Ethan Hawke returns to theater

Actor to direct New Group's 'Things'

NEW YORK — You won’t be seeing Ethan Hawke onstage for a while, but that’s not because he’s burned out on theater after those nine-hour marathon perfs of “The Coast of Utopia.” Opening Off Broadway Nov. 7, the ever-expanding multihyphenate’s next stage project will be the New Group’s upcoming “Things We Want,” with Hawke onboard as director.

This isn’t Hawke’s first outing with playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman: He acted in Sherman’s 1993 play “Sophistry” at Playwrights Horizons, and when Hawke’s now-defunct Malaparte Theater Company was still around, the actor directed Sherman in its 1994 production of “Wild Dogs!”

Hawke seemed destined at one time to become a standard-issue Hollywood star, but his determination to continue working in the theater has kept him near New York and limited his time on the studio beat. He doesn’t regret his decision. “If you’re conflicted, then most people go with the money,” he offers. “I’m not conflicted at all.”

Hawke has been involved in the East Coast theater world since age 13, when he debuted at Princeton, N.J.’s McCarter Theater in its 1983 production of George Bernard Shaw’s “St. Joan.” The last two decades have seen him Off Broadway and on, notably in Lincoln Center Theater’s 2003 “Henry IV” and the New Group’s 2005 revival of David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly,” directed by company a.d. Scott Elliott.

Sandwiched in among his stage and screen acting credits, Hawke also has directed films and musicvideos and published two novels.

The upcoming production of “Things We Want,” a dark comedy about three brothers reunited in their inherited childhood home, has attracted cast names with indie-film credibility: Paul Dano, Peter Dinklage and Josh Hamilton (who was in “Hurlyburly” and “Coast of Utopia” with Hawke), as well as rising theater star Zoe Kazan.

Hawke’s last role — Michael Bakunin in “Coast” — earned him a Tony nomination but took its toll on the resilient actor. By the time the show closed, Hawke’s voice sounded, like his character, as if he really had spent time in Siberian exile.

“I spent most of last year in what really felt like some kind of grad school theater program,” he says. “I spent a year in rehearsal with Tom Stoppard and (director) Jack O’Brien. And I came out of it really excited about the possibilities for theater.”

Hawke also notes that it was the last time he wanted to be onstage for a while. “I loved acting onstage all last year, and I have no desire to do it again for a while,” he confesses. “But I still love the theater. So now I’m kind of interested in taking what I learned from Jack and Tom and seeing if I can distill that as a director.”

His producer has high hopes. “It’s a deeply personal play for Jonathan Marc Sherman,” explains Elliott. “And it’s wonderful to have a director who really knows you when you’re working on something like that, because they can know things that aren’t in the words.”

Hawke, for his part, is intrigued by the prospect of bringing something new to the table in his first stage-directing job for a major New York company.

” ‘The Coast of Utopia’ had a real impact on me, and I’m excited to direct after having had that experience,” he says. “I’m on my way to rehearsal in a minute and I’m nervous. I like that feeling.”