French Stewart Talks Becoming Buster Keaton for New Play 'Stoneface'

Corey Klemow
French Stewart as Buster Keaton

“We wanted to pay tribute to his life by sort of illustrating it with his work. It's kind of like a musical," says Stewart, who, along with his wife, has partnered with the Pasadena Playhouse for "Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton."

As a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, French Stewart worked as a an usher at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he dreamed of his “Hamlet moment, my King Lear moment, my Willy Loman,” as he puts it. Well, that moment has arrived as Stewart takes center stage portraying silent comedy clown prince Buster Keaton in Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton at the Pasadena Playhouse, running through June 29.

After strong reviews in the summer of 2012 at Sacred Fools Theater Company, a 99-seat venue in Hollywood, the production upgrades to the 686-seat Pasadena Playhouse. Built in 1925, the sumptuous Spanish Colonial Revival theater was sometimes visited by stars of the era portrayed in the play, including Groucho Marx and Keaton himself.

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With a bigger budget and some final tweaking, the plan is to take the show to Broadway, according to Stewart, who along with his wife, playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart, has partnered with theater on the production.

“What we wanted to do was take the Sacred Fools production and blow it up for a bigger stage,” Stewart tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re trying to take everything we did and make it a little bit bigger and a little bit better but also hang on to the handmade quality that we had before, because we felt like that’s kind of where it lives, that’s the charm of it.”

Judging by Stoneface, it’s easy to see why the deadpan comedy pioneer never cracked a smile -- Buster Keaton lived a hard life. The play begins in 1933 with Keaton in a straitjacket being nursed by Mae Scriven, whom he learns he recently married during a three-day drinking binge. Jumping back in time, we get a glimpse of his contentious marriage to Natalie Talmadge, sister to movie star Norma, who was married to Keaton’s producer, Joseph Schenck. But much of the play focuses on his MGM years, when he was creatively straitjacketed into making dreadful talkies like the Jimmy Durante-starrer What! No Beer? for Louis B. Mayer.

“We wanted to pay tribute to his life by sort of illustrating it with his work. It’s kind of like a musical. There’re numbers. They’re not musical numbers but physical numbers,” says Stewart, referring to several classic slapstick scenes recreated from Keaton’s films, like a rope-and-pulley system that allows him and Fatty Arbuckle to conveniently navigate a kitchen without leaving their seats, as well as the deadly facade fall from Steamboat Bill Jr. in which the front of a house falls on Stewart, who is safely positioned under a window frame.

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“Even when it was at Sacred Fools, we felt like there was a bigger show waiting to bloom, and we just kind of had the opportunity to do that,” says Stewart. “It doesn’t feel like anything is being forced or we’re trying to make something out of nothing. It’s more like this is what it wants to be in the first place.”

The rise and fall and rise of the play’s subject is not unlike Stewart’s own career path, only without the alcoholism and rancor. After a successful run guesting on TV series through most of the 1990s, he landed the part of moron sinecure Harry Solomon on the hit sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun, which ran until 2001. After that he settled back into TV guest spots and the occasional movie.

In 2009, he split from actress Katherine LaNasa after 11 years of marriage. Hebegan working on Stoneface with Vanessa Claire Smith a few years later. By the time they staged it at Sacred Fools, she had become Vanessa Claire Stewart, and last year the couple welcomed their first child. Stewart will be returning to work this fall on the second season of the Chuck Lorre sitcom Mom.

“You’re career goes up and down. Sometimes you’re doing something out of love and sometimes you’re knocking out rent, but every once in a while you’ll get a situation where everything kind of comes together,” Stewart  says about the Keaton play. “My wife wrote it, we’re doing it together, I’m doing it with people I want at the place that I want. It’s a really special time for us.”

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