If you're in New York this Wednesday, May 22, you can catch former Chicago-based actor/improvisor Peter Grosz's one-man show "Recipe for Success with Chef Michael Denardi" at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre on W. 26th Street in Chelsea. "Chef Denardi is like Guy Fieri," Grosz wrote in a Facebook post, "only more pathetic and desperate. Who else would come up with a Mac n' Cheeseburger?"
If you're in New York starting June 2 (that's when previews begin -- the official opening is June 17), you can catch the Northwestern grad and Emmy-winning former "The Colbert Report" writer in action Off-Broadway -- at the Claire Tow Theater -- when he stars alongside "New Girl's" Carla Gugino in the Daniel Pearle play "A Kid Like Jake." Directed by Evan Cabnet, it's a big departure from the comedic roles Grosz has long played.
Following a long stint at Second City, Grosz ("Veep," "Curb Your Enthusiasm") left town to write for fellow Northwestern alum Stephen Colbert before moving out to Los Angeles to pursue acting opportunities.
On the commercial front, he's best known as the dark-haired guy seated next to fellow Chicago improviser T.J. Jagodowski in popular ads for the fast-food chain Sonic. (Here's a New York Times story on the spots from 2012, after they brought the pair back from retirement. And here's a Sun-Times article from when they were just starting out, in 2007.)
After rehearsal one recent afternoon -- prior to catching a train back home to Brooklyn, where the Scarsdale, NY native lives with his wife, Second City alum Deb Downing, and their toddler son -- Grosz called to talk about his latest and somewhat unexpected career development.
Q: You're a comedy guy. How did this Off-Broadway thing come about?
A: When I quit "The Colbert Report" [in 2010] I knew I wanted to perform more and just not be committed to working on a writing staff five days a week. So I went out to L.A. to pursue a little bit of everything, then when I came back my agency, ICM, has a team of theatre agents. And I met with the New York crew and said, "I'll audition for anything, really." Because so much of the acting world is doing auditions and getting used to being put on the spot. Having a million auditions is a lot better than having two, because you're getting used to it and you're not so precious about every one. This is really the first theatre audition that I had in New York, and I was very fortunate. And I am fully aware of how fortunate I am. Not just to get it, but also for it to be a part of a guy in his late 30s who has a four-year-old son and is dealing with the issues involving his son and the marriage. I think there's a reason why I showed off well in the audition -- I was bringing a lot of stuff to it. It's very funny, I'm living my life at home and then I go to work and live an alternate reality version of my life.
Q: Is it hard to shake that alternate reality? Are you now in the process of shaking it off?
A: A little bit. I think it'll be really good for the part and for the play and for my performance, but psychically it's not going to be particularly easy on me. But the good news is that my life in the show is a lot worse than my real life, so at least I get to walk away and go back to the better one.
Q: Do you have any post-show decompression rituals?
A: So far it's just been get home and be excited to see my wife and son. And I do have a 45-minute subway ride, generally, so that with music in my earphones kind of cools me off and separates me.
Q: What are you getting out of this experience so far?
A: I've written some pilots over the last couple of years, so that's been the biggest chunk of things I've done other than the Sonic commercials, which kind of just keep on truckin'. But I always try and act as if I don't have that job so I can have other things going on...But you write things and you get notes and you improve the drafts, but ultimately they haven't gotten made -- the few things that I have written. So it ultimately is kind of an exercise in inaction, and this play will be a chance to do something active and delve into something that will be produced and will occur night after night.
Q: Does having the Sonic gig to fall back on give you more confidence to go out and do auditions without seeming too desperate?
A: I think that's a good way to put it. Yes, I'm not super-desperate. And not every audition is a make-or-break thing for my pocketbook. Or my purse. Or my man purse. Not everybody had this opportunity to move back to New York, and I didn't have to go back to writing for Colbert just to live here. I didn't have to get another staff writing job. I have a job, which is my Sonic commercials, and I'm very fortunate to be able to do lots of other stuff.