Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly in True West
The world lost a great actor today, but New Yorkers lost one of our own. I don’t know how else to put it. When I saw this terrible news of his death trending on Face Book today and someone said that it was a hoax, I was so hoping and praying it was true. I just can’t imagine that I am never going to see Philip Seymour Hoffman work his undeniable magic on the live Broadway stage. I’m pinching myself and feel so fortunate to have seen his work on the stage and not just know him from film. I think his movie roles are amazing, sure, but to me, they are nothing like the stage performances I’ve seen him in, that have frankly shaped and changed my opinions about theater. On the stage, he was, quite simply brilliant. From my first few weeks in New York City in the spring of 2000, I started, rather accidentally following his career. Back in 2000, when I put my two feet on the soils of gritty New York, for whatever reason, the first theater show I decided to attend was “True West”. I had no idea who Philip Seymour Hoffman was and I certainly didn’t know the groundwork for the city yet, how to get around or who was who in the theater world. Shortly after seeing the intense production, however, one of my girlfriends back then had a thing for “this actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman,” and as I remember it, she hung out with him a few times at some theater parties. So his name came up in my social circle, but I can’t say that met him, not back then.
In 2001, I waited with my friends all night to get free tickets to see “The Seagull” with Meryl Streep, Kevin Klien and Natalie Portman. He was too old for the role he was playing. I remember that Meryl did a cart-wheel on stage. The show was spellbinding and inspiring. Philip’s older age (he didn’t look 19 at the time) or looks didn’t matter, he nailed the complexity of role of Konstantin. At this point, PSH could play anything. I was watching a master at work. He had this raw grit, full of pain, suffering and compassion. He made you root for the character. Had Chekhov been alive, I’m sure he would have approved of the casting. PSH’s palpable love and biting anger at his mother played by the amazing Meryl Streep was raw, seething, pathetic and powerful all at the same moment. After the performance, I was sitting with my friends in Central Park and chatting about the play and life over wine and cigarettes. The sky above us lit up by stars. Though surrounded by trees in the park, the city lights and buildings burst through all around us like a shadowy castle. Just above us, tiny flickering bulbs of the fireflies. The evening, down to our crazy fatigue and Hoffman’s ruthless performance was absolutely magical, one of my favorite New York moments.
In 2002, the summer after my first year of playwriting graduate school at the Actors Studio/New School for Drama, where classes were held in the West Village, I was writing a lot and hanging out at local cafes. No matter where I was, I often looked up from my work to see Philip getting a coffee right in front of me. About a month later, I saw him in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” on Broadway. His award-winning performance ran the gamut: overpowering, raw and gave me chills. The whole play was moving and poignant but he helped tell the sad story of the brother, Jamie who was so charming and had so much potential but was so helpless and doomed to a life of debauchery and drugs to dull his pain, just like his mother. Philip was the new fabric, allowing old plays to take on darker life for New York audiences. Then I met Philip, and he became part of my New York experience as my neighbor. My boyfriend Dmitry (now my husband) and I moved to West Village in 2002 and we frequented the same coffee shop as Philip Seymour Hoffman and his posse, Joe on Waverly Place. So I’d often see him, just hanging out, chatting with friends, sometimes alone, just chilling. I can’t say that his grit and just thinking of him acting on the stage and then seeing him, sometimes chatting with him, didn’t affect me as a writer, I think it did. I met his girlfriend Mimi and cooed over his eldest son when he was first born. I saw him in a new light: as a loving father. The last time I saw him at the cafe, now nearly five years ago, I was very pregnant and our entire conversation revolved around child rearing in New York. He laughed and said “I’ll probably never see you again you’ll be so busy.” I can still hear his cracking laugh. We moved downtown, and it’s true, I hardly ever go to Joe, but I do get there once in awhile, but I never saw Philip again. The last show I saw him in was “Death Of A Salesman” on Broadway in 2012. The critics and I somewhat agreed that perhaps Mr. Hoffman, at 45 was too young to play the beleaguered, tortured father who should have been at least 55 or 60 since his boys were in their thirties. I can remember thinking, why does Philip want to play this part now, he has years to play the older dad? I couldn’t help but feel that he stole the part away from older actors who could’ve done a fine job in the role. Perhaps he really wanted to play the role of Willy Loman, one of the greatest roles in the theater…and yes, he still nailed the role despite being too young for it. Maybe he knew he’d never live long enough to play the part at the appropriate age, maybe he just wanted to seize the day and do it NOW. As the New York Times reported today so eloquently, we will miss seeing him all those wonderful parts for aging men.
My friend called me this afternoon, the one who used to study acting and hung out with him at theater after parties. I couldn’t talk because I was with my daughter who is now a chatty four-year-old. But I’ve been thinking about him all day, and into the evening, my heart actually ached. The World lost a giant movie star today, but New Yorkers lost someone who was part of our fold; part of the fabric of our city. He was the most amazing stage actor I’ve ever seen, and he was my neighbor. He was such a talented human being and he was so lucky to do what he loved and to be able to show the world his talent, to let us see old plays in a new light. To his family, to his partner Mimi who just lost her love and the father to her children (as a mother, I just have to say how awful and terrifying this would be — and I’m just hoping that she is surrounded by love and light right now) and to his children, the youngest who is just five, who just lost their father, who died with a fucking needle in his arm, I’m just so sorry. My heart breaks for his extended family, close friends and for his theater company. I mean, what a tragedy and what a sad, and somewhat theatrical and tortured end to such a legend.