Michael Puzzo is a supremely entertaining actor, playwright, and general human being.  A Labyrinth Company Member since the early days, he’s got a new play opening this week called Spirits of Exit Eleven.  We talked to him about that and much more, including his surprising literary celebrity in India.  Yep, India.

Michael, when did you first start getting involved with Labyrinth?  What was going on in those days?

In the very early 90’s after my divorce (yeah, I got married in Vegas at 23, I’ll save that story for another time), I was sharing an apartment with my dear friend and fellow Jerseyite Miss Liz Canavan. She worked nights at Ticket Central at the time and heard about auditions for this new theater company called LAB (I believe this was before LAB added the “yrinth” part). I don’t think she knew what the hell it was all about, but being new to the city, we were both hungry for something, anything. So she joined the LAB and I, like pretty much every actor who ever got off the bus at Port Authority, did a million little Way-the-Hell Off –Off-Off Broadway shows. Once in a while I would go check out the early LAB shows and sometimes go to the occasional party. At the beginning the shows were nothing special, but the parties were off the fucking chain.

A few years later after I finished two years of Meisner training with Jedi Master Maggie Flanigan (who is now a fellow company member, I still gotta pinch myself on that one) Liz and Chris McGarry (another member of my sad little Jersey crew) got me an audition with LAB…. and I (somehow) got in. I will point out that, the year I joined the LAB (1997) was the last year they had formal auditions for the Company. I have always secretly suspected that it was cuz’ they wanted to make sure that no one like me ever snuck in under the wire again.

I’ll be honest. If it wasn’t for the LAB, I would have ditched acting and hopped a bus back to NJ a long ass time ago. And I sure as shit would never had become a playwright! It takes a unimaginable amount of tenacity and courage to be an artist in New York City in the twenty first century and all that would have been nearly impossible without my LAB family. Once I found these beautiful talented crazy artists, I was home and no longer felt so alone.

You were most recently seen on stage in our production of Philip Roth In Khartoum at the Public Theater in 2008 — what have you been up to since then?

For many years, all my acting gigs and play development were done almost exclusively with LAByrinth. But at some point, only working within your comfort zone, becomes sorta’ like your mother telling you are handsome….so I went on a walkabout.  I did a bunch of Off Broadway plays, wrote a few one acts, played a small part in the movie Doubt, saw my LAB developed play Lyric is Waiting produced by KEF Productions, and played with my girlfriend’s dog Bobito. But more than anything I forced myself to slow the fuck down and look around my life and see how fortunate I was to still be doing the shit I only dreamed about as a kid in Jersey..

Tell us about your upcoming play, Spirits of Exit Eleven.

I was talking to Brett Leonard the other night and I had to admit that Spirits of Exit Eleven was really just my version of his play Scotch and Water (that Trevor Long, Max Casella, Stephen Guirgis, David Zayas, Jinn Kim, Ernesto Solo and the late great Mark Hammer all acted in ten years ago.) The more we talked, the more I realized that it was also heavily influenced by Stephen’s In Arabia We’d All Be Kings too. Ever the scholar, Brett pointed out that both his and Stephen’s plays were pretty much just their take on Balm in Gilead and The Iceman Cometh and so on.  So at the end of the day, …Exit Eleven is simply just one in a long line of bar plays. Hopefully it contains all the false hope and faded dreams that those kinda stories require….but with some jokes. Oh and my bar just happens to be a NJ strip club that is also a pizza parlor.

How you balance being both an actor and a playwright?  Does one inform the other?

In my mind they are pretty much the same thing. Writing uses the same muscles, the same parts of your heart and brain as acting. Folks just seem to be more impressed when you write something down. Which is a damn shame. I have never heard a woman say “Oh Hell, no! I do not date writers!” (maybe they do, what the fuck do I know?) I am a much better actor now that I have started writing. And vice versa. The two feed each other. And in my case desperately need each other. It’s quite a mysterious and fulfilling thing to discover a part of yourself that has been missing. I feel blessed that I finally had courage enough to just say “fuck it” and start writing stuff down. Every actor should at least try it at least once and then whether you succeed or fail immediately go ahead and try it again.

What’s the deal with your plays in India?  I hear you’re like a theatrical rock star over there …

There is no way around telling this story without copping to the shameful and masturbatory act of Googling oneself.  I was doing John Patrick Shanley’s PIRATE up at NY Stage and Film a couple of summer’s ago and late one sleepless night I came across this newspaper article about some play called A Guy Thing in a Mumbai paper. I could not understand why this came up in my aforementioned Google, so I read the story. And to my surprise, it talked about how “New York based playwright, Michael Puzzo had really tapped into the macho inner psyche of the typical Indian male” What the Heck? Then after looking at the pictures accompanying the article I realized that these guys were doing a bootleg version of my play The Dirty Talk and had changed the name. I called the plays publisher Dramatist Play Service and they said that they only owned the rights in the US and Canada. I called my former agent and well…it’s two years later and .I am still waiting for him to respond. So I went straight to The Master and asked Shanley what to do?  He said “Michael. They are doing your play in India. INDIA! Why is that a bad thing?”

So I tracked down the producer/director on Facebook and struck up a correspondence. He immediately sent me photos, reviews etc and a few days later I received several posters for A Guy Thing via airmail. Since then I have sent them several short plays, which they have gone on to produce at The Prithvi Theatre which is one of Mumbai’s best known venues. A Guy Thing has become sort of a phenomenon over there, touring constantly all of India. It’s absolutely perplexing, but it also gives me great pride. One day I may try and scrape together enough scratch and go over there and check it out.

What’s next for you?

I am itching to get back to work on Guaranteed Second Base the solo play I developed with my friend and fellow Labbie (Labber?) David Bar Katz. We worked on it at a summer intensive a few years back and again for the Barn Series, when LAB was still at The Public. I have never wanted to act in any of the plays I have written, but somehow working on this piece felt like something entirely new for me, like learning knowing how to play the guitar and finally taking a shot at writing my own songs. I don’t really know how to articulate it, but it was a huge challenge and I really enjoyed it. The play is about Prince’s Purple Rain and how he affected my love life when I was a teenager in Jersey. I would love to get it up somewhere in NYC before the year is out.

Thanks, Michael.

Here’s a link to buy your tickets for Michael’s new play.