A shrink called Mendel

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Nick Blaemire plays Mendel the psychiatrist, part of the dysfunctional ensemble in “Falsettos.”
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Broadway boy wonder of Bethesda is all grown up. At 18, precocious Nick Blaemire wrote his first Broadway show as a college freshman. Granted, “Glory Days” only played a single night before closing, but, hey, how many people can say they had a show on Broadway before they were old enough to drink?

Now 34 and bearded, Blaemire will be back in town June 11 through 23. This time he’s performing on the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater stage in the revival of “Falsettos,” the unconventional 1992 musical about a father, his boyfriend, his ex-wife, a bar mitzvah boy and the lesbians who live next door.


And a psychiatrist.

It’s complicated. But it’s also a heartwarming two-hanky tale imbued with Jewish soul and spirit.

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Growing up in Bethesda, Blaemire honed his musical theater talent at Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts — now Imagination Stage — and Musical Theatre Center — now Adventure Theatre/MTC. There he learned to sing, dance and act — skills that have served him well both on stage and behind the scenes as a writer. He continues to pen works for the stage and now screen. In fact, speaking from Los Angeles while on the “Falsettos” national tour, he noted that he spends his days — when not in rehearsal or meetings — writing in coffee shops around the country, at work on two musicals, two movies and a few pitches for television shows.

So why return to the stage? “Honestly I feel equally indebted to both disciplines — writing and performing,” Blaemire said. “The more that I do one, the more I miss the other and I feel equally at home in both. When I’m in a balanced relationship between the two — writing and acting — because they use different parts of my brain and ask different things of me … I learn about acting from writing and my writing is enhanced by acting.”


And while he was not familiar with the small but touching William Finn/James Lapine musical about a married couple dealing with husband Marvin’s decision to come out as gay, while son Jason prepares for his bar mitzvah, Blaemire jumped at the chance to work with veteran director and writer Lapine. Lapine wrote the book and directed the original production of “Falsettos” 27 years ago, for which he received one of this three Tony Awards for Best Book for a Musical. But he may be best known for his collaborations with Stephen Sondheim: “Into the Woods” and “Passion.”

Initially Blaemire auditioned for the role of Marvin, the dad at the center of the play, but Lapine told him he wasn’t old enough. Ultimately he was cast as Mendel, the family’s Jewish psychiatrist — and boyfriend to Jason’s mom, Trina. Nobody said Jewish family dramas are uncomplicated. But the beauty in “Falsettos” is that as out of the ordinary and dysfunctional as the family appears on paper (especially back in 1992 at its premiere), this non-traditional family comes together, both in crisis — the onset of the AIDS virus looms heavily — and in celebration.

Blaemire said that he learned that the producers first offered his role to Jason Alexander, but Alexander turned them down.

“I guess I owe him,” Blaemire said.

And while Alexander may have focused on the humor and nebbishy side of the shrink character, Blaemire has taken Mendel in a different direction.

“He’s definitely a neurotic character who I can see being played as a bit of a nebbish. And I really didn’t want to do that,” Blaemire said. “[The director] James wasn’t going to stop me from going my own way with it. So I’m saying these lines in the way that makes sense to me …. This is my dad, my uncles, my teachers. This guy Mendel believes that he has something to offer, but he’s confused by his own hang ups and his own selfishness.”

Like each of the characters, Blaemire says, “Mendel has a really fascinating arc in the show from selfish to unselfish and he learns how to be a dad and not just a walking opinion. It is really quite beautifully written.” He adds, “The greatest joy of it is that I feel that I’ve found my version of this guy.”

While preparations to celebrate Jason’s bar mitzvah provide the impetus to mend this broken, decidedly
modern Jewish family, Blaemire finds other elements in Finn’s music and lyrics and Lapine’s book that resonate with his Jewish soul. “On the surface neuroses and where they come from, and why and how they trip us up and unite us, is inherently Jewish,” the actor said.

“At the center of the show is … the Jewish weight of the trauma of the Holocaust and everything before that — from Abraham and Moses on up. I carry it, too,” he explained, noting that while he attended Hebrew school at Temple Sinai in the District, he never celebrated his bar mitzvah.

As he was readying for his bar mitzvah, the death of a close family friend led Blaemire to question his belief in God. With his parents’ approval, he sat out his bar mitzvah.

“In doing this show now it feels like I’m making peace with my lapsed Judaism and realizing that I am very much Jewish, whether or not I spend my time in the synagogue.”

“Falsettos,” June 11-23, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW, Washington; tickets $49-$139; call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

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