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Actor Puts Words in Others' Mouths

Theater* To learn to type, Daniel Stern pecked out a play that's now playing Philly. He enjoyed it so much he's writing another.

June 21, 2002|CATHERINE LUCEY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PHILADELPHIA — Named for a superstar diva and written by a movie comic, "Barbra's Wedding" is a true study in celebrity.

It is the playwrighting debut of Daniel Stern, who has appeared in movies such as "Home Alone" and "Diner." The comedy, about an unemployed actor struggling with his mediocrity in Hollywood as Barbra Streisand's wedding to James Brolin takes place, premiered this month at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Stern, 44, who has worked as an actor since he first appeared in the 1979 movie "Breaking Away," said the play is based largely on his experiences.

"When you see the play, it's the darkest recesses of an actor's mind, how celebrity and all that can mess with your head and you lose sight of what's important," he said. "I hate to admit this because the character is so pathetic, but there are definitely thought patterns that are my own."

The main character, Jerry Schiff, is the former fourth lead in a long-dead sitcom called "Everybody's Peachy." Played by John Pankow (TV's "Mad About You"), Schiff is still hoping, despite obviously bad odds, that he can get a comeback role or at least an "Everybody's Peachy" reunion special.

His exasperated wife, Molly, played by Julie White ("Six Feet Under"), spends most of the play trying to snap him out of it.

The play received only a lukewarm response from critics.

Desmond Ryan of the Philadelphia Inquirer said it was a "promising, if uneven" debut. He said the comedy was a good first effort, with moments that are funny and insightful about celebrity, but at times it was predictable and one-note.

Stern said one of the reasons he started writing was to escape stardom. He had appeared in dozens of films and was the voice of the adult Kevin Arnold on "The Wonder Years." But after several big hits in the 1990s, including "Home Alone" and "City Slickers," he said he became too well-known.

"It was too much public stuff.... I'd never been so recognizable," the gangly, nasal-voiced actor said. "I've always been a nice side character actor, and suddenly I was front and center."

So about five years ago he decided to slow down and spend more time with his family. During that period, he said, he started to write.

"I was trying to teach myself to type," he said. "And I thought, this is really boring, so I started to write things."

Stern, who lives near Streisand in Malibu, said "Barbra's Wedding" was inspired by the circus he saw on her wedding day.

"I live near enough that with the helicopters I was like, 'What is going on?' " he said.

Of course, the wedding is just a backdrop for the real action.

"It's really an examination of a marriage of this couple," he said. "Their marriage is at a critical point. It's watching them work through their things. The wedding next door is a catalyst for that."

And in some ways, Stern said, the play is a thank-you to his wife for putting up with his career for more than 20 years. She has dealt with "the roller coaster of being in show business and the toll it takes on your life," he said.

"Barbra's Wedding" will finish its monthlong Philadelphia run June 30. Prospects for a New York or Los Angeles staging are uncertain.

Stern said he has enjoyed the experience and is already working on another play. "It's just having a creative outlet that doesn't require anybody else," he said.

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