“When you bring someone new into the room, you get an entirely new perspective,” observed Scott Behrend, artistic director of Road Less Traveled Productions. Behrend is directing the regional premiere of Annie Baker’s play, “The Antipodes,” with Buffalo native and Broadway actor Sean Cullen, this year’s Road Less Traveled American Theater Master, in a leading role.
As Behrend, Cullen and I sit talking at Spot Coffee on Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo, Behrend continued. “We have a lot of people in the cast who have worked with each other many times,” he says. “And that is wonderful. They understand each other. They work well together. But when we bring in someone from the outside who has as much experience as Sean, it is amazing how that affects the energy in the room.”
Cullen returned the compliment.
“Everybody in that room, all the Buffalo actors in this play are really, really good. They are as good as anywhere I’ve worked,” Cullen said.
The local actors in “The Antipodes” are Dave Hayes, Kristen Tripp Kelley, David Marciniak, Greg Howze, John Hurley, Ricky Needham, Adam Yellen and Cassie Cameron.
Working at Road Less Traveled is a homecoming for Cullen. The South Buffalo native graduated from Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School, before going to St. Bonaventure University, and then on to the Yale School of Drama. He has worked in Buffalo before, in “Creeps” at the old BET in the 1980s, and in “The Voyage of Mary C” at Studio Arena Theatre in 1993.
Cullen has been in four Broadway shows, including 1,000 performances as ill-tempered Commander William Harbison in “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center and going on for Christopher Walken in “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’ ” He’s appeared in numerous films and television shows.
“Having Sean with us elevates everything and it’s exciting," Behrend said.
An introduction from A.R. Gurney
Previous American Theatre Masters at Road Less Traveled have included playwrights Edward Albee, A.R. Gurney, Donald Margulies, Stephen Adly-Guirgis and Eric Bogosian, director Pam McKinnon and actor James Rebhorn. The program serves to connect Buffalo to the larger theater world in significant ways.
It was, in fact a previous American Theater Master and Buffalo native who connected Cullen to Road Less Traveled.
“I met A.R. Gurney at a party when I was doing ‘South Pacific,’ ” explained Cullen. "He was with his wife, Molly. I had written a play that takes place in Buffalo called ‘Safe Home,’ and a friend was producing it. So I thought that was a good way to introduce myself to A.R. Gurney.”
Gurney, who died in 2017, is known for such plays as “The Dining Room,” “The Cocktail Hour” and “The Middle Ages,” all of which are set in Buffalo. Unlike the Cullens of South Buffalo, however, the Gurneys were definitely of blue-blooded Buffalo stock.
“Actually, the Gurneys seemed quite familiar with South Buffalo," Cullen said. "We talked a lot about Buffalo and a day or two later, Mr. Gurney came to see my play. I was very pleased. And then, within a day or so, he put me in touch with Scott. Then I met with Scott and Jon Elston [the Road Less Traveled new play coordinator] about three or four times when those guys would come to New York and we’d have coffee. Scott asked if I’d be interested to have the play read here in Buffalo, which we did in 2011. All that led to Scott asking me to do this play.”
Because Cullen had been introduced to Behrend as a playwright, the invitation to perform in Annie Baker’s “The Antipodes” was not clear to him at first.
“He sent me the script and I wasn’t familiar with it, and I thought he was asking me as a fan of Annie Baker or something," Cullen said. "He had to explain that he was asking me to act in the production.”
Cullen agreed, and is delighted to return to Buffalo with his wife, Tess, and their 5-year-old daughter.
In “The Antipodes,” Annie Baker, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her play, “The Flick,” takes us into a brainstorming session in which the group is trying to devise a narrative. Maybe it’s a television show, maybe it’s a video game, maybe it’s a play. It is going to be the next big thing. Baker, whose play “Circle Mirror Transformation” was performed by Road Less Traveled in 2013, is widely admired for her deft use of narrative. This play was done in New York City to great acclaim in 2017.
Cullen has enjoyed a rich and storied career and moments of excitement and familiar theatrical names easily weave through his conversation.
Working with Pacino
“I worked with [Al] Pacino twice,” Cullen said. “The first time [a 2002 film called “S1m0ne”], I got the job from a video audition. On the tape, I yawned at one point; a choice. So when I got the job, I assumed they had liked all my choices, including the yawn. So at the first meeting, I sat at the table across from Pacino, we’re running lines and I yawned the way I did in the audition. Well, Pacino turned to the director, Andrew Niccol, and asked, ‘Is he going to yawn like that?’ That is how the day began. I was on pins and needles for the rest of the morning.”
Cullen continued to relate how, during the lunch break, on the same day, he and Pacino went to the commissary together, where a Japanese American Elvis impersonator was performing. This tickled them, and they had a fabulous time. During that afternoon’s shoot, they were clearly having such fun that the hair stylist, a woman Cullen had worked with years earlier when he was doing “Lend Me a Tenor” on Martha’s Vineyard asked, “Have you worked with Pacino before?”
“No,” said Cullen, “Why do you ask?”
“Because he’s having such a good time with you,” she responded.
Years later, when Cullen worked with Pacino again in the 2018 film, “Paterno,” he began to reintroduce himself to the star, who scoffed, said, “Aww come here.” and gave him a hug. “I don’t remember civilians,” said Pacino, “but I remember actors.”
“He was fun to work with,” Cullen said.
Other tales of Cullen’s life as an actor include the memory of going on for Christopher Walken on Broadway.
“I will always remember the date, because it was my Broadway debut, Jan. 24, 2000," Cullen said. "Walken went to Sundance that night, and I went on for him in ‘James Joyce’s "The Dead." ' ”
The play would be good to Cullen who took over the Walken role for the Boston and San Francisco runs of the show. He went on for Stephen Spinella when the show played in Los Angeles, and then played that role in Washington, D.C.
“I loved doing ‘The Dead,’ ” Cullen said. “It put me in touch with my Irish heritage that I knew from growing up in South Buffalo and coming downtown to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade here. I loved the music and I loved the story and I really loved Richard Nelson’s adaptation. I was really proud just to be in it.”
If “The Dead” is Cullen’s favorite Broadway experience, doing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center comes in second.
“I think I did exactly a 1,000 performances of ‘South Pacific,’ on the nose,” Cullen recalled. “I learned a lot about the structure of musicals. I’ve done musicals, even since high school, of course, but that one is so well put together. And the score is so good. ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ is my favorite song in the score. But also, you feel proud to be in the company of such a hit. And it doesn’t hurt that my bank account was filled so generously by that show. We made the down payment on our little house in the Catskills with the money from that show.”
Still, the repetition of so many performances in the same show creates a kind of backstage culture in a Broadway show.
“I was only on for 35 or 40 minutes of a three hour show,” Cullen said. “At first, I would sit in the stage manager’s office and listen to the monitor, so afraid to miss an entrance. Eventually, I started writing. Then I remember I read the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina.’ ”
Cullen also appeared on Broadway in “Coram Boy” and in “Golden Boy.” Those who want to see his work might take in the current Netflix series, “Mindhunter.” The show follows the FBI as they try to get into the minds of serial killers.
“Even before I was in it,” Cullen said, “I thought it was one of the best things on television.”
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Presented by Road Less Traveled Productions through Feb. 9 in Road Less Traveled Theater (456 Main St.). Tickets are $39 general admission and $25 for students (629-3069), roadlesstraveledproductions.org.