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He's Not Such a Bad Guy

Theater: David Proval, icy in 'The Sopranos,' gets closer to the truth in 'Seltzer-Man.'

September 15, 2001|HUGH HART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first time David Proval walked into Chin Chin restaurant in West Hollywood, the waitresses were afraid to wait on him. They'd seen Proval on "The Sopranos." They knew him as Richie Aprile, the tightly wound gangster he played on the HBO series in its second season, and they were afraid of what would happen if they botched his order.

Recalls Proval, "The manager comes up to me and says, 'They're nervous about making a mistake because they know that character you play, and they don't know how you're going to respond.' I said, 'You got to be kidding.' He says, 'No it's absolutely true."'

During a break from rehearsals for his new play "Seltzer-Man," which opens today at the Tiffany Theater on the Sunset Strip, Proval comes across as a rumpled mensch, not a hair-trigger Mafioso. He frets before, during and after his lunch break about the ding he put in his car that morning, afraid of how his wife, Cheryl, would react. "Maybe I should park it so the damage is facing away from the house and she won't see it," Proval says, half-joking.

Proval, now a familiar face at the restaurant, lays out an array of vitamins and holistic pills on the table as he awaits his Chinese chicken salad. He needs to keep his strength up for this, his first one-man show.

Written by Los Angeles playwright Richard Krevolin ("King Levine" ), the play stars Proval as a Manhattan insomniac who delivers seltzer bottles by day and suffers writer's block by night, while struggling, day and night, with the predicament of being a Jew in an unwelcoming world.

"'Seltzer-Man' investigates a part of my life that I've been very protective of," Proval says. Like the seltzer man's mother, Proval's mother was a Romanian Jew who played poker and smoked cigars. Like the seltzer man, Proval was beaten as a child because of his religion. Like his character, Proval spent his boyhood in a Jewish-Italian Brooklyn neighborhood.

"Now, in this piece, I'm able to say, here is what it was like. Remember, when I was growing up in Brooklyn, this is just five years after World War II and the fear of that [the Holocaust] happening again was constant. I had teachers who had concentration camp numbers on their arms."

"Seltzer-Man" is, in short, a deeply personal project, the kind of to-die-for showcase actors dream of. Proval has Richie Aprile to thank. Before "The Sopranos," he'd been shopping the "Seltzer-Man" script for seven years with no takers.

Then Proval joined the second season of the HBO series and everything changed. Jo DeMarco signed on to produce "Seltzer-Man" without even reading the material, strictly on the strength of Proval's performance.

Even "Seltzer-Man" director Lisa James, who has known Proval for 20 years, suddenly became gung-ho about the project in the wake of his TV success.

"Before 'The Sopranos,' we had talked about working together," James says. "Then his first 'Sopranos' [episode] came out. He was just so fabulous, so then when he said, 'Do you want to work on this play?' I went, 'Well, now that you're huge, and it can further my career"'--James laughs at her own naked ambition--"yes, let's go!"

Richie Aprile proved to be the right role at the right time, although "Sopranos" producers didn't see it that way at the beginning. Proval had to fight to make the part his own. "Everybody and their brother-in-law were chasing that role," says Proval. He auditioned four times.

"When I first went in, they kept likening the character to Joe Pesci's 'GoodFellas' character, and I didn't see that at all," he says. "They had me back and they said, 'You don't get it, we think you're great, but could you, you know ...."' Proval shakes his hands wildly, bugging out his eyes. "But I felt very strongly that was not what Richie was about. He's not a frenetic guy at all."

"Sopranos" executive producer David Chase was out of town during the first three auditions. "The 'Sopranos' people said, 'Well, come back when David comes back from Italy,' which I did. And David understood. And it turned out to be a lot more frightening."

Proval says the Richie role offered a rare confluence of personal and professional vindication. "When I read the part, it offered to me a clear image of what was at stake for that man at that point in his life, and it fused, in a way, with my own. That's very rare. What my life was about, what Richie Aprile's life was about, it did this," Proval places his two index fingers together. "It came together."

Just as Richie came out of prison to reclaim his turf, the role itself offered Proval a chance to prove that he, too, was back and was operating at the top of his game.

He never quit acting, but show biz, with its attendant hype, was something he'd bitterly given up long ago.

'I'd Rather Do My Little Plays in a Basement'

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