Native Nutmegger pens show for CRT

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Storrs - posted Mon., Nov. 14, 2011
Contributed
A 'Simpsonized' portrait of playwright Mike Reiss. Courtesy photos. - Contributed Photo

Between trips to Europe, South America and Los Angeles, Mike Reiss took some time to talk about the world premiere of his first full-length play, “I’m Connecticut,” opening Dec. 1 at the Connecticut Repertory Theater on UConn’s Storrs campus.

Reiss, currently based in New York, is a globe-trotter, traveling often as a writer and a speaker on the lecture circuit. “I like to travel,” he said, then reconsidered. “Well, my wife loves to travel and I love my wife.” Reiss has been married for 23 years. And for the same length of time he has been a writer for “The Simpsons.”

Asked how he got involved with the landmark show (“The Simpsons” is the longest-running American sitcom, the longest-running American animated program, and the longest-running American primetime, scripted television series), Reiss said that the show pretty much came to him. “I really fell into it,” he said. A gig at a college humor magazine caught the attention of “National Lampoon” magazine, which lead to some work writing for the movie “Airplane II.”

“I really just got a lot of lucky breaks,” said Reiss. While on summer hiatus for another television show, Reiss was approached about “The Simpsons.”

“Nobody wanted to work on the show,” he said. “There hadn’t been a cartoon comedy on television. Nobody thought that anyone would watch it.” Twenty-three years later, the show is still going strong. Reiss has collected four Emmys for his work on “The Simpsons,” and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Animation Writers Caucus. He has written for “Garry Shandling’s Show,” “ALF,” and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”

Reiss’ screenplay, “My Life in Ruins” was made into a major motion picture in 2009. He co-wrote “The Simpsons Movie,”  “Horton Hears A Who!” and “Ice Age, Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”  He was a contributing writer for "Despicable Me" and "Rio." His caveman detective story, “Cro-Magnon P.I.,”  won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.  He has published 14 children’s books ("but no children," he observed wryly), including the best-seller “How Murray Saved Christmas” and the award-winning “Late for School.”  Reiss co-created the animated series “The Critic” and created Showtime’s hit cartoon “Queer Duck” (about a gay duck).  “Queer Duck” was named one of “The 100 Greatest Cartoons of All Time” by the BBC.  “Queer Duck: The Movie” was released to rave reviews in July 2006, winning awards in New York, Chicago, San Diego, Sweden, Germany and Wales. Reiss also composes puzzles for NPR and “Games Magazine.”

Last year, Reiss was lecturing at the UConn Children’s Book Fair when he met CRT Director Frank Mack.  “He said I should write a play about Connecticut,” said Reiss, “Or just write any play and stick Nathan Hale in there.” The idea struck a chord. “I grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, and realized that the state has produced no notable songs, movies, plays or novels,” said Reiss.  “We don’t even have a regional accent!”

Reiss describes “I’m Connecticut” as “a romantic comedy in the tradition of ‘Annie Hall.’  It’s a love story with a lot of humor, where virtually anything can happen.  There are flashbacks, musical numbers, and fantasy sequences.  The narrator addresses the audience and seems to realize he’s in a play. Mark Twain makes a guest appearance. So does the state of West Virginia.” Unofficially autobiographical, the play is “the story of a young man from Simsbury, now living in New York City, who’s having no luck in the dating world,” said Reiss. “He begins to think his problem is that he’s the embodiment of Connecticut itself: he’s pleasant and perfectly nice, but there’s nothing special about him. He lacks the color of his friend from Boston and the brashness of a colleague from New York.”

Playing the part of the young man (Marc) is actor Harris Doran. Doran’s credits include New York and regional theatre appearances, film and television. “The play is really, really funny,” said Doran. “The humor is very contemporary, and the play is really well-constructed, really well-written.”

Doran has been in rehearsals with the cast for several weeks, in preparation for the show’s early-December opening. Like all CRT productions, the show will feature a mix of veteran stage actors and UConn drama students. “It’s a great group of enthusiastic young kids who are doing a really great job,” said Doran. “I think this is a really great opportunity for them.”

Doran feels that “I’m Connecticut” will appeal to a wide audience. “It’s basically a love story,” he said. “Like any great story, it’s really about people.” He describes the subject-matter as appropriate for a PG audience. “If you would let your kids watch ‘The Simpsons,’ I think this would be appropriate,” he said. And though the show pokes good-natured fun, “It’s very embracing of Connecticut,” said Doran. “You love it, it’s where you were raised. It’s very specific to what makes you, you.”

Reiss supports that sentiment. “I’ve been to 72 countries,” he said, “but I’ll always have fond feelings for Connecticut.”

Also appearing in “I’m Connecticut” are Joyce DeWitt, best known for her 18-year run as Janet in “Three’s Company,” and Tony Award-winning actor Jerry Adler. Adler boasts a long list of appearances on stage and screen, including a recent stint as Hesh in the hit HBO series “The Sopranos.”

”I’m Connecticut” runs from Dec. 1 through 10 in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. For tickets and information, call 860-486-4226 or visit www.crt.uconn.edu.


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