Jewish. The characters are real, their desires, their foibles, and in may cases their inability to show love, and how they evolve. That’s entertainment!
LY: With this being a period piece do you think the story that Simon is trying to tell still holds true to today’s audience?
TL: Are you asking what still holds true now? My, the entire play hold true. It’s about family, and how the dynamics of relationships change with age and maturity, and of course immaturity. Whether in 1960, 2015, or 1820, any good parent is protective of their children. Every good parent wants the best for their children. Every good parent wants their children to be independent. They want them to be loved and respected. They want them to be happy. They want to see that smile in their children’s faces they saw when their children were three years old. This takes a great deal of caring and a great deal of control. That’s why it takes a while for parents to release that control to allow their children to live their, not your, lives. In short: have a better life than they had.
It’s about children trying to get the approval of their parents, or brothers trying to get each others’ approval. It’s about male and female relationships, and how they progress. It’s about breaking away from parental control, blaming parents for how they were brought up, and of course, finding out everyone in the family was simply trying their best, but just had trouble or the inability to show each other in a way each could relate to. This is not a comedy with a bunch of jokes with a short story thrown in, so it gets to be called a play. Again it’s a play about family. Neil Simon’s funny comes out of the real relationships and real people, and in this case the Baker family
LY: This is a three act play. Did you find this challenging as a director since most of its contemporaries are going shorter – almost to the length of a television episode?
TL: Hell, there are Internet series today where one entire episode is only five minutes. Commercials can be five to ten seconds. Politicians talk in terms of sound bites. Less dialogue in movies. Instead of explaining something, you get a picture. Email, Instagram, Twitter and the rest. Get your message out in a short time period
To meet this challenge you need certain elements:
- A good play and real characters an audience wants to get to know
- A play that moves quickly
- Great actors who can make an audience interested in their character and how that character is important to the telling of the story
- Most importantly: Does the piece meet the test of time?
This challenge is magnified by the actors having to allow time and take that beat or pause between lines, to understand what the other character is saying, so they, in turn, can react to it truthfully. If you take these beats or pauses out to accommodate today’s perception of audience, you only accomplish cutting the time of the play. I am hopeful we have met this challenge by presenting a great play by a great writer, with interesting characters, performed by a great cast. The fact that it’s a comedy helps as well.
Oh, and if you haven’t figured what direction I was going; Neil Simon’s “Come Blow Your Horn” does pass the test of time. And in my opinion passes it with flying colors.
LY: In the show you have the two bothers, Alan and Buddy, as main characters. But out of curiosity, do you feel it is more Alan’s story that Simon is telling, or Buddy’s? Or is it both?
TL: The beauty of this play is each character is so well written, you can choose to make this story Alan’s story or Buddy’s story. This play is autobiographical as Neil Simon came to live with his brother Dan in 1947, when he was 20 and his brother Dan was 29. We did not try to make it Alan’s or Buddy’s story. We tried to make it a story about family, and allow the audience to make their own decision about who or whom this story is about. You can’t do that with most plays, but you can with this play, and a big portion of the credit falls on the shoulders of Neil Simon. You will see he indeed shoulders it well.
LY: This is my favorite question to ask of the whole interview. What is your favorite moment with in the show? And what about it speaks to you?
TL: There are many favorite moments:
- Every scene Mr Baker’s in
- Mom’s telephone scene trying to take four different phone calls with four different messages – all without a pencil
- The innocence and confusion portrayed by the character of Peggy, especially on her exits
- Buddy’s scene with Peggy when she is trying to impress who she thinks is a big Hollywood producer, and Buddy’s trying be cool and sophisticated while drinking Scotch and ginger ale and choking on his first cigarette
But the two moments I like the best are:
- The scenes between Alan and Connie, especially in Act II. The different ways Connie deals with the man she loves including throwing herself at Alan, while pretending to be a bit tipsy from one martini. Connie being upset with Alan for his inability to make any kind of a commitment, pouting when Alan reverses the conversation to make his point, how Connie turns the tables around on Alan and challenges him, and the way Connie leaves Alan’s apartment, making the audience care how this relationship will continue, or end. Doing this scene and getting the most out of it requires two amazing actors, and of course, a brilliant director who knows just how to stay out of the way of these actors and let them do what they do best. And they do it every night and they do it well!
- The scene when Alan talks to Dad after the craziness of the doorbells, and Dad’s being pushed, while Mom wants someone to answer a phone which seems to be ringing on and on forever. Buddy is failing to calm things down, Dad is getting more excited, Alan is trying to speak to Connie, and the general out-of-control yelling. The transition from craziness to real speaks volumes of what Neil Simon can do as a writer, and should bring a tear to your eye. Not many casts can make that transition work. This cast can. They enjoy doing it and you will enjoy it too.
I want to encourage you to go our and support this wonderful cast! They are going to be at The James Downing theater for the next three Saturdays and Sundays. It is an entertaining time that is not to be missed!
The James Downing Theater is Located at 6740 N Oliphant Ave Chicago, IL 60631
Ticket information: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1403791