“I hated Forrest Gump,” gripes Rick Bland, the star and writer of the upcoming New York International Fringe Festival highlight Thick. When the play—in which Bland plays a soft-in-the-head, unreliable narrator—became a hit at Edinburgh’s 2003 Fringe, a publicist suggested bringing up the soppy Hanks vehicle in all press interviews. Bland forbade her from mentioning it. “I have written it specifically as an anti–Forrest Gump piece.”
A better parallel might be Six Feet Under. Bland’s play centers on death and dysfunction and has at its heart a distinctly un-Gumpian dollop of dark humor (not to mention some alarming autobiographical underpinnings). Such oddball theatricality is unsurprising coming from an actor who originated the lead role in London’s controversial Jerry Springer—The Opera and has been for years a mainstay of the much-adored Reduced Shakespeare Company (famous for its frantic abridgements of the Bard and the Bible).
“I didn’t really set out to be an actor,” says the Canadian-born Bland, who was once a competitive swimmer. “My whole life is a big accident.” It’s not nearly as bad as you’d believe from Thick, whose narrator was dropped on his head as a baby by his alcoholic, possibly homicidal, mother. (“But I do have a flat hatch on my head,” he adds.) Between stints as Jerry Springer, Bland was revising Thick when he suddenly found himself with a lot more spare time: Springer moved to the West End, and Bland fell victim to that common phenomenon—the need for a bigger-name star in the lead. (Michael Brandon took the role and was later replaced by David Soul.)
Though he initially railed against the casting change, Bland is rather philosophical about it now, especially as the opera’s been attacked as blasphemous in England and been stalled on its way to Broadway. And he insists he’s happy to be working out a more intimate mix of satire and sentiment. “I think humor can be so serious, the way it’s used to turn things on its head,” he says. “In a line, you can say something that takes two hours in a drama."