Native New Yorker Michael McKean is so identified with his ensemble work in Christopher Guest’s films - This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration - that it’s easy to forget that he created the iconic Leonard 'Lenny' Kosnowski in Laverne & Shirley some 32 years ago. What a long, strange career it’s been, with parts in almost-entirely forgotten films like Steven Spielberg’s 1941, hits like Clue and, in the 90s, a stint as the oldest person to join the cast of Saturday Night Live. In between there’s been a whole lot of supporting roles (his IMDB page counts 174 in film and television) as well as plenty of stage work; in 2004 he took over for Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway production of Hairspray. McKean is now onstage again and very funny in the must-see revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, which also stars Eve Best, Ian McShane and Raúl Esparza.

How did you get involved in this production of The Homecoming? I was minding my own business and my manager called and said they’re doing The Homecoming on Broadway and they’ve got Ian McShane cast as Max. And I said to my agent, “How do I get involved?” So I met with the director, Dan Sullivan, and allayed whatever doubts he had about my humanity. I didn’t read for the part.

He didn’t actually have doubts, did he? We just didn’t know each other. He knew my work from films but he’d never seen me onstage. So we had a chat and he said, “Yeah, you’re on board. We may have to dye your hair a little bit so you at least look a little bit more like McShane’s brother.” Though they didn’t do anything to increase the volume of my hair, which is the main difference. I don’t think Ian’s found anything on his brush his whole life, and mine’s getting kind of thin.

Have you always been fond of the play? Yeah, I was actually going to school here during its first run forty years ago but I never got to see it. Even in those days when ticket prices were lower I couldn’t afford to see everything. So I had never seen a production of it. It’s been a wonderful and interesting experience, in part because as we rehearsed the play, just as we were about to go into tech, the strike happened. So all of a sudden we had all this free time. And it just gave us a chance to keep talking about the play and running it and fretting about it and things got to a level of acceptance, of what we’re never going to understand about the particulars and a celebration of what we do understand. So the characters became as real as they can be. And every night we look at each other at the end of the play and say to each other, “Wow! This is a hell of a play.”

What is it that makes The Homecoming so fresh and timely after four decades? I think because it’s about some very basic things, mainly the family politics of a very simple and basic nature. It basically is about who’s got the power. And it’s also about a male household that suddenly has thrust into its center a very intriguing and strong female presence, in her own kind of enigmatic way. And of course men will all start fighting over alpha male positions and all that when in fact the very subversive work of the female is very clearly taking over in a very logical and kind of genial way. I also think it’s a good story and a very funny play, which might not jump off the page at you. But in the very straightforward playing of it it’s a very funny play.

The production has gotten great critical praise and yet the figures for the end of December show the theater often filled to half its capacity. What do you think that’s a reflection of, when a play that’s widely regarded as a masterpiece is produced to such great reviews but still plays at half capacity? Well, have you checked the calendar? December is not the time of year people go see this. But the last few days, since Christmas, have been quite full. We’ve been having some really big houses now. But listen, it’s a straight play on Broadway without any Grinches or witches in it. Those things are fine. But maybe if it said Disney’s The Homecoming we’d sell more tickets. But we ain’t Disney.

We are getting closer to full capacity every day, but the people who have been coming are the ones we want anyway. Look at Zodiac, one of the best movies last year. Nobody went to see that. In that case, the word of mouth was, “Oh, you mean you never find out who did it? Bummer, I’m not going!” Okay, moron, stay home; it’s a great movie you’re missing. So I kind of feel the same way about this. The people who are coming are really leaving with some buzzing in their heads which is, I think, the point of a straight play anyway. There are no toe-tappers in this. You walk out humming the angst.

Have you heard any interesting feedback from audience members?
Yeah, it’s been very positive. You know, people don’t come up to us and say it sucks - we leave that to our friends. But sometimes people are a little confused. There was a woman who came up to me after and said, “I enjoyed this very much; what’s it about?” And she was kind of being deliberately obtuse, I think. She was very nice and she really did enjoy the production but she did wonder what the story was about. And I kind of told her what I told you, which is that it’s about who’s got the power. And the alpha males will crumble, sometimes not even to their knowledge, and that’s kind of the central lovely joke about it.

But there’s also history being hinted at in the dialogue, particularly the two major presences who aren’t there: Jesse, the long-gone lover and Mac, her maybe boyfriend. According to the story, when Pinter sent the play to his agent, his agent said, “It’s wonderful, let’s get going on this!” And Pinter said, “But what did you think of Jesse and Mac?” And the agent said, “What do you mean, they’re not in the play.” And Pinter said, “I know, but the play is sort of about them.”

And that especially pertains to your character, because the big revelation at the end comes through Sam. Yeah. That’s also kind of another joke, too; here’s this guy using what may be his last breath to spill this big family secret that everybody knows! Except Ruth. And this may be his last breath and nobody gives a shit! They’re all still busy playing their games. And meanwhile, completely unphased, Ruth says, “Okay, I’ll be the queen. I’ll be Joey’s mother, and I’ll be Lenny’s terribly frustrating ho, and I’ll be Max’s tormentor. I will take on all of these roles and I’ll save what needs saving and I’ll destroy what needs destroying.” And she really does become she who must be obeyed, in this very subtle way.

Has there been anything that’s surprised you about the play that you weren’t aware of before? There are probably a thousand little moments of discovery but it’s hard to pinpoint just one that stands out. It’s a process of making connections between thoughts. For example, there’s this speech early on where Max talks about how he used to go down to the track and he never lost because he could smell a good horse. And then at the end when he’s realizing that he’s sunk he talks about how Ruth’s going to do the dirty on us and won’t be adaptable. He says, “I can smell it; do you want to bet?” And we’re back at the race track again!

It never occurred to any of us while we were rehearsing. And then right before we opened at one of the last previews everyone sort of said: Wait a minute - that’s interesting. Here’s this guy who used to talk about the brilliant mind control he had with these beautiful, untamable animals and here’s the most beautiful and untamable of them all and he can smell it and says, “Do you want to bet?” Pinter’s way with words, his language, is so brilliant and so deep partially because of its simplicity.

Has there been any attempt to videotape the production so that Pinter could see it? No, I was thinking about that last night actually. That kind of static, one-camera thing of the whole stage, that doesn’t give anybody anything. I would love to go into a studio and just record it, just do audio and send it to him. He is very happy with the reception we’re getting, which is nice. Ian talked to him the other day. He won’t be setting foot in American soil anytime soon.

Because of his politics? Yeah, I mean, that’s his choice. He’s not barred from being here, he just has no plans to come to America. He’s not a fan.

I thought it was just because of his health that he wasn’t going to come.
That’s possible. I just know there are no plans for him to come over and see the show.

What’s next for you when The Homecoming closes in April?
I don’t have anything planned. I seem to be working here in New York more than anywhere and it is my home town; I love the city. So we’re looking for a place here. My wife is actually starting rehearsal for The Seagull in a couple weeks. So she’s very excited about that. As for me, I don’t know. I’m having such a good time here and the middle of April doesn’t seem that close. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to this when we’re having such a great time every night.

Any projects with Christopher Guest on the horizon? Nope. We did a pilot last season ["The Thick of It"] and ABC decided to go with "Caveman" instead. So… That was written by Mitch Hurwitz, who did "Arrested Development". Chris directed it and I was in it, along with John Michael Higgins and Oliver Platt. It was an amazing show; kind of smart, you know. So that was the last thing I did with Chris. We’ll do some music stuff coming up pretty soon. As for movies, you have to wait for the thunderbolt to hit him. Usually it happens when he’s out fishing in Idaho. He just kind of goes fly fishing and eventually he thinks of something he’d like to do. So we’ll see; keep watching that space.

Can you share an experience you’ve had in New York that could qualify as a good “only in New York” story? A couple years ago I was doing in town doing Second Hand Memory at the Atlantic and it was really cold. I got down into the subway and there was this guy down there playing saxophone. And while I’m waiting he starts playing Stardust. Hoagy Carmichael is my favorite songwriter and when he started playing Stardust I started singing. The whole song, with the repeat of the bridge. And I missed my train because there’s always going to be another one but never another moment like that. And it was one of those really, really nice moments, you know? And I think of that when I think of New York; it’s something that doesn’t happen in Los Angeles very often. All the saxophone players work for The Tonight Show.

Do you have a favorite New York restaurant at the moment? Well, we like Tello’s, which is down at 19th Street and 8th Avenue. But we also love the good fast food you can get here, like the good soup at Hale and Hearty and Cosi, places like that. My favorite used to be a place called Shopsin’s on Carmine Street and now it’s moved over to the Essex Market on the Lower East Side. We haven’t been there yet, but that was always my favorite hang. We also like Rachel’s right around the corner from where we are in Hell’s Kitchen.

Photo by Scott Landis.