In Manhattan, few subjects get more air time than real estate, so the idea of a Broadway show about a real estate broker seems like a no-brainer.
“A Better Place,” now playing at the Duke, explores New Yorkers’ lust for real estate, and the envy that emerges when they realize they may not have enough.
Michael Satow, one of the play’s actors, talks about his own path to the show and what he’s learned about real estate in New York.
What inspired you to be an actor? I think I’ve pretty much wanted to be an actor since I knew what that was. Maybe before. I have memories of watching movies when I was five years old, and asking my parents if I could be in the sequel. I remember doing that with “Terminator 2.” Why my parents let me watch that movie at five I have no idea. But I remember really latching on to the characters. And I asked my parents a few days later if I could be in “Terminator 3.” They said something like, “Um, sure, but we have no idea how to help you with that.” So I didn’t start acting in actual plays or anything until I was about 12.
This production is the world premiere of Wendy Beckett’s newest play. What is the rehearsal process like working on a brand-new show?We were blessed to have a long rehearsal process for this play. I’m used to getting anywhere from two to three and a half weeks to put up a show, and I think on “A Better Place” we got close to five. It was a luxury. So we spent some time workshopping it, making sure we were all on the same page with the story. Evan and Wendy would get together and discuss possible changes. It’s a great group of pros, the cast and creative team. Everyone was constantly coming in with ideas, but at the same time we had to go with the flow as the play morphed. We spent a lot of time in the room trying to figure out the right tone. We’d spend a week coming at it as a broad, almost farce-like comedy. Then we’d spend a week making it really simple and intimate. As with many new plays, we had to find the style. I think we found a happy middle ground that allows the comedic beats their time to shine, while also letting things get smaller for the touching moments.
In the show you play opposite Carol, a 28-year-old only child with her father’s love of real estate but no desire to earn her own way in the world. What has it been like developing that working relationship with your co-star?I’d say about 90% of what I do in this play is try to seduce Carol. It often gets physical, and when that happens it becomes necessary to get very specific about what you’re doing. It’s just like stage combat. When you’re rolling around on the floor, you don’t want to take an elbow to the eye, so it all has to be worked out with precision. There was a lot of, “Okay, can we stop for a second? Now, after I slap your ass, are you going to turn your head when you moan? And when you pinch my nipples, can you hold them for just a beat longer?” It requires a lot of specificity, as well as the ability to keep a straight face.
Did you have any previous experience with real estate or the world of brokers before joining the cast?I have never been a broker, but like most New Yorkers, I’ve had plenty of experience in the world of real estate. It’s something that comes up all the time in conversation. Where do you live? How’s the neighborhood? An elevator? Wow! Laundry in the building? I hate you. How much is your rent? Don’t talk to me, I pay twice that for a studio. It’s standard cocktail party fare.
I do know several actors who have either become brokers or do it on the side to supplement their income. I think it’s a world that an actor can do well in. You have to be able to read people, and the most effective brokers I’ve seen are able to paint a picture for you or sell you on a story, instead of just the four walls.
The play explores its characters’ all-too-familiar impulse to keep an eye on what the neighbors are up to. Have you ever seen something interesting through a neighbor’s window?Oddly enough, I had never really had an experience with this, until the night before the first rehearsal for this play. I was getting ready for bed, and I looked out the window. Across the way, there was a woman sitting by her window, sipping from her mug, just staring at me. Just sipping and watching. I took it as a good omen.
Where in NYC are you living? Have you seen things differently at home now that you have done this play?My wife and I have lived up in Washington Heights for a couple of years now. It’s quiet, away from the hustle and bustle, and there’s just a bit more space. We like to call it Upstate Manhattan. We hear birds in the spring, and not just pigeons! Yesterday morning there was an enormous hawk outside our kitchen window. I mean huge. And our window was wide open. It made this loud screech and flew away. But I’ve stayed all over the city. Inwood, East Harlem, Queens (where I was born), Murray Hill, Clinton Hill, even Far Rockaway. I think it’s a major point of this play, and is true in life, that you always have to sacrifice for the things you want. It could be a smaller space for better views, or working two jobs to live in a “hot” neighborhood.
Living in a city that’s saturated with real estate brokers, did you feel a certain pressure portraying one on stage?As I said, I’ve met my share of brokers, and I’m friends with several of them. I think brokers that come to see this show probably have a sense of humor about their profession, and have heard all the clichés. I play brokers with varying levels of expertise and to varying levels of absurdity. It’s my hope that people (both brokers and civilians) will recognize certain characteristics they’ve seen in their own apartment hunting. Probably not the sex scenes, but you never know.
What advice can you give New Yorkers when it comes to their real estate broker and what they see out their window?Know what your priorities are. Ask questions. Don’t feel pressured if you’re not positive. There are plenty of apartments in the city. You may look at 50, or just one. You know when you’ve found the place. And if you look out your window and see me, give me a wave, I’m used to it now.
“A Better Place” runs through June 11 at The Duke at 229 W. 42nd St., between 7th and 8th avenues. For more information, go to abetterplaceplay.com