When it comes to his stage and screen work, Bryan Batt has always been eager to plumb the depths of heartbreak and personal conflict.
The Louisiana-born actor landed on the prestige television map on “Mad Men,” playing Stirling Cooper’s deeply closeted art director, Sal Romano, from 2007 to 2009. This month, he’s back on the New York stage in “Pay the Writer” as Bruston Fischer, a gay literary agent comfortable enough with his true self to crack self-effacing jokes, but who relies on his work and his sense of humor to deflect from his internal struggles.
“I have a lot of empathy for someone like Bruston, who wants love but has failed in finding it,” Batt told HuffPost shortly after “Pay the Writer” opened off-Broadway last month. “I love that he’s a gay man of a certain age.” The play itself, he added, “brings up the issue of great artists and what they’re allowed to get away with. Can you separate the artist from the art and the person from their behavior?”
Written by Tawni O’Dell and directed by Karen Carpenter, “Pay the Writer” takes a behind-the-scenes, warts-and-all look at Bruston’s decadeslong working relationship with Cyrus Holt (played by Ron Canada), an acclaimed Black author.
Faced with a terminal illness, Cyrus is determined to publish one final book and make amends with his two estranged children, Gigi (Danielle J. Simmons) and Leo (Garrett Turner), before it’s too late.
Those plans are complicated by the unexpected arrival of Cyrus’ ex-wife, Lana (Marcia Cross of “Melrose Place” and “Desperate Housewives”). Suddenly, Bruston finds himself at odds with Cyrus’ loved ones while unwilling to accept his client’s impending death.
“It’s an interesting triangle, the agent, the star writer and his ex-wife ― how it all comes together,” Batt said. “Bruston’s very unlucky in love, mainly because he does have a little fire burning for Cyrus. Whether it’s sexual or not, it is a definite love.”
The play also raises questions about the intersection of race and queer sexuality, most notably in scenes depicting the early days of Bruston and Cyrus’ working relationship. With respect to those themes, Batt noted: “I don’t want to get into anything political, but people just don’t know how to behave and talk to each other anymore. The things that are passing for manners and decorum are fading. We need to keep our minds and hearts open to the new generation, what they’re feeling.”
In light of his character’s experiences in “Pay the Writer,” Batt recognizes the good fortune he’s had when it comes to his love life. He and his husband, Tom Cianfichi, will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary next year. The two men have been together for 34 years in total.
These days, they split their time between New York and New Orleans. In 2003, they became business partners when they opened Hazelnut, a high-end home decor shop on New Orleans’ Magazine Street, in 2003.
What began as a creative side hustle has evolved into “one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done,” Batt said. “You can become so one-note with show business. It takes over your life and it can become very myopic and it’s all you talk about. The opportunity presented itself, and I just thought, ‘I need to take a little break.’ That was 20 years ago, and we’ve never had a losing year.”
If all goes according to plan, the Big Easy will also be Batt’s next onstage home. For the past several years, he’s been at work on “Dear Mr. Williams,” a one-man play inspired by his own adolescence. The show’s premiere staging took place in Louisiana two years ago, and there are talks to bring it to New York and other cities.
“It’s my story of growing up in New Orleans, my coming-of-age story,” Batt explained. “Growing up, I did not know any gay people. It was not talked about.” The show’s title is a reference to author and playwright Tennessee Williams, who wrote “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he said. “He always had an affinity for the outsider. He always championed the person who wasn’t cookie-cutter perfection. He showed us the beautiful undersides, the underbelly.”
These days, Batt’s screen career also remains in high gear. Earlier this year, he wrapped shooting on an upcoming film with Bill Irwin and Marisa Tomei, in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Having been attached to “Pay the Writer” since the play’s first reading last year, however, he’s hopeful that the dramedy will have a second iteration, possibly on Broadway or in London, after the current run ends Sept. 30.
“I love doing film and television,” Batt said, “but the real deal is the stage.”