For as long as he can remember, Clay Singer has loved theater.
And for as long as he can remember, a vintage Westport Country Playhouse poster hung in his parents’ house.
The show was “At Mrs. Beams,” starring Frances Farmer and Mildred Natwick. The most expensive tickets were $2.75. The balcony was 55 cents.
“Mrs. Beams” was not the most memorable show. No one remembers its stars, and ticket prices are a bit higher today.
But the Westport Country Playhouse is still dear to Singer’s heart. And on August 23, the 2013 Staples High School graduate steps on stage in a leading role.
He plays Leo, the 21-year-old who makes an unplanned visit to his feisty 91-eear-old grandmother in her rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment.
Over the course of a month, the unlikely roommates infuriate, bewilder and ultimately find each other. The show — “4000 Miles” — was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and won an Obie for Best New American Play.
This is note Singer’s first Playhouse appearance. He’s been in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Man of La Mancha.”
The Shakespeare play was unique. It was his first professional production after college. He had a small role as the messenger.
But a week into the run, the actor playing the prince injured his back. Singer was called to step into the role — 2 hours before curtain.
He learned 3 long monologues; was fitted for a costume; did a quick blocking rehearsal; went on. He stayed in the role to the end of the run.
This one is special too.
His generations-older co-star, Mia Dillon, “is a gift for audiences to watch,” he says. “Her character is written with so much earnest depth. And she plays it brilliantly.”
Singer is no slouch himself.
His Staples Players career is legendary. Doing 4 to 7 shows a year with longtime friends for years, in a “professional environment” created by directors David Roth and Kerry Long he developed a strong worth ethic — and an appreciation for Westport’s arts heritage and community support.
As a senior in “A Chorus Line,” he worked with 1975 grad and Players alum Bradley Jones — a member of the original Broadway production.
It was a smash. And it earned the cast a trip to Broadway, where they performed in Marvin Hamlisch’s tribute concert.
At Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama — a rigorous, conservatory-style program — Singer continued to be inspired. Actors must wait until junior year to perform onstage. The wait was worth it: Singer played Tateh in “Ragtime,” a show that remains one of his all-time favorites.
a CMU classmate was Lea Dimarchi. She joins Singer in “4000 Miles.” “Westport will love her,” he promises.
Singer considers himself lucky to have worked “fairly consistently” in theater since graduation. He’s performed Off-Broadway and regionally in some of his favorite musicals: “Next to Normal,” “Into the Woods” and “Man of La Mancha.”
He worked with Billy Crystal an Tiffany Haddish on the set of “Here Today.” “If you blink you might miss me,” he says. “But it was a special few days of filming.” He hopes for more opportunities on camera.
His favorite role though was Itzik in the Broadway First National Tour of “The Band’s Visit.” Working on stages like Washington’s Kennedy Center and the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles was a wonderful respite, after a year and a half of COVID quarantine.
“To go from solitude to being surrounded by 50 people traveling the country together was jarring. We had to keep each other safe, so we could keep doing what we love.”
Now it’s back to Westport. The Playhouse is where Singer saw “Twelfth Night” and “Into the Woods.” But not until he began working there on his previous plays did he understand the wealth of talent that preceded him on its stage.
“Walking to the dressing room, you pass by head shots of Gene Wilder, James Earl Jones, Joanne Woodward, Gloria Swanson, Christopher Walken, the mighty Paul Newman and many more,” he says.
“It’s a special experience to work in a theater with such a rich history. I don’t take the opportunity for granted.”
Singer calls “4000 Miles” playwright Amy Herzog “a master of writing natural dialogue. It’s been a blast to dig into every word and punctuation mark.”
Working with director David Kennedy has been like “returning to acting class. He’s very precise and effective in his communication, and is absolutely one of my favorite directors.”
He’s humbled to share the stage with Tony winner Mia Dillon, adding that “nearly everyone will relate to these character in some way, shape or form.” When it’s over, audiences should “hopefully leave the theater feeling inclined to call up your grandmother for a good long conversation about life.”
(“4000 Miles” runs August 23 to September 4 at the Westport Country Playhouse. Click here for tickets and more information.)
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