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Designer Scott Pask creates ‘a beautiful mess’ on Broadway

June 7, 2022 GMT
This image released by Polk & Co. shows Sam Rockwell, left, and Laurence Fishburne during a performance of "American Buffalo." (Richard Termine/Polk & Co. via AP)
This image released by Polk & Co. shows Sam Rockwell, left, and Laurence Fishburne during a performance of "American Buffalo." (Richard Termine/Polk & Co. via AP)
This image released by Polk & Co. shows Sam Rockwell, left, and Laurence Fishburne during a performance of "American Buffalo." (Richard Termine/Polk & Co. via AP)
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This image released by Polk & Co. shows Sam Rockwell, left, and Laurence Fishburne during a performance of "American Buffalo." (Richard Termine/Polk & Co. via AP)
1 of 6
This image released by Polk & Co. shows Sam Rockwell, left, and Laurence Fishburne during a performance of "American Buffalo." (Richard Termine/Polk & Co. via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Set designer Scott Pask was asked to create a roomful of junk on Broadway and somehow he turned it into something sublime.

Tasked with designing the resale shop for a starry revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” Pask filled, layered, built and made space for some 4,000 pieces strewn across the stage at the Circle in the Square Theatre, work that has earned him a Tony nomination.

“The idea of curating junk was a fun process,” he says during a recent onstage tour. “Walking into this space and then seeing this kind of dense, dense package of stuff, that’s where the joy for me comes from.”

There’s a hanging planter made of seashells discordantly holding a pair of boxing gloves, an Agatha Christie novel oddly nestled in a toaster, a box of unused baseballs resting in their original box, and vacuum cleaners and bicycles hanging from the cluttered ceiling. There’s a jar of random keys, an aquarium full of matchbooks and a rather lovely lamp trapped in a butterfly net.

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Audiences filing into the theater may see random madness, but there is a logic to it all. Look carefully and there are zones — luggage stacked in one spot, a kitchen area in another location and sports equipment piled in another, including tennis rackets and golf clubs. Pask calls it “a beautiful mess.”

“Even though when you first walk in, it does sort of look like a jumble mess, there actually is some reason behind it,” says Kathy Fabian, the production properties supervisor.

Pask is a Broadway design veteran who has created sets for such hit shows as “Mean Girls,” “Waitress,” “9 to 5,” “The Band’s Visit” and “Something Rotten!” He has won Tonys for “The Pillowman,” “The Coast of Utopia” and “The Book of Mormon.”

This time, the Mamet play asked simply for him to create a thrift shop in Chicago in the 1970s. He and his team made a field trip to Connecticut and filled a cube truck with antiques to haul back. Because the junk had to be old by the time it was the mid-1970s, his team focused on ephemera from decades before.

Pask adapted his ideas to fit the peculiar space — a subterranean Broadway theater that uses a thrust stage. He added seats repurposed from the Neil Simon Theatre to add extra rows, compressing the set and increasing the feeling of claustrophobia in the audience.

“It’s very different from what I would have done in a traditional theater space,” he says. “I love the idea of the subterranean and creating this geography for them.”

“American Buffalo” is a look at loyalty and greed among three low-level criminals who plan to steal a rare coin collection, a quest which challenges their ideals as well as their friendships. The latest revival stars Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell and Darren Criss.

Pask started the set by building a ceiling made of reclaimed lumber, sagging to hold all the items hung from it. “It’s almost like the weight of American history kind of crushing down on these petty thieves.”

Then he concentrated on so-called “hero” furniture, finding and installing the big pieces, like the cash register, lounge seat, and table and chairs where the actors spend much of their time, including perches to sit amid the junk. The last step was layering, like distributing smaller items like old trophies, board games or magazines, and putting a birdcage — a perfect metaphor — in a central location.

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The junk is piled right to the edges of the set, in some cases in the eyeline of the audience. “I wanted to feel like the walls had just been kind of pulled off,” he says. “It just makes them feel like they’re in it. I wanted it to be as immersive as possible.”

Within the piles are pathways the actors travel and Pask — along with the fight choreographer and director Neil Pepe — have carefully staged movements within the mounds of debris. A few items have been designated to take the brunt of violent moments late in the play, including a metal table that was made for the occasion. A prop supervisor resets before every show; it takes her 25 minutes each time.

The actors have gotten into the act as well, with Rockwell often grabbing an item, looking quizzically at it and then carrying it around with him. “Sam was amazing at finding items in the mess and making an amazing, funny moment,” says Fabian.

There are some personal touches woven into the set. Pepe suggested putting a guitar in the window, and Pask added hand weights like the ones he remembers from his own childhood. There’s a taxidermy fox with a Cubs hat on it, a little nod to Chicago, and Pepe also loaned his personal plaster Buddha statue from a previous revival of the play he directed.

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The attention to detail is striking, right down to the handmade linoleum on the stage floor since that particular avocado color is no longer in production. For one light switch, Pask made sure the frayed wires were visible and the switch didn’t have a plate. The letters that spell out the store’s name have been aged using steel wool, and only a few people will see music posters in the store window when the light hits them right.

It may come as no surprise that Pask is not a fan of junk in his personal life. “I like austere spaces because I like to kind of have that kind of serenity. But this was an opportunity for me to just kind of keep layering.”

How long would he last in a space similarly staged? Not long. “I live on a very sort of minimal side of things,” he says politely.

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits