Ah, New York is not as big a place as one would think. At least not when it comes to theatre – sometimes, you can meet interesting actors, directors, and producers by walking across the hall in your building.
My neighbor and dear friend asked me to join him for an evening of theatre sometime last year. “My nephew is in this great play – you should meet him, he’s into theatre like you!” he said happily. Little did I know that my friend (who’s name is also Peter – I wonder how many of them are in the clan) was taking me to a wonderful staged reading of Visiting Mr. Green starring Eli Wallach and Peter Sabri…his nephew. As I watched this young man share the stage with one of the most legendary actors of the 20th century, I was impressed with his work and his craft; he made interesting choices, was a joy to watch and the reading was beautiful, heartfelt and heartbreaking.
Upon hearing he was in Penang, a war drama by James L. Larocca, I was thrilled to see him working again, amused by the “Wow, it’s a small world” thought that went through my head, and eager to talk to Peter about his experiences working on this show that earned him a nomination at the 2008 Midtown International Theatre Festival, one of five that the show received. Now, brought back by Madison Street and Boo-Arts Productions, he has a chance to work again on a piece that is an intense drama whose tagline is: In war the only thing that matters is the guy next to you.
DM: Peter, this is not the first time you have worked on this show – you actually were nominated for it previously in the MITF last year. What are some of your favorite aspects of this play having worked on it so much?
PS: When I think back to the first time I read Penang I remember how impressed I was with the depths with which the characters and their stories are explored in a nuanced, articulated way. It’s not only the protagonist who gets to reveal his inner struggle, but almost every supporting character as well, in one way or another. The play is certainly topical for today’s audience, but captures the distinct spirit of potential social, moral, and political issues that existed for many different demographics throughout, in the late 1960′s. I’ve had so many people come up to me after the show expressing how relate able it was to their experience or telling me how insightful it was into that time period.
DM: Having worked extensively on it, what, if any, new things did you find this time around, both in the character and in the show?
PS: The gift of getting to work on a character a second time is what new things you can bring to what you’ve already done. In the show, I’m playing an Italian American soldier from Queens named Richie “Luke” Deluca who meets the central character, Tim Riordan, while they’re both on leave from Vietnam in Penang, Malaysia. While at points he serves as comic relief, he also is sensitive and introspective. This time around, it’s been my goal to try and find the balance between the two in a richer, more specific way. While Luke has certain stereotypical behaviors that make him quite affable, he’s definitely not two dimensional. It’s been great, working to hone in on the distinction.
DM: What do you hope the audience walks away with after seeing the show?
PS: I keep hearing about what an emotional journey it is from an audience perspective. For me, that’s one of the highest compliments. To touch your audience on a personal level, where they’ve become truly invested in the story of the play and the outcome, that’s the key objective for any theater.
DM: Part of the main title is “In War the Only Thing That Matters Is the Guy Next to You”. How is this play different than just being a play about the effects of war?
PS: I’ve had the chance to talk with the playwright, James Larocca, in depth about this. I think the differentiation is that a lot of the material you see about the effects of war suggests that the trauma endured causes people to lose sight of their humanity, their sense of morality, and turn on one another. While there’s no doubt in my mind that the nature of war itself challenges these virtues, this play explores the bonds that are formed between those who are out there struggling to stay alive and find meaning in a very complicated, senseless situation they’ve been thrown into.
DM: Do you think working on this show has given you a different outlook on what it means to serve in War?
PS: From the very beginning, I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to put your life at risk and endure and partake in terrible acts of violence far from home for something you may or may not believe in. It still escapes me. The character I play is a few years younger than I am now, and its incredible to me that for many men and women throughout our country’s history and today, this has been their reality. It’s a humbling experience, to say the least, and it’s a reminder of the respect we should all have for those individuals who have served in War.
DM: Now, a little more about you: I had an opportunity to see you in “Visiting Mr. Green” opposite Eli Wallach. It was a great reading – both of you were wonderful. What was that like, to work with an actor whose has made such an important mark in the entertainment industry?
PS: Thank you. When I first heard that I might have the opportunity to work opposite Eli Wallach, I immediately went over to my movie collection and pulled out The Misfits. I stood there looking at the poster for this film written by Arthur Miller, directed by John Huston, and starring: Clark Cable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter, and none other than, Eli Wallach, and thought to myself….Holy Shit! Eli is one of the few remaining living legends who was directly involved in many of the visionary efforts made in film, theater, and style that directly influence contemporary work today. He also happens to be at 93 one of the sweetest, most generous, most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Regardless of whatever future achievements I might have, it will forever remain a highlight in my career.
DM: What made you want to go into acting – when did you know that was what you wanted to do?
PS: My Mom would have to remind me for sure, but I think it was when I was the emcee for my kindergarden show or first had to recite a nursery rhyme in front of the parents at my pre-school graduation that I realized I wanted to perform. It was one of those things as a kid where I’d always say I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer AND an actor when I grew up. Had to get the secure profession in there as well. When we were sitting in my high school guidance office talking about colleges and I said that I wanted to major in theater as an actor, at first my Dad was like, “Really? That’s it? Nothing else?;” but, I’ve been lucky in that both my parents and, in fact, my entire extended family have been so supportive of me and my career throughout the years. They come to everything I do and are my biggest fans. I can’t image doing this without them. It’s been my greatest gift.
DM: Who are some of your favorite actors and inspirations for your work?
PS: Like every young male actor I can recite the list of actors throughout the decades who have inspired and informed my work. It’s almost a cliche but at the same time it’s very true: Brando, DeNiro, Pacino, James Dean, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Sean Penn, Daniel Day Lewis, Liam Neeson, Peter Saarsgard. That’s just off the top of my head, and I haven’t even touched the amazing female talent we’ve been a witness to over the years.
DM: What would be some of the characters/plays you would love to work on in the future, to really climb that artistic mountain and tackle?
PS: I would love to work on some of Tennessee Williams’ characters some day. Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Stanley in Streetcar. I’ve always really enjoyed John Patrick Shanley’s works: Aldo Scalicki in Italian American Reconciliation, Danny in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow. I was into Neil Labute for a while and Kenneth Lonergan. I just went in to read for Rodolfo in the new version of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge coming back to Broadway. That would be amazing.
DM: What’s coming up next for you after Penang?
PS: Who’s worried about after Penang? After two hours of deep contemplation and my strongest efforts to sound like a reasonably intelligent individual, I’m just thankful I managed to finish this interview.
Indeed, Peter! Intelligent and talented. Uncle Pete’s gonna be proud!
You can see Peter Sabri in Penang, running Nov. 5th through Nov. 22nd at The Workshop Main Stage Theater (312 West 36th Street, New York, NY 10018, 4th Floor).
THM’s own editor Karen Tortora-Lee will be reviewing the show very soon!
Tickets are only $18 – please check out www. BOO-Arts.com for more info.