Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Law & Order: Meet Forensics Expert "Beck"

OK, admit it. You enjoy Law & Order’s resident techno-geek, Julian Beck. You’ve seen him in many episodes and laughed at his quirkiness and his down-to-earth portrayal of criminal forensics. He’s nothing like the overly pompous forensics people of the CSI franchise, who are always perfectly groomed and dressed just so, with sets and lighting almost cartoon-like. Beck is a real geek and one man forensics lab.

But who is the guy that plays Beck? His name is John Cariani, and according to, he’s appeared on Law & Order 26 times, and, as other characters, on Criminal Intent 2 times. He’s also a Tony-nominated actor and playright!

The website for The Colony Theatre in Burbank, California posted
an interview with John about his play “Almost, Maine” that I thought I would share with you. You'll find John Cariani even more interesting than Beck.


The Almost, Maine playwright and Tony-nominated
actor explains the appeal of Maine, the inspiration to write, and the recognition from Law & Order.

Q: What was the inspiration for Almost, Maine?

A: When I moved to New York, there were no plays about rural areas, like Maine. There were no plays about places other than cities, and I grew up in a very rural, very dramatic place.

Q: Dramatic?

A: New York is all about people and the things people make. But growing up in a place like Maine, you’re aware of all of the things that people don’t make – like the sky and the woods and wide open space. The weather is so harsh, it’s wild, the sky is enormous, you can see for miles.

Q: Are the characters in the play based on real people?

A: They’re mythical composites of real people. There’s a humility to the people in northern Maine, an openness. I think that other people think New Englanders are cold and closed off, but they’re really not. Northern Mainers are aware of how small they are in the world, but most people in cities -- and I'm one of them now! -- just aren’t.

Q: Is it true that one of these stories is based on a real incident?

A: Loosely based. But I can’t tell you which one.

Q: You’re primarily known as an actor. What inspired you to start writing?

A: I couldn’t find good monologues to perform as an actor, so I started writing monologues for myself which became stories, which then became this play. I have to make a living, so once I get money together from acting gigs, that’s when I start writing again. But -- I just got commissioned to write my next play.

Q: Congratulations.

A: Thank you. Also, I think there’s a lot of drama in joy, and people don’t dramatize joy right now. There’s a lot of sturm und drang in plays right now.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: I feel like we’re going through a period where cynical and sad and dark is considered classier than joy right now. Writing about sadness is pretty easy – we’re all sad – so I think it’s more interesting to write about the flip side. I think hope and joy are very dramatic.

Q: What do you think Los Angeles audiences will take away from seeing this play about people in Maine?

A: I think it’ll make people think about how most of life is either loving or leaving, living or dying. And I think we forget to let ourselves feel deeply. Most people protect themselves by covering themselves so much. Theatre is a place where you can uncover a bit.

Q: Do you get recognized much from your role on Law & Order?

A: Yeah, it’s funny. I get recognized on the subway a lot and in airports! A few weeks ago, while I was visiting by brother, a guy at a restaurant in North Carolina said to me, “You look just like that guy from Law & Order.” "

Also, here’s an interesting piece about him from the LA Times:

"John Cariani's shocking crusade
The actor from TV's "Law & Order" is on a mission as a playwright: "I am interested in making people across the country gasp."

By Cara Joy David, Special to The Times

John Cariani takes his work seriously. Sure, he's familiar to television viewers as the dedicated forensic expert Julian Beck in "Law & Order." And he's also known as that exuberant New York stage actor who earned a Tony nod for his role in "Fiddler on the Roof." But Los Angeles audiences who catch his first play, "Almost, Maine," opening Wednesday at Burbank's Colony Theatre, will probably be surprised by the actor-turned-playwright's passion for preserving the integrity of theater.

"Every time I see Shakespeare, I notice people sit up for the love story and the fantastical elements," says Cariani, 38. "The politics, the big ideas, have some impact, but they're not what matters most. Contemporary plays have too many big ideas and not enough happening. We need to make theater less boring. I am interested in making people across the country gasp."

Those are lofty aspirations for someone who often projects an "Aw, shucks" modesty. But Cariani does believe his words can have that effect. Perhaps his confidence in the ability of tiny things -- such as the romantic vignettes that make up "Almost, Maine" -- to have a substantial impact comes from his background. Born in Brockton, Mass., Cariani was 8 when his family moved to Presque Isle, Maine, a remote town of under 10,000. He planned to be a teacher until three lines in a high school production of "Annie Get Your Gun" changed his life. "I made the audience laugh really hard," recalled Cariani. "I thought: 'My gosh, this is cool.' "

After graduating from Amherst College and interning at Massachusetts' now-defunct Stage West, he moved to New York to pursue acting. He made a living through commercials and regional stage stints. Then, a little over a decade ago, Cariani ran out of audition material -- he simply couldn't find a contemporary comedic monologue that wasn't tired.

And just like that, a writing career was born.

"I wrote a monologue for an audition, and they said: 'What's that from again?' I said, 'It's from a new play,' " Cariani recalls. "I called it 'Joe's Shoes.' I used my brother's best friend's name as the name of the guy who wrote it. I started always using my own monologues, and pretty soon the monologues became stories and the stories became plays."

In the late 1990s, he began performing his short compositions at NBC's New York comedy venue, Performance Space NBC. Director Gabriel Barre caught one of Cariani's shows and approached the performer about creating a play from these tales. The result of their labor is "Almost, Maine."

The play's stories focus on the romantic lives of residents of a small, northern town. Among the colorful characters is a man who cannot feel pain and a woman who carries her heart in a bag.

While refining the script, Cariani continued acting. In 2002, he got his big break, landing a recurring role on "Law & Order." Two years later, he made his Broadway debut in "Fiddler on the Roof" as the tailor Motel.

"John Cariani is an open, authentic performer," Harvey Fierstein said of his "Fiddler" costar. "He's a wonderful writer because he is so authentic and interested in people and how they feel."

While Cariani was still singing "Miracle of Miracles" eight times a week, "Almost, Maine" had its world premiere in 2004 at Maine's Portland Stage Company. Because of his Broadway gig, Cariani could not spend many hours working in the Pine Tree State. By the time the show transferred to New York in December 2005, many choices had been made without input from the scribe.

"The production in New York wasn't what I had hoped," Cariani admits. "I hated it." Reviews were mixed (some good, some flat-out dismissive) and the show lasted only 37 regular performances. "The reviews read like it was fluff," he says. "I hate fluff. I can't stand romantic comedies. There is a lot of ache in this play -- but none of it played off-Broadway."

Despite its short NYC run, the Dramatist's Play Service still published "Almost, Maine." Now, productions are springing up all over the world. "They told me it would only be done in the North, and the only places that are doing it are in the South," he says. "Then they are doing it in Korea. I don't understand -- I thought a lot of the phrases were specifically English. I have no idea why it's happening."

The Colony was ahead of the game. A Time Out New York review of "Almost, Maine" caught the attention of Artistic Director Barbara Beckley with its reference to the "magic-realist" elements and description of the play as the "dramatic equivalent of a hot cup of cocoa, with plenty of little marshmallows." Beckley sought out "Almost, Maine" while it was running in Gotham and developed an e-mail friendship with Cariani. "He's so friendly and so completely guileless," she said.

A hands-on approach

Once the Colony was set to present the work, Beckley asked the Manhattan-based author to sit in on rehearsals. Cariani spent a week in Los Angeles in mid-January watching the newest production of "Almost, Maine" take shape while also slipping in some auditions for commercials and films.

The extent of Cariani's input included ensuring the set's doors were swinging in the correct direction. Despite the flood of questions about how certain things should be played, he offered little criticism of the staging or performances.

"I've seen people make the choice that is obvious -- and that is too bad; they should have thought a little deeper," Cariani says of various other productions. "Here they are making a lot of the right choices."

Making the right choices is important to the playwright. He not only regrets the off-Broadway "Almost, Maine" but also believes he erred in giving the green light to a production of his second work, "cul-de-sac," which premiered in New York in spring 2006, before he was finished with it. So now he's spending a lot of time trying to remedy mistakes made on these projects. This summer, he may direct a regional staging of "Almost, Maine" and is revising "cul-de-sac" to make it "a real play."

Like other actors, he is auditioning. And like some writers, he is working on a commission -- currently one from the Cape Cod Playhouse that will result in a play incorporating baseball's Boston Red Sox.

Cariani wants to remain in both worlds -- making people laugh and gasp through his performances as well as his scripts. Undoubtedly, he'll have issues with whatever he creates. After all, he's a stickler for quality entertainment.

"I think it is important that playwrights think about writing plays that people can do," he said. "There are plenty of smart people who aren't theater savvy. These people should be able to appreciate, understand and enjoy plays. There are so many forms of media for storytelling now, the story has to be so damn good to ask people to pay for it. I never write my story until I know the end. Life doesn't end, but plays should. We owe that, and so much more, to the audience." “

Check out my blog home page for the latest Law & Order information,

Also, see my companion Law & Order site,These Are Their Stories.

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