CHELSEA – Life might have turned out significantly different for Grosse Pointe native Matt Letscher had he not found his way to the Purple Rose Theatre Company immediately after receiving a bachelor’s degree in theater and drama from the University of Michigan in 1992. “I’m the luckiest man in the world,” the handsome and talented actor, writer and director said last week from the theater that is producing the world premiere of “Sea of Fools,” his first major script. “What Jeff [Daniels] did for me to start out, and what he continues to do for me as a friend and as a colleague – it’s been a wealth of experience that have come out of here.”
With the ink on his sheepskin barely dry, Letscher was cast in “The Tropical Pickle,” the closing show of the PRTC’s second season. “I was very fortunate to go right from school to an experience like that – and then even more fortunate that Jeff saw fit to approach the director he was going to be working with on the movie ‘Gettysburg’ and ask if he could find a part in it for me,” Letscher recalled. “That was my first movie – a small part in ‘Gettysburg.’ So that wasn’t a bad way to jump out of school!”
After moving to Los Angeles in 1993, Letscher’s career blossomed. Besides working on Broadway and in numerous regional theaters – and as a guest star on several television shows – Letscher landed a starring role in the NBC series “Good Morning, Miami,” and played Captain Harrison Love in the 1998 movie “The Mask of Zorro” with Antonio Banderas. He also had recurring roles in two NBC series, “Joey” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”
But it was the 2004 movie “Straight-Jacket” – in which Letscher plays a closeted movie star of the 1950s – that the actor’s “screen-devouring charm and classic movie-star looks” were especially put to good use. “It was such a meaty role. You just don’t get roles like that very often. So I worked my butt off on that movie – both literally and metaphorically,” he laughed.
Although “Seas of Fools” shares a few similarities with “Straight-Jacket” – both are set in the “commie-hunting” 1950s and tell stories about actors – Letscher explained that the play’s roots are actually planted in yet an earlier film, “Super Sucker,” in which Letscher and a host of PRTC veterans play a company of vacuum cleaner salesmen. “One day we just started talking about [theatrical] screen names and how you come up with them – your middle name and the street you grew up on. It was amazing how well the formula works. We came up with these names that sounded like ’30s and ’40s era movie stars, and as a result, we started screwing around with developing personas for our screen names – just really affected, self-important ‘c-‘ or ‘d-‘ list movie stars that no one ever heard of. We cracked up doing it. And after we finished the movie, every time we’d see each other, we’d revert to those personalities.”
So when Daniels offered Letscher the chance to write a play based on those characters, he jumped at it. The result is a farce Letscher describes – Hollywood style – as “Sunset Boulevard” meets “Waiting for Guffman.” “It’s this group of people who, yes they’re in their own little world, and yes, they’re complete morons in their own right, but at the heart of everything, they choose to hang on to what’s important to them.”
Playing many of the roles are the actors Letscher worked with on “Super Sucker,” including John Seibert, John Lepard and Sandra Birch. “And we’re whipping Guy Sanville into shape, too,” the playwright teased. “These people are all extremely funny and very able comedians. And they’ve taken it and are running with it!”
So far, Letscher has had few problems with the show’s director – mostly because the newbie playwright is also making his professional debut as a theater director with “Sea of Fools.” (Daniels, the original director, stepped away from the project to star in the critically-acclaimed “Blackbird” at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.) “But it will be interesting when previews start, because that’s when you’re starting to see what people are responding to and what they’re not responding to” he said. “Whose voice will take over then? I’m not sure. So far, the playwright has stayed to the side and the director’s mostly been there. But I have a feeling that might change a bit.”
It’s been both a pleasure and an honor to return to the Purple Rose, Letscher said. “They’re an exceptional group of people who do some of the best work in the country with new playwrights. That’s something that cannot be overlooked in this day and age. The Purple Rose is a treasure that I hope everyone values as much as I do.”
‘Sea of Fools’
A world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Previews June 21-24 & 27-28 ($20-$25); runs Wed.-Sun., June 29-Sept. 1. Tickets: $25-$35. 734-433-7673. http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.