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NEW YORK — Four intelligent, funny, unmarried straight guys living in the city. Sound like urban legend? It’s actually not as rare as you might think.
Anthony Veneziale, Neil Stewart, John Buffalo Mailer (yes, son of Norman) and Thomas Kail easily fit the bill. Together they founded the theater company Back House Productions.
Back House is the first resident group at the Arthur Seelen Theater in the Drama Book Shop, an institution for all stage artists-on-the-make. The four met at Wesleyan University and when they all eventually made their way to New York by fall 2000, the elements fell into place. In person, they’re flirtatious and charming, feeding off of each other’s ideas and sentences at a Monty Python-like pace. (With enough provocation, Stewart will pull out his swiveling isolation hip technique. “We question whether he’s altogether human,” says Mailer.)
Officially, Stewart and Kail, both 25, are the directors while Veneziale, 26, and Mailer, 24, handle producing, but beyond that, their duties morph depending on what they’re working on. At the moment, that includes a musical set in Washington Heights; reading through Mailer’s latest offering, “Crazy Eyes,” or working with The Pedestrians, an improv group that Veneziale and Stewart perform with.
“We all have our own vision,” says Mailer, “but we know that what works best is the perspectives coming together and forming this piece that none of us completely controls.”
Kail concurs, adding: “We’ve disagreed in front of people many times, and that’s more important to us than nodding and smiling. We don’t ever censor each other.” And in a Cagney-meets-De Niro accent, Stewart jokes, “We’re like a chord, that’s what. We’re like all these different notes, like harmony.”
One thing they all adamantly agree on is not being pigeonholed as a troupe of cute-young-things or, as it were, the “Back House Boys.”
“As much as we’re all white boys who do what we do, we’re so much more than that,” says Veneziale. And everyone who’s worked with them so far agrees that they’ve got the brains, talent and ambition to make their company work, much the way Gary Sinise and John Malkovich’s Steppenwolf did.
And it doesn’t hurt that one of their biggest fans is Oscar-and Pulitzer Prize-winning illustrator/author Jules Feiffer. Starting Oct. 10, Back House will stage “Feiffer’s People,” based on his famous cartoon strip from the Fifties and Sixties. Kail and Stewart direct while Veneziale and Mailer join the cast of seven in 60 ministories about the way people communicate with each other.
Feiffer, who’s seen myriad adaptations of his work, says “I have unlimited faith in these guys,” rattling off a list of impressive adjectives: “inventive, innovative, daring, fearless.”
Since he’s a Tony voter, he sees a lot of plays, including the ones that win prizes. “I kind of forget why I bothered to be in the theater in the first place — it leaves me so dissatisfied and unsettled and semi-comatose,” he says. “But when I see these guys, I remember the fun that it was, and the excitement, and it puts me back in touch with what makes theater so great.”