Jason Alexander directs “The Joy Wheel,” a story that rises above politics to explore the underlying anxieties of our time

By Christina Campodonico

The former “Seinfeld” star finds great joy in live theater
Photo by Nina Brissey

Jason Alexander is brimming with ideas. He’d love to set “Jesus Christ Superstar” in a nightclub-like atmosphere; he’d love to give “Hamlet” a “scary, gothic, sexy” twist; and he’d even like to put a serious spin on the musical “Dracula.”

But right now, the actor-director who found widespread fame as George Costanza on “Seinfeld” is at the helm of “The Joy Wheel,” a new dramedy he’s directing at Santa Monica’s Ruskin Group Theatre through March 31. Set in Joy, Illinois, the play written by Ian McRae follows an older couple, Frank and Stella, who after 40 years of marriage are drifting apart.

“He’s converting their swimming pool into an Armageddon bunker, doomsday prepper kind of thing,” says Alexander. “And she is talking about traveling around the world.”

Surrounding this shift is Stella’s pal Margie, an independent, sexually liberated woman who’s encouraged her friend to take part in a local production of “The Vagina Tales” (a thinly veiled nod to “The Vagina Monologues”). Meanwhile, Frank’s survivalist, racist and misogynistic next-door neighbor Stew is encouraging him to dig even deeper into his backyard pool. While conservative and liberal ideologies appear to clash against a firmly Midwestern backdrop, Alexander says it’s not an incredibly political play.

“It is a values play,” he says. “… So politics, modern politics, our political atmosphere out there … it doesn’t play a major factor. It’s more of a story of values and ethics, and this idea of feeling grounded and safe. And where is your community? Where do you have some semblance of purpose and self-power and self-worth?”

In that sense, he says, “it was reflective of an experience that people are having right now across our country.”

The Argonaut: What made ‘Joy Wheel’ feel timely for you to direct?

Jason Alexander: I spend a good deal of time all over the country between master classes and concerts and speaking engagements and just travel, and sometimes I’ve been on the road advocating for political candidates. So I meet all kinds of people all across the country. And I meet a lot of people who, at first glance, would seem to be very different from me. I meet a lot of people who didn’t grow up in big cities — they tend to be conservative, they tend to hold faith in high regard, many of them are Trump voters. But they are, at least in my experiences with them, they are very good people from everything I can discern. I think our values are often very much similar. I’ve had wonderful conversations with them.

What I’ve gleaned from those conversations is a feeling that the world is shifting in a way where they can’t make the shift. That the things that they understood — the world around them, their communities, their jobs, their religious beliefs, technology, global relations — all of it is moving so fast that they can’t find themselves. And they actually think that the movement is dangerous … at least frightening, but potentially dangerous. They tend to cling even harder to traditional values, because it roots them. And while I don’t agree with them, I certainly understand and sympathize with them.

This play is about a couple, an older couple, who are going through exactly that. Their children are grown and gone, their community is changing, they’re no longer defined by their parenthood or by their occupations, and they have lost touch with each other. They are looking to find solid ground again, but they’re moving in very different directions. …. As I say, one is reaching outward and the other one is retreating inward. It was reflective of an experience that people are having right now across our country.

Do you have a particular directing style?

I am a stickler in rehearsal for ‘What is the event of the moment?’ There are times when actors will feel like if they are talking to each other and it feels really natural and real, then that’s good theater. I do not pay $150 a ticket to watch a conversation, no matter how interesting the conversation is. I’ll pay $150 to hear a really good lecture, where I’m being educated about something, but not a conversation.

It’s interesting to hear that because people said “Seinfeld” was “a show about nothing,” or basically people having ordinary conversations. Is there anything from ‘Seinfeld’ that you’ve taken to directing?

Not a thing. … I have always disagreed with the notion that ‘Seinfeld’ was a show about nothing. … The stories actually were heavily plotted. If you go back, every character has their own storyline. Every character has an event that they’re pursuing. And then the brilliance of the writing of that show was that all those different events would somehow dovetail in a surprising way. But it was always about things happening.

The reason that I think people claimed it was not about anything is that the events were very small. They were things that happened to most people most of the time. And, [the writers] were unafraid about taking a comedic, tangential journey. If they wanted to discuss something that was tangential to the event, and it was really funny, they would do it. And that was audacious back when ‘Seinfeld’ was being done.

In fact, the structure of most ‘Seinfeld’ episodes are almost antithetical to what I look for when I’m directing something, because ‘Seinfeld’ was written in a style where [the characters] would work themselves into a conflict, and then often the conflict would not resolve. They’d just move on. And if you do that in the theater, people will yell at you.

What drew you back to theater?

I never left it. … I was gonna say the only time I left it was when I was doing ‘Seinfeld,’ but even then I still had my hat in the ring. I was doing theater here in town. … I hope I never leave the theater, either as a director or an actor. It’s the reason I got into this. … I love helping actors find the thing they’re gonna do. It’s really intriguing, it’s really fun. It engages everything I’ve trained [for] and everything I know. I would be very sad if I didn’t get to do it as often as I can.

What is your dream play or musical to direct?

There are all kinds of things I’d love to get my hands on. … I have a twisted idea for how to do ‘Hamlet’ in a way that is so scary and gothic and sexy and dark and environmental that I just think it would kick ass. … I have a really interesting approach to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ that would make it doable in very small spaces, almost club-like spaces. … I started to talk to some theaters about redoing ‘Dracula.’ … It’s been done campy-sexy.

But there is something that I find really touching about the Dracula story because we are seeing around us so much extinction. There are animals and species and lands that are literally dying in front of our eyes. The story of Dracula, if you listen to it the right way, is about a creature who didn’t particularly want what happened to him, but has adapted to it and is a tragically lonesome figure. He has lines that we gloss over all the time, but one of them is, ‘The walls of my castle are cracked, and I am the last of my kind.’ It’s this animal struggling to survive and find some way to coexist and be accepted.

While I don’t think you can take the fun away from ‘Dracula,’ I do think coming at it from a place of ‘Well, what if this were actually kind of real?’ Is there a way to feel that character’s journey and struggle?’ It’s a fight between good and evil where you sympathize with the devil a little bit, and say, ‘Well, don’t you have a right to exist too?’ I think that could be a lot of fun.

“The Joy Wheel” continues through March 31 at Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 to $35 via (310) 397-3244 or ruskingrouptheatre.com.