August 25, 2005
Actor’s Missing Dad Takes Center Stage
In his raw, autobiographical monologue, "Who Is Floyd Stearn?" actor Michael Raynor struts onstage with a swagger reminiscent of James Caan. Raynor, playing himself, jabs a finger at a faded photograph.
The photo was taken on 185th Street in Queens, on his grandmother's lawn. In the photo, an athletic, brawny man embraces a 3-year-old. The man is Raynor's father, Floyd Stearn. The smiling boy is young Michael, who clutches a toy banjo, his blond bangs peeking out from a cowboy hat.
Raynor tells the audience that, even at 40, he cannot discuss the photo; should anyone pressure him, he angrily departs.
"Every time I see the picture I cry," he adds quietly. "That's why I can't look at it. I see the happiness in my face, and it scares me. I'm hoping it won't go away."
His father's sudden departure at age 7 cost him much happiness for years, and this macho-yet-tender one-man show is Raynor's attempt to re-connect with his father and to understand the man who abandoned him.
The 2004 off-Broadway success is among a slate of recent plays to explore dysfunctional Jewish families in crisis, notably Tony Kushner's Broadway musical, "Caroline, or Change," which had a run in Los Angeles late last year. Raynor's piece is a "Rashomon"-style mystery, with the actor portraying himself at various ages, as well as his mother and grandparents, who offer conflicting theories about his late father.
Was Stearn a nice Jewish boy who loved his children, but was kowtowed by a hostile ex-wife and a domineering second spouse? Or was he a heartless deadbeat who sent Michael birthday cards with no return address signed by himself, his new wife and children?
Because his relatives were tight-lipped, all Raynor knew until five years ago was that Stearn had been a burly jock.
Of his penchant for Caan, he says: "I looked for my dad in tough Jew father figures in films, like Caan, Kirk Douglas and John Garfield. I emulated the qualities I imagined my father might have had."
In fact, the actor arrives at an interview on the Westside with that Caan-esque saunter and the tough-but-senitive guy persona he projects onstage.
At 18, he said, he adopted his stepfather's surname, because he had been more a father to Raynor than Stearn. But Stearn's absence continued to wreak havoc in his life. In relationships, he says, he was "programmed to disconnect," cutting off friends and girlfriends "to create perceived emotional safety."
Because arguments over child support, in part, had kept his father from him, financial concerns haunted Raynor. Though he had played the leads in his Jewish summer camp plays, he did not initially pursue theater, because he worried that actors lived hand-to-mouth. Instead, he worked in the financial field, on the floor of the commodities market, until he finally accepted a role in an off-off Broadway play in his late 20s.
Also in his 20s, Raynor received a notice of disinheritance, stating that his father had died of bone cancer at 42.
"I went shopping and stocked up on food, because I knew I wasn't going to be leaving the house for a while," he recalls in the play. "I cried and fell asleep and cried and fell asleep for two days straight. And the worst part is, I thought I had finally forgotten him."
The actor's anguish apparently hits a nerve for some viewers. After seeing the show in 2002, radio's Howard Stern wrote Raynor: "Not many men could openly confess before an audience the intense father hunger they had.... It's very easy as a man to show anger, but a lot more difficult to tap into the longing and desire for a caring, loving father."
Despite his father hunger, Raynor built a busy career, playing leads in independent films such as "The Waiting Game" and the HBO miniseries, "From the Earth to the Moon." He continued to know almost nothing about Stearn -- until he chanced to pick up his own cousin at a party eight years ago (he hadn't seen her since she was a girl). Once recognition set in, she told him Stearn's mother was alive and living in Florida.
On the "Moon" set in Orlando, Fla., six months later, Raynor finally mustered the courage to call his grandmother, whom he had not seen in a quarter century.
"I showed up on her doorstep on what happened to be her 87th birthday," he recalls. "I felt like I was walking into a psychedelic flashback."
The emotional visit turned out to be "more healing than 1,000 years of therapy," he says. "I learned what I had previously kept from myself because it was too confusing: That my father had loved me, even though he left."
Raynor discovered more by tracking down his half-siblings and convincing sometimes-reluctant relatives to conduct more than 50 hours of taped interviews. He decided to turn the material into a play, though the writing process was so painful it kept him up at night.
Yet performing the piece -- and saying "Kaddish" for Stearn onstage -- proved cathartic for Raynor, who is considering parenthood for the first time in his life.
"I was severed from my father, so what I do in the play is to resurrect him and reconnect with him, if only in spirit."
"Stearn," runs through Sept. 27 at the Pilot Light Theatre. (323) 960-4418.