Unfinished Business (A Profile)

Not too long ago I got a telephone call from a fellow Tenafly High School alumnus, Thad Novak, who is currently attending Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.  Thad asked if he could write a profile of me for a class that required an ‘arts profile,’ and after interviews in-person and on the telephone (as well as interviews with collaborators/friends), here’s the piece, Unfinished Business, as currently published on The Garrett, a web journal of the University.  (Please note that all photos and links have been added by me.)

Thad Novak came to arts journalism by an unusual path, having spent the last seven years at the University of Chicago earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology. He decided to pursue a journalism career to better harness his favorite aspect of science: learning how things work. Thad grew up in suburban New Jersey, where easy access to Manhattan helped him develop a passion for the theater, an area about which he especially looks forward to writing for The Garret. He has a B.S. from Yale University, with a double major in English and molecular biophysics & biochemistry.

Unfinished Business

Ask Central Casting for a struggling artist, and you might get Wally Marzano-Lesnevich, a writer (and actor) in search of an ending.

By Thad Novak

Wally Marzano-Lesnevich describes the current condition of the screenplays he’s writing as “the first half I like, the second half don’t exist.”   It’s perhaps an apt situation for the creations of an artist who is himself perpetually on his way toward something he hasn’t yet reached.  Not quite a young man anymore at 32 (he laments losing parts to actors “a little bit younger, a little bit cuter”), Marzano-Lesnevich hopes ultimately to act in his own screenplays.  Currently, though, the screenwriting career is embryonic, while the acting is essentially a part-time enterprise as he focuses on the writing from an office outside New York.

And yet, New York itself may be only a waypoint for this suburban New Jersey native.  Marzano-Lesnevich says he hopes his work will take him back to Los Angeles, to which he’s already moved twice, only to return to what he admits is a comfort zone in Manhattan, close not only to his family but also to some of his classmates from Rutgers, where he earned a B.F.A. in theater from the Mason Gross School of the Arts.  Although the theater company he co-founded with some of those classmates dissolved several years ago, Marzano-Lesnevich still keeps his hand in live theater as he tries to promote his writing.  He recently earned a part in a small play, Sex, Relationships & Sometimes Love at The Producer’s Club in Manhattan; unfortunately, like his screenplays, that story only goes halfway.  Several days into the rehearsal process, Marzano-Lesnevich left the cast, along with a few other actors, over artistic differences with the directors.

Like the Everymen he often writes, Marzano-Lesnevich could easily be Everyartist on the New York (or Los Angeles) scene.  His acting, directing and writing efforts to date have been met with resounding indifference, but he keeps trying, hoping for the break that will make him a success.  His many collaborators hope that the man they laud as both a talented artist and a friend will find that success.  Right now, though, he’s the artistic equivalent of the man in the grey flannel suit, with a professional anonymity that can make it easy to overlook the individual inside the “struggling artist” stereotype.

Marzano-Lesnevich is nothing if not multi-talented; one of his two projects closest to fruition is a web series he wrote (targeted to start in May) in which he’ll also act in a part he describes as a “clueless young lawyer.”  (Whatever other influences his lawyer parents and their work have had on him, Marzano-Lesnevich writes plenty of lawyer characters into his scripts.)  The other is a short film he co-wrote and plans to co-direct.  He’s also been a producer, with the aforementioned theater company, along with all the other dirty work putting on a stage play entails.  (Some of that dirty work is more literal than others; one colleague recalls a production in which the stage was literally covered in dirt to provide atmosphere, and the production team had to clean it up after the show.)  Ultimately, he says, “I hope to act in things that I write.”

Unspoken in all of Marzano-Lesnevich’s different roles is the question of whether he has enough talent in any one of those areas to make a career of it.  The web shows he’s appeared in so far show an actor with some presence and a resonant voice, but little to make him stand out from the pack.  His screenplays can lapse into generic characterizations—oversexed cheerleaders and thirtysomething women worried about losing their youth.  Flashes of clever dialogue and plotting—an ultra-wired technology executive who crashes the entire Internet—may or may not prove enough to get one of them picked up.  Until then, Marzano-Lesnevich floats in a limbo of largely undistinguished artists trying to get noticed.

While Marzano-Lesnevich himself wonders if he isn’t hurting his own cause by diversifying his work to as great an extent as he does, he and others do see some benefits to his breadth of experience.  Several actors whom he’s directed say that they enjoy working with him precisely because he has been an actor himself, and thus understands the process they’re going through.  His acting background also keeps him from unilaterally imposing his own directorial vision on an actor, a directing style he cites as the major reason for his leaving Sex, Relationships & Sometimes Love.  As several of his colleagues have noted, he appreciates other people’s work more because whatever the job, Marzano-Lesnevich’s probably tried it himself and learned how difficult it can be.

The corollary to all this is that Marzano-Lesnevich takes his work very seriously, another quality for which his colleagues praise him.  Screenwriting collaborator Jason Gareffa lauds his ability, as a writer, to keep “chipping away at a certain scene” as he “strives to find the best version” of any project he works on.  Sometimes, though, his dedication to his work can outstrip his collaborators’ patience.  After Gareffa got married in 2008, he says, “Wally was so tickled with all my different stories about married life that he kept a manila folder handy, and every time I would recount something, he would immediately jot it down…and put it in the file.”  Eventually, Gareffa recounts, he was forced to ask, “Wally, will you stop writing down my life?”

Like any aspiring actor, Marzano-Lesnevich understands that dedication—not to mention a tolerance for absurdity—is indispensable in making it as a performing artist.  “It’s very strange,” he observes, “when you’re dragging your bed onto a theater in New York, your actual bed, because it’s going to be the main set for the play, and as a result you’re going to be living with your parents for a couple of weeks while the play is running.”  “But,” he adds, “it’s fun to at least try to keep a sense…of humor about it.”

For Marzano-Lesnevich, a sense of humor is a stock in trade.  Although he agrees with the conventional wisdom that calls it “probably the hardest thing to write,” his writing efforts have focused on comedy.  His colleagues say it’s a good decision.  Ben Barham, a former acting colleague, says, “He does highbrow humor well, which isn’t common.”  Nick Garfinkle, a writer who has worked with him, adds that Marzano-Lesnevich has a talent for mixing high and low comedy.  Despite this praise, many of his current screenplays skew heavily to the lowbrow end of the spectrum.  And, of course, for all the virtues his fellow writers see in him, even the screenplays he has completed have yet to be produced.

At the moment, Marzano-Lesnevich is living with his parents in his old hometown of Tenafly, New Jersey, while trying to make his screenwriting a success out of an office in nearby Hackensack.  In traditional performing-arts fashion, he’s also working at the restaurant of a family friend to help pay the bills.  On the issue of supporting an artistic career that has yet to get off the ground, Marzano-Lesnevich commends his family, saying that they’ve been invaluable for both emotional and financial backing.  As his father, Walter Lesnevich, puts it, for the family it’s “an accepted fact that he’s going to succeed.”

Marzano-Lesnevich’s most significant achievement as an artist was also, arguably, the most prominent example of his work not reaching its conclusion.  In 2002, he and several of his Mason Gross classmates started the wheels in motion that led to their co-founding the Drove Theater Company in Manhattan.  At first, says co-founder Frank Sallo, the plan was just to produce a play, to give themselves opportunities to display their own work as actors or producers or directors.  The production in question, of Steven Dietz’s God’s Country, was sufficiently well received that the group “basically broke even” on a budget of better than $10,000, according to another co-founder, Michael Hampton.  At that point, they realized that while they had all enjoyed the opportunity, producing a play was a tremendous amount of work.  As such, if they were going to continue, they needed to do it right, as a formally constructed company; thus, the birth of the Drove.  Hampton attempts to explain the name by saying that in American history, people are always said to have moved west in droves; the theater company, he says, “was our drove.”

The early days of the Drove provided a crucial moment in Marzano-Lesnevich’s development as an actor.  The company was producing John Patrick Shanley’s The Big Funk, with Marzano-Lesnevich in a leading role that required him to deliver a key monologue while standing on stage completely nude.  Hampton praises Marzano-Lesnevich’s professionalism in dealing with the naturally uncomfortable moment; when the scene was being blocked in rehearsals, and Marzano-Lesnevich would have to deliver the monologue in front of the cast for the first time—a cast consisting not just of Marzano-Lesnevich’s Rutgers cohorts, but also of several actors he barely knew—Marzano-Lesnevich came on stage naked and “just did it,” as Hampton recalls.  For Marzano-Lesnevich, getting through the performances of the play was a watershed.  “Once you’ve done that as an actor,” he says, “you can do fucking anything.”

The members of the Drove have a variety of perspectives on why the company dissolved, and dissolved when it did.  Marzano-Lesnevich himself cites the Drove’s struggle to find an identity as a company.  “We were never really on the same page,” he says, “about what kind of plays we wanted to produce.”  Barham sees this issue as particularly critical, arguing that the company couldn’t survive by producing shows that had already been performed; only by moving into a regime of producing new plays, he felt, could it establish itself as a legitimate enterprise.  At the same time, Marzano and others were realizing that they didn’t necessarily want this company to be the focus of their lives.  Hampton recalls, “When Wally stepped back is when the whole thing fell apart.”  Eventually, the desertions reached a point at which Hampton realized he’d be the only one left to run the company, at which point the Drove ceased to exist.

As the Drove disbanded, Marzano-Lesnevich made his second foray to Los Angeles; his first had ended after just six months with Marzano-Lesnevich “push[ing] the panic button” and returning to New York.  He stayed this time for four years, trying to act (with very little success) and establish himself as a screenwriter (with only slightly more).  It was at this stage that Marzano-Lesnevich began to take advantage of the power of the Internet to help get his name out, writing and acting in a pair of self-produced web series“The Wally Show” and “Pretentiously L.A.”  Both consisted of short, comic episodes with the actors largely speaking to the camera; neither had production values much above the rank-and-file of YouTube, nor consistently funny writing.

While Marzano-Lesnevich’s work might be dismissed as that of any generic aspiring actor, his colleagues say that working with him has shown that he brings some things to the table that they haven’t seen from other actors or writers.  Some of his greatest assets, they argue, include skills not typically associated with artists at all.  They universally praise his facility with the business side of the arts; those who worked with him at the Drove say that without his talent for navigating the mechanics of non-profit applications and fundraising, the company would never have survived as long as it did.  One of his Drove associates, Barham, suggests that Marzano-Lesnevich would make an excellent producer; Marzano-Lesnevich’s father also sees his son’s greatest strength as his ability to organize and direct groups of artists.  Nonetheless, Marzano-Lesnevich has shown little inclination to pursue that aspect of his career.

More typical of an actor is Marzano-Lesnevich’s talent for charming people and making friends.  Several friends and colleagues tell stories of introducing Marzano-Lesnevich to their own friends that frequently end, as one of Barham’s does, with “and now Wally’s going to be at that guy’s wedding next month.”  Moreover, once he makes friends, he keeps them; Barham also notes that if it weren’t for Marzano-Lesnevich’s attentiveness to keeping in touch, they’d probably have drifted apart after the dissolution of the Drove.  Jesse Bernstein, a director who has worked with Marzano-Lesnevich, calls him “incredibly giving of his time and energy.”  Diane Davis and Marzano-Lesnevich have been friends since high school; now they’re screenwriting collaborators.  Davis is effusive in her praise for Marzano-Lesnevich’s dedication to his friends.  An actress by trade, she says he’s “seen almost every show that I’ve been in,” even when he’s had to travel from New York to Boston to do it.  She adds, “I hope I’ve been as supportive of him and his work as he is of mine.”  As for Marzano-Lesnevich himself, he doesn’t see his behavior as anything out of the ordinary, but his stories speak for themselves.  He describes his travel schedule to attend a high-school friend’s wedding in Montana, which involved going “from Nantucket to Boston to Minnesota to Bozeman, rented a car and drove an hour to Hot Springs,” all in one day.  But, as he says, the groom is “a good old friend.”

Unfortunately for Marzano-Lesnevich, his ability to follow through on friendships has yet to translate into an ability to complete a major artistic project.  It remains to be seen whether the networks he’s already built will help him gain the recognition he hopes for.  Until then, like the characters he creates, Marzano-Lesnevich will have to wait for the end of his story to be written.


4 Responses to “Unfinished Business (A Profile)”

  1. Alex Zarwi Says:

    An excellent WAML biography. A little harsh about the Wally Show and Pretentiously LA, but the best retort will be your impending success.

  2. Katie Heim Says:

    Good job Thad but I’d like to make one thing clear, no one who knows Wally questions his talent. As a high shooler, he had instinct better than most and a presence like none other. It’s hard to understand how anyone makes it in the entertainment industry but if Wally trusts his instinct (and stays away from easy punchlines), his story will write itself.

  3. Hugh Scott McL. Says:

    While this is somewhat fair, it fails to take into consideration how very difficult what Walter is attempting is. Bohemia doesn’t make sense when you are on the outside looking inside. Good luck with your journalism career, Thad. Despite your obvious ability, you don’t have an easy road ahead of you, either.

  4. Rock Solid Says:

    This is essentially a puff piece. I was hoping to learn more about Wally’s demons and horrible iTunes playlists. Anyway, I can’t wait to see this dramatized on the stage/screen one day as “Novak vs Marzano-Lesnevich.” Keep up the good work Wally!

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