WEST END PRODUCTIONS: PHILIP J. SHORTELL

 

The face is younger than the one on the poster, but the twinkle in the eye is the same. So is the tweedy cap, bought in Ireland on leave from his teaching post at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey, back in the ‘70s when life was different. But Philip Shortell is still a Jersey boy and a son of Ireland (“I test 74.9 percent”) as he will soon prove playing the title role in Da, coming up in May. Written by Hugh Leonard and staged by West End Productions, Da is a touching comedy about Charlie Tynan, a prodigal son who has returned to Ireland after the death of his adoptive father, Nick, or “Da.” Because Charlie’s issues with Da remain unresolved, Da’s ghost awaits him. 

Shortell is from Bayonne, NJ, a city of ethnic enclaves. Asked if he draws on his Irish-Catholic background in the role, Shortell cites his grandfather, Jack Rossiter, as the “narrowback” (first-generation Irish-American) who inspires him.

There is a family story that Phil likes to tell about Jack. “They had just gotten a TV. My grandfather smells smoke. He picks up the TV and runs out of the house with it, shouting, ‘The house is afire, Margaret, save yourself!’”

“My grandfather was a character; he was very much like Da,” Phil said. “My grandfather was the happiest man I ever met. He was always starting new businesses because the other business he had, failed. He had a roofing company, he had a dry cleaner’s, he had a bar—which was the biggest mistake he ever made because he and my mother’s brothers drank up all of the profits. My mother’s brothers typified that thing the newspapers always print about an Irish social event: ‘Among the injured were… .’” 

 But Jack Rossiter’s easygoing spirit more closely matches that of Nick “Da” Tynan.

“Da is really easygoing. It drives Charlie crazy that Da is so easy and accepting of what comes his way. There’s this conflict between loving him and hating him,” Phil said. “Da’s happy with his life, that’s another thing that Charlie hates: he has no ambition to rise above. [Charlie’s] fighting these memories in his head. This has got to be the warmest play I’ve ever done. The language is beautiful, the situations, the turns that happen are beautiful.”

Da will be Phil’s 29th show in Albuquerque in six years. Trained at HB Studios in New York City and with more than a passing acquaintance with the Stanislavski method, Phil enjoys watching the great actors perform the roles he’s about to step into, “to see what I don’t agree with.”

“I never try to mimic them, I just see if I can find my own way,” he said. “Like Phillip Seymour Hoffman—he channeled Capote but he brought himself into it.” 

For Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, he studied video of Lee J. Cobb, Friedrich March and Dustin Hoffman. James Whitmore was a favorite in All My Sons. And for the role of Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, Phil took in the likes of Jason Robards, Brian Dennehy, Lee Marvin, and Nathan Lane. “I do research but I read the part and let it come to me. I read the thing through and try to figure out what the character’s motivations are. Why does he say this? What does this come from? Then I fill in the pieces from the experiences in my life because [in Hickey’s case], I never did kill a wife! Humans are humans, it’s all the same thing.”

“I like trying to be people I’m really not because they stretch you more than anything else,” he said. “Hickey is a total philanderer, which I have not been in my life, but Hickey is a salesman, which I have been. I didn’t go down to the bar and pick up prostitutes, but I know the feeling that makes someone do that.”

 Phil is also a film and TV actor, most recently in Cowboy Drifter (2018), Preacher (2017) and Better Call Saul (2015), for which he received a callback to reprise his bartending role in the week of this interview. 

“Film is a completely different art form [than stage acting],” he said. “Director Peter Gould did the bartending scene in Better Call Saul 12 times to reshoot any little thing he didn’t like, only one of whom was me.”

In Cowboy Drifter, in his role as Ray Myers, Phil found himself talking to a spot instead of to Chuck Carrington, who plays Caskie Jones, the main character. 

“The person isn’t even there. You have to do it again and again, the same way each time. On stage, each time is a little bit different. And you’re on stage from beginning to end and nobody says ‘re-set.’”

Phil teaches IT at The Computer Corner, is the 11-year host of KKOB Radio’s Computer Corner call-in show, and plays piano. He comes by his entertainment chops honestly: his mother was Barbara Rossiter, a veteran of two Broadway shows and a big-band singer with The Blue Barron & His Orchestra. Phil’s not the only guy from Bayonne to play Da Tynan. Brian Keith, another Bayonne boy, took over the role on Broadway from Barnard Hughes, who originated the role and starred in the movie. 

“You know who else is from Bayonne?” he said. “The real Rocky Balboa—Chuck Wepner. They called him ‘The Bayonne Bleeder,’ but you couldn’t knock him down.”

—Stephanie Hainsfurther publishes ABQArts.com.

TICKETS: WESTENDPRODUCTIONS.ORG, 505.410.8524

 

Photos & credits, top to bottom:

Actor headshot ; photo by Lorri Oliver

Da ; photo by Colleen Neary McClure

Better Call Saul ; with Jonathan Banks, outtake from “Nailed,” 2015

The Iceman Cometh ; photo by Bob Jesser

Death of a Salesman ; photo by Alan Mitchell Photography

Juno and the Paycock ; photo by Alan Mitchell Photography