As an actor, Steve Guttenberg is known for his unassuming presence. He was once described as embodying “friendly normality” in his best-known films, and that’s a pretty good description. And I don’t know if any actor has had as much box office success — his films include the “Police Academy” and “Three Men and a Baby” franchises, plus “Cocoon,” “Diner,” “Short Circuit” and many more — while generating so little tabloid fodder.
All that makes him, though, an unlikely candidate to create and star in a play about his own life.
That is what has happened, though, with “Tales From the Guttenberg Bible,” which is currently being presented, in its world premiere, by the George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, with direction by George Street Playhouse’s artistic director, David Saint.
I found it quite entertaining — very funny at times, cleverly staged, and a bit moving. This is not groundbreaking avant-garde theater, but undeniably charming for what it is. I could see him continuing to do this, in theaters around the country, for as long as he wants. (In fact, it was announced before the show that the play will go next to the Bay Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y., this summer).
Guttenberg, casually dressed, appears as himself, with three other actors — Carine Montbertrand, Arnie Burton and Dan Domingues — playing dozens of roles each: His parents, his agents and managers and publicists (he seems to have gone through a ton of them), other actors and directors, and so on. Among the celebrities portrayed are (in no particular order) Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, Leonard Nimoy, Paul Reiser, Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, Jerry Seinfeld, Merv Griffin, Valerie Perrine, members of the Village People, Laurence Olivier, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Genie Francis (of Luke & Laura fame; she actually figures pretty prominently, as Guttenberg’s fake-date to the Oscars), Barry Levinson and Robert Evans. All are portrayed positively, with the possible exception of Danson, who comes off as a bit of an egomaniac (though the humor is very gentle).
Guttenberg does not seem to have any scores to settle with anyone. He’s more interested in showing how nice and supportive everyone was to him. His godfather, actor Michael Bell (played by Domingues), offers immeasurable help. And film industry veterans such as Olivier, Nimoy and Evans share their wisdom with him. Widmark in particular is seen not just as a famous actor Guttenberg once met, but as someone who deserves some of the credit for making his career possible, kindly helping him out of a jam in a movie (“Rollercoaster”) that they were both in, all the way back in 1977.
I saw the opening night show, and while the three supporting actors handled everything very smoothly — and they had to make a lot of quick costume changes, and even joked a few times (breaking the fourth wall) about how hard the play was for them — Guttenberg seemed a little stiff at times, and stumbled over his words at a few points. This was a bit surprising, since he is the star and they are far less well known (though very experienced stage actors). But it was a minor flaw and will undoubtedly become less of a factor the more Guttenberg does the show.
Guttenberg is portrayed (i.e., he portrays himself) as a sincere mensch who retains a lot of his wide-eyed innocence even in the midst of mind-blowing success. He is self-effacing, but never questions his own talent. He almost seems cocky, at times, under the aw-shucks exterior. Indeed, the only real struggle in the play is for him to prevent himself from losing touch, while in Hollywood, with his roots — represented by his colorful, eccentric parents back in Long Island, where he grew up.
The play is, in a lot of ways, a love letter to his parents, particularly his father, who died last year.
Except for a brief mention of his current wife, Guttenberg’s love life is never discussed. And while he does go on an audition for someone who shows a surprising amount of interest in his body, he reacts by saying, “I got it. This is about some funny business. It’s not about acting. So I promised myself never to have an audition after 9 p.m. in a private home.” And life goes on.
There is nothing in this play about drugs or alcohol or any other dangerous vices. Maybe these weren’t factors in Guttenberg’s life; it’s just worth mentioning here because it’s unusual, these days, to encounter a showbiz story with nothing along these lines. The only personal indulgence he mentions is his love of expensive food like filet mignon and caviar.
There is talk of going to Hollywood parties, but few details. One mildly scandalous moment comes when Guttenberg goes to a party at Perrine’s house, and Perrine and a female friend of hers greet him, topless. (This is accomplished by having two of the actors wear large fake breasts over their clothing — a goofy touch that got a big laugh.)
The narrative pretty much stops at “Three Men and Baby” — Guttenberg’s 1987 hit, co-starring Danson and Selleck — before jumping to the present in the final scene. You don’t get much of a sense of what the ’90s and ’00s and ’10s were like for him.
While there is a lot of self-deprecating humor in his portrayal of his early days as an actor, he ascends in the business remarkably quickly, with virtually no struggle. As he puts it near the play’s end, somehow he managed to navigate his boat down the river without hitting any rocks.
But he stays relatable even after becoming rich and successful beyond his wildest dreams. In other words, he never loses that friendly normality. And that’s a remarkable story in and of itself.
Click here for an NJArts.net interview with Guttenberg about the play, and his life and career.
The George Street Playhouse presents “Tales From the Guttenberg Bible” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through May 21. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.