Comedy couple Colleen Crabtree and Dan Rothenberg bring their Hot Mess to off-Broadway

Colleen Crabtree and Dan Rothenberg with Hot Mess director Jonathan Silverman.

Colleen Crabtree and Dan Rothenberg with Hot Mess director Jonathan Silverman.

The off-Broadway play Hot Mess, starring Max Crumm and Lucy DeVito, opens with a couple laying in bed together comparing their flaws while the audience roars with laughter. They discuss past relationships, their professional failures and eccentric family dynamics. Within two minutes it feels as if these characters are old friends with the audience. But for married couple Dan Rothenberg and Colleen Crabtree, the connection is even more personal.

As the writers of Hot Mess, which is a fictionalized account of Rothenberg’s story of coming out to Crabtree as a bisexual man, they had the grueling task of putting their own insecurities on stage and allow people to laugh at it. But, as comedians, Rothenberg said that’s the best way to get a laugh.

Through the years since its conception, Hot Mess evolved from a one-man show to a two-person company to the three-person company that opened the production off-Broadway at the Snapple Theater Center on November 16.

Although the current production will shutter on Broadway this afternoon, December 17, Rothenberg and Crabtree spoke with Stage Door Dish about bringing their story off-Broadway, their hopes for the play’s future and the secret to their marriage.

I really had no idea of what to expect going in and the play is so earnest and so honest, what is the difficulty for both of you to expose yourself in such a way?

DR: I would say for myself it’s something I’ve been comfortable with for a long time, it’s always been at the heart of my comedy. When I was a stand up, back in the 90’s, if you wanted to be uniquely funny, you talk about yourself. The more you can make challenges and awkward situations funny, the more rewarding it is, so I began talking about my sexuality, and it has been in a number of different places, from way back and I’ve always found it to be an asset and to be empowering. If I’m embarrassed about something, if I can go out and the crowd is laughing I feel validated.

CC: For me, I come from a long line of ‘over sharers’ so that’s no problem, but I think it specifically relates to us as a couple and it’s not something that we were completely prepared for. When we did our first round in 2008 with our play, we were lucky enough to have almost exclusively great reviews but we had one that was just scathingly bad and it had everything from people were saying  from ‘this isn’t funny’, ‘this is offensive’, ‘he’s gay’, ‘their marriage is a sham’ and after a while and after you’ve done it enough, we’re asking ourselves that we must really love this because we can’t help it. When you’re a performer, it’s compulsive and you just let the chips fall, you just let it hurt. You’ve got to keep doing it because it’s damn fun I guess!

Writing the play was there anything that you thought had to go in or you were hesitant to include?

DR: We have to take a moment because this play has gone from a one person play to a two person play and now a three person play. There has been so many incarnations.

CC: I would say that there were a lot of things where we were fighting ourselves  that we had to think to ourselves do we just think this is cute or are we full of ourselves and is this something that we think helps tell the story and that is something that is often hard choice to make.

DR: I would say it’s very important for Max to be identified as bisexual and to have a story about that. Before the play, it was just a little different, it was more about a guy, Dan (Me), who was trying to figure out his identity. He wasn’t identified with a label at all, but this time around I wanted to give a little voice to a bisexual struggle. Which, if I could put that into words, it’s kind of the ability to allow yourself to be exactly who you are on the spectrum and just ask for acceptance for that.

CC: It’s difficult for people to understand.

The Anniversary scene, the whole scene I really felt like Eleanor, specifically in that moment, seemed more concrete, in terms of seeing more of her struggle throughout the story because you’re seeing a lot of Max. Can you talk about showing the vulnerability for these performances by Lucy DeVito and Max Crumm?

CC: Yes, I would love to and we just love what these actors brought to it, it’s such a gift. One thing I really wanted to be the voice of during the wonderful collaboration we had with our team was that Eleanor be fragile, be lovable, but she is the voice of that bit of homophobia that carries out in the world. It takes her awhile to realize that this is about her but she’s afraid of what this means about her. In the end she knows this guy up and down and she knows that he’s still him.

It was a very difficult choice for us all to make, how far does she go to say that she’s not okay with what he found and she’s in that moment trying to hurt him any way she can because she just needs to get away and she goes to that edge of saying something that she can’t take back, maybe they can’t recover from. I think when you get this intimate, this is what is going to come out of your average girl who is usually in a heterosexual relationship. There’s all kinds of fears that come out and I wanted to make sure that this play, as much as possible, was a little bit of that missing link. Gave a little voice to the people who would always vote for gay marriage, they have friends that are gay and when it comes into their life they have to look at it a whole different way. It kinda feels like, for me, the final frontier in that conversation. We wanted it to be a conversation that people had.

My father is an Evangelical Minister who voted for Donald Trump, he is the guy that I absolutely love and I often try to avoid talking with and my Dad has been a fan of this show from the beginning. When we did the play in Los Angeles it was a little lighter, a little less specific and I was afraid that maybe my Dad took it as seeing it the way he wanted to see it. Like a gay man reformed or something like that, but he and his wife who are as conservative as they come, have come to this play and have been emotional with us the whole way. Rooting for us. I can’t help but think that that conversation has reached my Dad a little bit. He has left that audience feeling a little bit like this is his family, this is part of him and I take a lot of joy in that.

I want to ask about casting Lucy and Max because they are such dynamic actors and I can’t imagine the process you guys actually went through of finding these actors who are portraying you on stage. What is the experience of working with them like? What’s it like watching them carry out your story?

DR: It was a really amazing experience, not just to see them portray these characters so well but to let go of the characters and pass it on to them. One of my favorite collaborations for Hot Mess, always in the past we have been the writer’s, stars, producers, everything, it was all on us. We were funding it, we would hire people to help us but it was all on us so it’s a much different process, making writing changes to something you’re about to perform is different than changing the script and handing it to these actors..

Learning to separate ourselves, play that role and in this case sit back and watch the magic happen and see this whole project reappear into something new and different and beautiful and even say to ourselves ‘ Wow, I didn’t even know exactly how it was going to turn out as’ and we really like it. It was an amazing creative experience. I’ll tell you what was particularly neat for me was after the premiere my mom, my whole family, looked at me and said ‘Oh, my god, he was just like you’. I thought, I wasn’t even looking at it that way.

Can you talk about having this play in New York City right now with everything going on in the world and in our country?

CC: I feel like this play is very digestible for people who want to know something about sexuality. Most plays you would go to like Angels In America, all of the amazing plays that are out there that are so profound about sexuality are just going to be plays that people turn their ears off to. If they aren’t from that world or if they aren’t in that mindset, if they are from the midwest or religious, I kind of feel like when you meet people where they are at with something they can relate to which is just love, something that anyone can relate to without so much context about sexuality and kind of taking the politics out of it in that way you get people to listen and laugh and I believe when people laugh they listen even harder because they are feeling and relating in a deeper way. I do feel like with what’s going on in the world today there’s a lot of crimes committed, there’s a lot of hidden racism, hidden sexism, hidden homophobia, and not to think the weight of our play or anything but I do think it’s a small contributions that are important that allow people to listen. It’s the conversation that liberal people aren’t having, the people who give to black causes when they are white but they don’t have any understanding of that struggle. It gives an opportunity to people to hear something different a little bit deeper in that way.

DR: When I look at all of the comedians I admire, not only who are funny but have a message they convey, truth tellers. The comedy always has to come first. You need to always be getting laughs if you’re going to try and send a message and we try to do that just in our small little way, a pro-sexuality message and that’s what this play has always been. You have some people who don’t totally fit in the box and these are conversations that need to be talked about because a lot of times they aren’t talked about. For instance, in the previous play, something I was also very proud of, it had some content about the character  Dan who hurt his friend who would also come out of the closet, Dan didn’t turn out to be gay, he turned out to be bisexual and his best friend had gotten a crush on him and Dan hurt him, broke his heart by experimenting. That revelation met a lot to audiences. It’s these little conversations no one talks about because it doesn’t seem worthy, doesn’t seem common. That’s our little contribution to acceptance and love and not painting each other with broad brushes.

What would you say is the secret to your marriage? Is it the partnership of working together?

DR: That’s a great question. The secret to our marriage is embracing the mess, it goes along with the play. Walking through fear and enjoying risks we take. That’s what we’ve gotten better at. We are never perfect at it, but we have a marriage where we are consciously taking these risks or we get these opportunities that we can’t say no to and we can’t help but go in the direction to the things that are kind of unconventional that a lot of people our age try to avoid for the obvious reasons. You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know if you’re going to make money, you’re worried about financial security and stability for your children and the secret to our marriage is really having a big imagination and following your passion. What I would say that we are doing a little better than we use to is actually enjoying it and embracing it. Ask our family about our marriage. Some would say it’s magic. Some would say it’s chaos. Not that we are a bad couple but some would definitely say it’s chaos. No matter how much we try to be conventional, make decisions that my mom would like, we can’t quite do it. We love the idea of following our passion and following our art more and more, but we’ve also grown up a little bit. Fifteen years ago we were sinking all of our money into our art and our play, now we have a child and we aren’t going to do that again. Our little niche, as a couple, seems to be putting a high value on art creativity.

The show is coming into its last weekend at the Snapple Theatre, what are you hoping that the audience takes away from this play and what are you hoping that they remember when they look back on seeing the show?

DR: We hope they remember this really fun experience that sticks with them and creates conversation that lives on past the play. To me, as a playwright, that’s something I hope to leave. A conversation that continues after this run ends. Laughing at a situation that they can relate to and that made some interesting points.

CC: I like that it’s presenting a couple that’s truly funny and a woman that is truly funny. I think that women, like Amy Schumer, and in the last five years comedy for women has really blossomed and I like that Eleanor is just one more funny woman that contributes to that and makes me laugh. That makes me happy.

About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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