Jesse Liebman may have a lot going on in his acting career right now, but when the opportunity came to return to Fort Salem this summer and immerse himself in some new material, he didn’t have to think twice.
One of the leads of the late-night Cinemax series “The Girl’s Guide to Depravity,” Liebman will be starring in a brand-new musical, “Winning the Lottery,” opening Friday at Fort Salem Theater and running through Aug. 11. This latest original work to be performed on the Fort Salem stage is the sixth collaboration between Fort Salem artistic director Jay Kerr (music and lyrics) and Al Budde (book).
Liebman was last seen at Fort Salem in the troupe’s 2009 production of “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road,” with Benita Zahn.
“New material can be a bit risky, but I have confidence in Jay,” said Liebman, a student at Princeton when he met Kerr, a former member of the adjunct faculty there. “He knows all about collaboration, and I know if I have a problem with something I can make a suggestion and he can make some changes. It’s about everyone working toward making it the best. Yeah, it can be daunting, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
“Winning the Lottery” is a story about a trio of office workers who, after winning the big prize, discover how life can get pretty complicated. Liebman plays Gary, whose father is the boss of the three office workers.
’Winning the Lottery’
WHERE: Fort Salem Theater, 11 E. Broadway, Salem
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 11
HOW MUCH: $30-$15
MORE INFO: 854-9200 or www.fortsalemtheater.com
“He’s a real college boy who’s only interested in theoretical ideas and philosophy,” Liebman said of his character. “He helps the three women in the show come to terms with what’s happening to them, but he’s not very practical. As a result, he’s forced to grow up a bit and get his head out of the clouds.”
Liebman grew up in New York City and went to Collegiate High School, where as a 10th-grader he and a few friends convinced a faculty member to create a class in ancient Greek. That early fascination with other languages helped Liebman become the Latin salutatorian at Princeton, where he delivered a speech in Latin at the 2003 commencement ceremony. During his time in college, Liebman also became a member of the Princeton Triangle Club, the oldest touring college musical-comedy troupe in the nation. Begun in 1891, the club’s alumni include Jimmy Stewart, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Brooke Shields.
“I went to Princeton because it was close to home, just an hour away by train,” said Liebman. “But it was also a good challenge for me, and I wanted to be on a campus where I didn’t have to cross city streets. I had been navigating Manhattan my whole life, so I wanted something different.
“Doing theater was also in the back of my mind,” Liebman continued, “and it was because of Jay Kerr that I got more and more involved in the Triangle Club. He was our music director, and during my sophomore year I was able to do a show, and then I started writing these sketch-comedy shows for the club and eventually became the head writer. Jay taught me a lot about musical comedy.”
Picking up experience
After graduating from Princeton with a degree in classics, Liebman worked as an apprentice at the Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia.
“I worked in a theater office, learning the other side of the business,” said Liebman. “It was a good experience.”
In 2005, Liebman toned his acting skills by attending the New Actors Workshop and studying under Mike Nichols and George Morrison. Since then, he has worked with various New York City-based troupes, including The Old Kent Road Theater Company, The Brick Theater, Dixon Place and The Bushwick-Starr.
In 2009, he adapted Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” from both the original French and English versions to create a bilingual production at the Annenberg Theatre in Paris, in which he co-directed and co-starred.
He also got a part in 2009’s “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker, then landed his featured role in “The Girl’s Guide to Depravity.”
“We just finished up shooting our second season,” said Liebman, who plays Jason. “It was a very good experience and very challenging. It’s very different from the theater. We shoot the entire series in six weeks, and it’s a great mix of people from New York and London.”
Liebman’s character is one of the few likable males on the show.
“The best way to describe my character is to say that he’s the good guy on the show as opposed to all the other jerks,” said Liebman. “It’s about the dating lives of a number of girls in Chicago, and I’m the lone good guy. I don’t always get what I want, but I’m reliable.”
Liebman also recently finished making a move called “Percentage,” with Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit Studios, and is debating whether or not to return to Paris and do another production of “Waiting for Godot.”
“I’m part of an organization there that’s trying to raise money to bring contemporary English plays to a Parisian audience,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s the most winning formula, but the end of the summer is a question mark right now, so I might possibly go back to Paris.”
Joining Liebman on stage for “Winning the Lottery” is Gordon Hazzard as his father and Jessica O’Keefe, Pat Reilly and Mary Skelly as the three big winners.