Hate him (he wants you to)

By Jerry Tallmer

In ‘Three Changes,’ actor Brian J. Smith bares his teeth

Such a nice boy. Such an evil part.

The boy – well, he’s 27 actually – is Brian J. Smith. The part is that of Gordon in Nicky Silver’s “Three Changes,” opening September 16 at Playwrights Horizons.

Gordon, a flashy, snakelike, well-bred 19-year-old who has been sleeping in the streets or wherever the buck and the john will lead for a couple of months, is brought into the play by one of those customers, Hal (Scott Cohen), a failing, coke-sniffing Hollywood writer who has himself only just, after years of non-communicative absence, showed up for refuge at the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment of his businessman brother, Nate (Dylan McDermott), and Nate’s wife Laurel (Maura Tierney).

Have a taste. Have two tastes:

GORDON: (to Hal, who has decided to write a novel): How’s it going?

HAL (at his computer): It’s going.

GORDON: Hmmm. So. Tell me. Am I in it?

HAL: After a fashion.

GORDON: What does that mean?

HAL: It means in a manner of speaking.

GORDON: I know that. I’m not stupid … I mean, am I in it or not? …

HAL: I’m trying to work.

GORDON: Too bad. I’m bored.

HAL: Read a book.

GORDON: I hate books …

HAL: The character I’m writing is based on you, loosely based on you. I’ve taken some of your qualities and added attributes from my own imagination.

GORDON: What kind of attributes?

HAL: Well, for instance. He’s kind.

GORDON: I’m kind … Ask anyone.

HAL: Gordon, please. Kind people do not commit murder.

In point of fact, Hal himself almost commits murder, strangling brother Nate close to death with Nate’s own necktie. Both Hal and Gordon forthwith take over the premises and make moves on Laurel. So you might say this is Joe Orton’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” times two. In fact times three, because good square Nate himself has had a little piece on the side, a Clinique-counter Bloomingdale’s cupcake named Steffi (Aya Cash), whom he dumps without further ado, writing her off as “collateral damage.”

“Yeah, Gordon is very Ortonesque,” says Brian J. (for Jacob) Smith as he cools out in his dressing room at Playwrights’ Horizons. “We’ve actually talked a lot about Orton in rehearsals, and about Jean Genet and Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’”

“When did your father start hitting you?” novelist Hal asks the runaway rich boy. “He never hit me. He took away my credit cards,” Gordon replies, in the one funniest, saddest line in the play. “It’s very Nicky Silver,” says the actor who will speak that line. “I’ve loved Nicky’s plays since college.”

When Brian Smith says college he means Juilliard. Unlike prep-school product Gordon, Brian came out of “just a public high school in Allen, Texas, 20 miles north of Dallas – but I knew preppies,” and he played “another very privileged kid in Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa’s “Good Boys and True” at Second Stage earlier this summer. He had even before that reached Broadway as Turk, the javelin thrower, in the revival of William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba.”

The actor, oldest of three brothers, categorizes his background as “very middle-class suburban.” Their father “coordinates all the events at a convention center,” their mother teaches nursing school.

If you ask him about Dallas’s Dealy Plaza, it draws a blank. Then, when the light goes on: “Oh! Yeah! We call it The Grassy Knoll.”

He was born in that city on October 12, 1981. Growing up was, well, growing up. “I didn’t really do anything much in high school. I was very lost in high school.”

Nor has life been all that easy in New York City. Auditions, auditions, auditions – even to get into Juilliard (he used a monologue from Nicky Silver’s “The Eros Trilogy”).

Can he sense what it’s like to sleep, like Gordon, on the streets?

“Yeah. I’m going through it right now. Almost been evicted from my Washington Heights apartment three times. I think I’m the only actor in New York who hasn’t been on ‘Law and Order.’ ”

But he has been in a couple of movies, one of which is Ron Daniels’s “The War Boys” – “a lovely film that [for want of a distributor] will never be seen.” Smith plays “a working-class guy” who chases illegal Mexicans back over the border. “I guess you could call him a homosexual racist. In contradiction of everything.”

The other movie is Elizabeth Lucas’ “Red Hook,” summed up by Smith in three words: “A horror film.”

So, Brian, back to the Gordon of “Three Changes.” He’s not a very nice guy, is he?

“No, he’s not – not at all. He’s a mess of contradictions. A person who, to get love, makes himself as unlovable as possible. You know, it’s risky. We all want to be liked. If you don’t want to strangle me during curtain call, I haven’t done my job.”

Trouble is, he doesn’t wear a necktie to strangle him with.