Covid, Crutches, Surgery: For Christopher Abbott the Show Somehow Went On

Christopher Abbott was about halfway through a performance of “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” when he felt something go wrong. The 37-year-old actor had been sitting onstage — his character, a brutish trucker, proposing marriage to a tormented woman played by Aubrey Plaza — and as he went to get up, he couldn’t straighten his leg.

That early December injury — he had a bucket handle meniscus tear — was followed in short order by a case of Covid and arthroscopic surgery. And then he returned to the stage, performing for several weeks on crutches, through the end of the show’s 11-week run on Saturday night.

The play, a two-hander, is a 1984 drama by John Patrick Shanley about two hardened people who meet in a Bronx bar and wind up spending a night together. The run, staged Off Broadway at the 295-seat Lucille Lortel Theater, was unusually bumpy.

One performance was canceled the day after Abbott’s knee injury; another was canceled when Plaza tested positive for Covid while Abbott also had the illness. (Plaza, making her professional stage debut, is particularly popular thanks to “Parks & Recreation” and “The White Lotus.” Abbott is best known for indie films, Off Broadway plays and a stint on “Girls,” and his next project is a studio film, the monster movie reboot “Wolf Man.”)

For four shows, when both actors were out, the producers refunded all presold tickets, and then offered $30 seats to anyone who wanted to see the understudies. And for three shows, while Abbott was recovering from surgery, the first-time director, Jeff Ward, who is also an actor, went on in the title role.

But whatever alchemy makes some productions succeed was at work in this case. These actors really wanted to do this play. Audiences really wanted to see these actors, and some were willing to pay high prices. (Ticket prices ranged from a low of $59 at the start of the run to a high of $349 at the end, and there were $20 lottery tickets throughout.)

Last week, the “Danny” producing team — Play Hooky Productions, which is the actor Sam Rockwell along with Mark Berger, as well as Seaview, Sue Wagner and John Johnson — announced that it had recouped its $1.25 million capitalization cost, which is a rare feat, particularly for commercial Off Broadway shows at a tough time for the theater industry.

In conversations at Abbott’s fourth-floor walk-up apartment in TriBeCa (yes, he is somehow managing a fourth-floor walk-up with crutches) and over the phone, he discussed the “Danny” run. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

How did it feel to come to the end?

It feels like we did two versions of this play. From previews to opening night and the first couple weeks it grew, and then the injury happened, and then that version grew. It really felt like up until the last show that we were still figuring things out. The play is only done because of the date we had to close — otherwise it would have evolved even still.

What did you learn?

What the part, and the play, calls for, for Aubrey and me, was a sustained agitation. I’ve never had to sustain that level of intensity. Every job you learn something, and you grow, and all those tropes, but with this play, it was a new level — a new kind of test for myself.

So how did you get injured?

It was just a total freak thing. I was sitting on my heels, and went to get up, and I must have got up fast, or weird. I felt a tweak. I felt like my knee had locked. While we were still doing the scene, I tried to straighten it, and put weight on it, and I couldn’t. So I hobbled around for the rest of that show. It was still a good show, apparently, but I was on another planet. A couple minutes in, I was like, I have to go to the hospital after this.

Did you think about ending the show?

I thought about it, of course. I thought about stopping the show. I thought about just walking offstage. I thought, “Should I just say something to the audience?” But at that point we had just maybe 30 minutes left of the play, so I just thought I’d finish it. I was in pain, but it didn’t hurt as much if I just kept my leg bent, and didn’t try to walk on it. Luckily Aubrey and I had been doing the show long enough that she knew something was wrong and she rolled with it.

So then what did you do?

This happened on a Saturday. We canceled that Sunday show. The director, the choreographers and Aubrey came here, and just here in my living room we tried to figure out a new staging.

And medically?

On Monday, the doctor told me I would have to get surgery. It wasn’t something I could avoid or put off. It was very disappointing, but the next day I went in, rehearsed, and did a show. My surgery was scheduled for the following Wednesday, so we do the show that week — I just keep my leg bent, with a sleeve brace on it, on crutches. And then that weekend, on top of it, I got Covid, and the day after, so did Aubrey.

Did you think about just ending the run?

No. I had figured out the staging, on how to do it with crutches, so I knew I was going to be able to go back to that version. Honestly, it’s more precarious for me to shower than what I do onstage. Or going up and down my steps. I didn’t think I was going to back out. We worked really hard on this thing, and there’s an ownership I feel and we all feel. You’d have to pry it out of my hands. I wouldn’t want somebody else doing it.

Of course, when the show starts, your character is coming from a fight.

Exactly. It strangely works. It adds an inherent vulnerability which, for Aubrey’s character and mine, evens the playing field in terms of what kind of threat they are to each other. Physically I’m bigger than Aubrey, and it’s a violent play. So it created a more equal danger for the both of us.

Do you think the audience knows?

The first show, when I came back, Jeff made an announcement, and it felt distracting, so we stopped telling people. Now people think it’s just part of the show.

This production was in part distinguished by a dance interlude between the two scenes.

It was elaborate and beautiful, and that’s the one thing I miss the most. The dance beautifully takes you from scene one, which ends with him deciding to go with her, and then scene two is postcoital. The dance isn’t just to represent them having sex, but it’s the courtship and the journey, going from these two animals biting and scratching at each other, to tenderness. The dance is representative of the people that they both would dream to be.

There’s still a dance interlude, but you’re mostly in a chair. Were you able to communicate those same ideas with less mobility?

Yes. It’s maybe less impressive, on a physical level, but the idea still comes across.

So let’s back up. What drew you to “Danny”?

It’s one of those plays in acting class that everyone does. I had never seen a production of it, but I had worked on it back in the day, and I had seen people work on it. I hadn’t really thought about it in a while, until Jeff brought it to my attention — he brought me a copy, and I reread it, and I thought, “This could be my swan song, in terms of the angry-young-man thing, just given my age and where I’m at.” And it’s a great one to do that with. I just love the play. It’s poetic, but also very real. And it’s just fun, beautiful dialogue to chew on.

It seems like you’re drawn to roles with rage.

This is a business where work begets work, so if you do one thing, and people see you do that thing, then they think of you if there’s a pathos that’s similar in a character. But I find beauty in characters who struggle with speaking. I don’t mean stupid, but they struggle with expressing emotions, so things come out very guttural — it comes from not a cerebral place, but more from the gut and more from the heart. I’m drawn to things like that — I feel like I understand it.

What’s it like holding that much anguish, night after night?

You let it go after the show. But it’s a level of emotion that I don’t get to do in my daily life. It’s tiring, but I think it’s good. Just putting your body through those emotional peaks is not something we do often enough when everyone is very self-aware and self-reflective and has an answer for everything. There’s something very old-school about the way these characters express themselves — it’s on their sleeve, and they don’t hold anything back, and that’s a refreshing thing to do.

What are your thoughts on the ticket prices? There’s been a lot of discussion about this industrywide, and they became kind of high for this one.

I’m not thrilled about it. I don’t pretend to know the business of it, but I assume they have to be certain prices for investors to make their money back. I’m not sure why it’s so expensive to do a play. If I ever produce something, I’ll look into that more. But of course, I wish that prices were cheaper.

What’s next?

I’ve got to get my leg better for the next job. I’ll continue to see my physical therapist and just work at it and just get better so I can do the next job, and that’s in March in New Zealand — “Wolf Man.”

Will you do theater again?
Of course.

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