GRADUATING FROM BARD

Byline: Sari Botton

NEW YORK — As a kid growing up in the New Jersey suburbs in the Seventies, Barry Edelstein kept a poster of Steve Martin on his wall. An odd choice of hero for someone who grew up to be a Shakespearean director? Perhaps not.
“There are similarities,” offers Edelstein, 30, who has temporarily abandoned his Bard work to direct “Wasp and Other Plays,” an evening of four short, dark comedies written by Martin — featuring Carol Kane and Don McManus, among others — which opened at the Public Theater last week.
“Although one shouldn’t push the comparison too far, there’s something about the way Steve writes,” Edelstein says of Martin, who also wrote “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a comedy now running at the Promenade Theater. “In ‘Wasp,’ there are big soliloquies, and they’re very, very poetic. And in his film, ‘L.A. Story,’ there are all these ‘Hamlet’ and ‘As You Like it’ allusions, too. He’s also hilariously funny, which Shakespeare is.”
Although Edelstein has become fairly close with Martin, at times he’s reminded that he’s working with one of his idols. “One day in rehearsal, Steve had been particularly funny,” Edelstein recalls, “and after he left, it kind of dawned on all of us that, hey, that guy in here today was Steve Martin.”
The director and playwright actually met through Shakespeare. “I met him through Kevin Kline when I was Kevin’s assistant director for ‘Hamlet’ at the Public in 1990,” explains Edelstein, who studied Shakespeare as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. The following summer, when Edelstein was invited to direct a play on the main stage for Vassar College’s New York Stage & Film Co., Kline suggested he try “Wasp,” an ironic, grim piece about a dysfunctional, suburban white-bread family, injected with a strong dose of Martin’s signature absurd humor. A year later, he directed the other three plays now featured at the Public with “Wasp,” — “Guillotine,” “The Zig-Zag Woman” and “Patter for the Floating Lady” — all of which incorporate magic tricks.
“Because I’d done each of the pieces before, it made it easy for Steve to go away for a while,” Edelstein says of his current production. “But he was very involved in this. He was very generous, in that when I would come in with an idea about how I wanted to handle a certain scene, he would say, ‘Fine. Give it a try.’ But I learned early on that whenever we have a disagreement about how to make a joke funny, he’s always right. It’s like taking criticism from Julia Child for the way you’ve seasoned a dish.”
Edelstein has learned a thing or two about criticism in the past 12 months. Last year, his New York professional debut, “The Merchant of Venice,” starring Ron Liebman as Shylock, also at the Public, received what Edelstein perceived as not-so-constructive skewering.
“The New York Times review was an absolute demolition job,” he says, wincing. “The Village Voice had a few nice things to say about the play, but virtually assassinated me. But the Public and George [C. Wolfe, the theater’s producer] were really supportive.”
It would seem Edelstein has a lot riding on this, his second chance. But he says he feels secure at the Public and doesn’t feel there’s much at stake. “They’re very supportive of me,” he says. And the reviews of Edelstein’s direction of “Wasp” have been positive so far.
Edelstein has also been encouraged by the response of some of his other idols — including Carl Reiner and Al Pacino.
“I can’t tell you how great it was to sit down and talk with Pacino,” he relates. But there’s another hero the Jersey-boy-on-the-brink-of-celebrity would be even more thrilled to see in the audience.
“If Springsteen showed up, then I think I’d faint.”

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