EXCLUSIVE: A few weeks ago, I made my off-Broadway debut in someone else’s one-man show. Playing a veterinarian who has to put down a beloved dog in Every Brilliant Thing, I earned polite applause though not the standing O accorded the star, Johnny Donahoe. To be brutally honest, he deserved it, notwithstanding the sensitivity, insight and passion I brought to my performance. After all, the kindly-vet-with-syringe role is recurring — the actor is not. If you were told that this play, co-written by Donahoe and Duncan MacMillan, is about a suicidal mother and her son’s determination — beginning in childhood and advancing into adulthood — to deter her, you might be tempted to politely decline an invitation. Even more so when told that there’s audience participation — a lot of audience participation — in the show, which is running at the intimate Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village.
And yet Every Brilliant Thing expertly negotiates the razor’s edge separating the twee from the sublime. You can hardly fail to be moved as this boy-man pulls you along on his quixotic mission of diversion by listing the things that make life worth living: ice cream and chocolate, of course, but also things with stripes and starting a new book. Before long you’re swept up in both the idea and its idiosyncratic particulars — not to mention the performances of your neighbors and, very likely, yourself.
Well, that’s not very conversational, as this ongoing series promises, but Every Brilliant Thing is the latest stage-work that producer Jean Doumanian and her partners have mounted at the Barrow Street, even while her uptown shows — she’s one of Scott Rudin’s co-producers on The Book Of Mormon, for example — mint money. She’s also involved in Rudin’s soon-to-open show, Larry David’s Fish In The Dark.
At the same time, Jean Doumanian Productions is in production on True Detective author Nic Pizzolatto’s film adaptation of his novel Galveston, directed by Janus Metz Pedersen. Also in the works is the film adaptation of David Harrower’s stunning play Blackbird, which will star Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn. There’s also Shrink, announced at last month’s TCA tour, a half-hour series for Pivot about a med school student’s adventures in free therapy, which is being written for Pivot by Chuck Martin (Arrested Development), Ted Tremper (Break-ups: The Series) and Tim Baltz (Veep).
All this is a long way from the time when this Chicago native and daughter of Greek immigrant restaurant owners became known for her savagely attacked stint as producer of Saturday Night Live in season six, 1980-81 and, two decades later, the excruciatingly public breakup between Doumanian and life partner Jacqui Safra’s Sweetland Productions and its main client, their close friend Woody Allen.
Today Doumanian’s warren of offices in midtown Manhattan bespeaks a comfortable accommodation to creativity and power, with its oversize classic film posters, three Tony Award medallions, leather furnishings and the buzz of a hundred things going on at once.
JEREMY GERARD: Let’s begin with Every Brilliant Thing. How did you get involved with this?
JEAN DOUMANIAN: It started with the group Paines Plough, who orchestrated it in London and to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We had read it here and liked it. And the two young men that I sent to Edinburgh saw it thought it was just great just wonderful. They’re grown men and they got choked up. And I’ve worked now with Barrow Street so many times and I thought it would be perfect. I’ve had so many responses of people who say oh it’s just so great it made me cry. And I’ll tell you what I find interesting, that people like Sarah Jessica Parker and [playwright] John Patrick Shanley and even Jeremy Gerard were not put off by having to participate. People are looking forward to it and hoping they get picked.
JEREMY GERARD: Well they’ve been told that they won’t be humiliated. It’s not Dionysus in 69. No one’s going to be sitting in your lap fooling with your genitals.
JEAN DOUMANIAN: Yes. And they’re not.
JEREMY GERARD: The scale of working at the Barrow is so different from Broadway or a movie.
JEAN DOUMANIAN: Yes, and well downtown I can do a play that has 22 people in it, like Our Town staged by David Cromer. And I can do a play that has one person in it, like Every Brilliant Thing. If we tried to do Every Brilliant Thing with our unknown actor on Broadway do you think it would fly? No. But I could do things that I think are wonderful, like Mistakes Were Made with Michael Shannon. I couldn’t have done that on Broadway and yet it’s a very good play. And Michael is just brilliant, I’m always looking for things to put him in.
JEREMY GERARD: And what are you current film projects?
JEAN DOUMANIAN: I’m doing two films. One is Galveston, written by Nic Pizzolatto. We’re casting it now and we’ll probably shoot that in the fall. And this summer I’ll be doing Blackbird.
JEREMY GERARD: That was a scorching play about sex and abuse of power. How will it change as a film?
JEAN DOUMANIAN: It’s going to be different and David Harrower has gone through the script with [director] Benedict Andrews. It’s a thriller is what it is. They’ve opened it up — it’s not going to be a movie that you’re watching as a play. You’re going to be watching a film, a really developed film.
JEREMY GERARD: Will it take us more explicitly back into the history of those two people?
JEAN DOUMANIAN: A little more. But it all takes place in one day.
JEREMY GERARD: That’s quite different. Would you say that, like these plays-into-films and novels-into-films, which require total rethinking, would you say you have reinvented yourself at different times in your career?
JEAN DOUMANIAN: No. I’ve been the same person all the time. My goal has always been the same.
JEREMY GERARD: Which is?
JEAN DOUMANIAN: Which is to find the best properties in all mediums. Some of it lends itself to the theater, some of it lends itself to theater and, like Blackbird, to screen. And now I’m doing television, because that’s where writers want to be. So those things that I find do that I like to be involved in. Listen, how many scripts do you think I read?
JEREMY GERARD: I couldn’t guess.
JEAN DOUMANIAN: As many as they put on my desk.
JEREMY GERARD: What’s broken your heart on Broadway? Something you really loved but just didn’t work out?
JEAN DOUMANIAN: Oh, the play I did with Scott that starred Fiona Shaw. The Testament Of Mary.
JEREMY GERARD: Yes, broke my heart too.
JEAN DOUMANIAN: Another thing that broke my heart was a musical I did called Amour. Remember that? I just loved the music and it was a love story, directed by James Lapine. We didn’t get good reviews and we decided to close it after a week. I’ve never teared up at a closing of a show except that one. And you know what? I may contemplate bringing that back.
JEREMY GERARD: Do you want to make a comment about the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live?
JEAN DOUMANIAN: Congratulations.
JEREMY GERARD: Anything else?
JEAN DOUMANIAN: Listen I’m the only woman to have produced a 90-minute comedy show. I got Eddie Murphy, Denny Dillon. And my ratings were as good as the ratings the previous year when we went off the air. That happens to be true. And I’m going to the 40th anniversary. I think it’s certainly a landmark accomplishment to have a show on for that long. You can’t do anything but congratulate success. Right?
Look, if you really love something and it fails, well that’s a chance you take. If you don’t really love it but you think it can make money and it doesn’t — then you got what you deserved. And if you love it and it doesn’t make money, you try to make it up to your investors by giving them something else. They always take another chance because my investors come in only if they really love it. So I’m not asking them to do something against their will. They’ve been pretty fortunate so far.