Let It Burn
Castmember Brooks Ashmanskas talks 'Burn This' at the Mark Taper Forum
Kevin P. Taft

Brooks Ashmanskas seems to be living the life of every kid who dreamt of life on the Broadway stage. Having co-starred in a variety of huge New York shows and revivals, he’s worked with directors such as Susan Stroman (The Producers), Joe Mantello (The Ritz), Rob Ashford (Promises, Promises), as well as such theater icons as Kristen Chenowith, Matthew Broderick and Bernadette Peters. But as many years as he has been theater’s go-to funnyman, he finds himself on stage in Los Angeles for the first time in Lanford Wilson’s critically praised drama Burn This.

Sardonic and down-to-earth, Brooks is a hilariously self-deprecating actor who is forever thankful for his place in the theater world and wonderfully appreciative of the people he’s been able to work with.

How did you get the acting bug?

I’ve always done it. It started out at a young age taking a dance class and stuff. I wanted to be Fred Astaire and that became clear that that wasn’t going to happen. In high school I did a couple of musicals and found out I could sing, so I went to college [Bennington College, Vt.] and got a little more serious about it and, in fact, studied with the director of Burn This, Nicholas Martin. He and I became good friends, then. So I got a little serious about acting and I was over there so I figured I guess I should move to New York. And then I just got lucky… until now.

What do you mean “lucky… until now?” You’re still lucky!

Until you called. [Laughs] And then it just went to shit!

I have that effect.

So what is it like to work with Kristen Chenowith and Sean Hayes [in Promises, Promises]?

It’s terrific! Sean’s a great old friend. Meaning a great friend, who’s old. [chuckles] No, I love Sean and I’ve known Kristen forever. Kristen and I moved to New York around the same time and we used to do thousands of readings together where we’d always be the funny couple and, you know, come in, do a quick song, get all the laughs and leave. And now of course she is Kristen Chenowith. When we were doing Promises, Promises I would say to her as she was going out to sing her fifteenth number of the night, I’d be like “don’t you miss the days when you could just go in and do one number and go home?”

What did she say?

She'd just roll her eyes and go out and do it and knock it out of the park. But I love them. Great friends and great talent.

How was working with Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker in How to Succeed in Business in the mid-'90s?

That was my Broadway debut actually. I replaced the guy that was playing Bud Frump in it. I got very lucky. But I met people I consider my family now. They continue to be in my life. And now they are doing [that show again] with Daniel Radcliffe. He’s such a sweetheart, oh my God.

Is he?

Oh! So sweet! I don’t know him deeply, but the same director that is doing How to Succeed did Promises, Promises so he was sort of around to see what it’s like to do a musical. He’s adorable! Good head on his shoulders.

So tell me about Burn This by Lanford Wilson. What’s the play about?

It’s basically about a group of people dealing with the loss of a both a friend and family member to a tragic death. I play Larry, the roommate of the person who had died, and the other roommate is Anna, the lead [played by Zabryna Guevara]. And then there’s her boyfriend Burton [played by Ken Barnett] who’s around trying to help out. And then the dead guy’s brother [Pale] shows up and all hell breaks loose. Played by the brilliant Adam Rotherberg! Oh my God he’s so good. One of a kind. Everyone’s great. The cast is terrific. Basically I think of it as Lanford Wilson’s AIDS play without ever mentioning AIDS. It was 1986-87 that he wrote it and that was a time in New York City, especially, that it was just like boom-boom-boom—it was like being in a war. And so it definitely reeks of that. Of an AIDS play. But it’s not about AIDS. This guy doesn’t die of AIDS or anything, In fact he dies of just an accident. And it’s a very specific sort of look at that time in New York City—artists in New York City—and just dealing with the loss of someone who is just too young to die, basically.

How does your character work into the story?

He’s the roommate of the guy who died and of Anna, as well. The two of them are left in this apartment without their friend. And [Larry] is gay, works in advertising, used to be a dancer, but got out of it to get a job-job kind of thing. And he’s in some ways, not stereotypically, but he certainly is that New York gay guy who distances himself from conflict by being very funny. Very sardonic. And very smart. And he takes care of everybody. He was the one who had to deal with the funeral. And deal with getting the suit for the dead guy’s body and you know, all that stuff. Just terrible. But when you first see him he’s like, cracking wise and doing anything he can with humor and little digs so as not to weep.

Does he have a breaking point?

Yes. Definitely. And what’s so great about this Lanford Wilson’s work is that [Larry is] the gay guy who actually turns out to be the hero, in a way. Because he goes through taking care of everybody and doesn’t really take care of himself. And then at the end, there’s a gesture that he makes—I won’t give it away—that sort of says, “It doesn’t have to be this terrible for everybody.” It sort of makes it, not “OK,” but he sort of opens the door for everybody to say “let’s see what happens now.” It’s a lovely part and certainly very funny as well.

Have you ever been in the position where you feel you’ve done the same thing for people?

Yeah. I think I’m thought of as sort of a funny person, sometimes—by some. [Laughs] But I think sometimes that can be a great sort of armor against tragedy. So I certainly connect with that. The [use of] humor and barbs even to sort of protect oneself. There’s even a line that he says where he’s complaining about [the fact that] whenever he goes home to visit his family he loses his protective sense of humor. And I think we all sort of feel that to one degree or another. “Let’s not all sit around and cry,” or yet,”let’s do it and then let’s move on and have a drink.” That kind of guy. And you just love him for it.

Burn This is playing at the Mark Taper Forum from March 23 through May 1. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.

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