Jim O’Heir had never heard of the New Theatre before he got a call from his agent.
He’d never heard of Overland Park. Never set foot in Kansas. One of the stars of “Parks and Recreation,” an ensemble comedy that wrapped up its seven-season run on NBC with a 2015 Emmy nomination, he hadn’t performed live theater in a long time, and the idea made him nervous. And this wasn’t just theater. It was dinner theater.
So he did a background check. He called other actors he knew, performers who had made the pilgrimage from Los Angeles to Overland Park. He called Richard Karn. He called George Wendt.
“George Wendt was like, ‘You have to do it,’ ” O’Heir recalled.
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So O’Heir, 53, packed his bags and headed east to be part of an ensemble cast — an enormous cast — of 19 actors, including New Theatre veterans and some of the brightest younger talents based or formerly based in Kansas City.
The show, which opened Sept. 24, is “You Can’t Take It With You,” a 1936 classic comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman about the eccentric Sycamore family, a jovial bunch of misfits pursuing delusional ambitions.
O’Heir plays Mr. DePinna, an iceman who decided to stay after making a delivery one day. Now, as an honorary member of the family, he spends much of his time in the basement with Mr. Sycamore (Jim Korinke) devising and refining fireworks. At times their experiments go awry, resulting in smoke-billowing explosions.
Appearing with O’Heir are New Theatre favorites who, in addition to Korinke, include Debra Bluford, Dodie Brown, Cathy Barnett and Craig Benton. Also on hand is the fine character actor Victor Raider-Wexler. John Rensenhouse and Jan Rogge, both experienced Shakespearean actors, are in the mix. And there are younger professionals, some of whom are returning to the New Theatre, some of whom are making their debuts: Katie Karel, Seth Macchi, Molly Denninghoff, Tosin Morohunfola and Enjoli Gavin.
O’Heir recently spoke to The Star twice: once in an in-person interview at the theater company’s rehearsal studio west of downtown and again by telephone from the set of “Range 15,” a comedy-horror film featuring William Shatner, Keith David and Barry Bostwick, among others. O’Heir had flown out to L.A. for a day of shooting on a Monday, his day off from the New Theatre.
Q: “Parks and Recreation” unexpectedly earned an Emmy nomination for outstanding comedy series, even though it had completed its final season. It gave you a chance to reunite with most of the cast. What was that like?
A: It was awesome. The New Theatre was so gracious to let me go (to the Emmy Awards). They were just great. I got to be with everybody. It was kind of like our last work-related get-together … and of course I got to have a little bit in the show. I taped a bit with Andy Samberg where I got stabbed with an Emmy Award. …
Even this nomination was a shock because we didn’t know we were on the radar. We hadn’t been nominated for the last three years.
Q: On YouTube you can find what appear to be outtakes from “Parks and Recreation” in which you guys don’t really seem to be following the script. It leaves the impression that the actors had a lot of fun on that show.
A: So many people think we improv that show. Probably 95 percent of what you see was written down. But we would do what was called a ‘fun run,’ and that’s where anything goes. And I mean anything. People have shown up naked on fun runs … and every now and then pieces of a fun run would make it into a final episode and we’d all go crazy.
Q: In “You Can’t Take It With You” you’re working with some of the most talented actors who happen to make their homes in Kansas City. What do you think of your co-stars?
A: I’m blown away by everybody. Katie and Seth and Molly and Tosin and Enjoli are just incredible. I tell them I can’t wait to see their futures because they’re going to be huge. They’re incredible. There’s 19 of us. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of egos. But there’s not a bad one in the bunch. We all tell jokes — sometimes filthy jokes.
Q: Have you had a chance to explore Kansas City? What do you think of the town?
A: Everyone has been so kind and welcoming. The difference is in L.A., people won’t come up to you because they’re like, we see TV people all the time. In Kansas City they come up to you. The town has been very welcoming. …
I went to the World War I Museum. I had no idea it was there. It was incredible. So much amazing stuff there.
I went to see “Sunday in the Park With George” (the Kansas City Repertory Theatre production staged at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and I thought it was really well done. I’d never seen it before. And the voices were incredible. I thought it was great. Technically it was amazing.
I saw (Spinning Tree Theatre’s) “West Side Story.” I knew in the first five minutes, “Oh, this is gonna be good.” There were a lot of young performers in there but I thought it was great. I can’t remember her name, but the actress who played Anita (Vanessa Severo) — holy crap, she was a powerhouse.
Q: You began your theater career in Chicago. Tell us about that.
A: I went to broadcasting school and got a job as a DJ in … Indiana. It was small and I was paid $120 a week and I worked 70 hours. It was everything you hear. My dues were being paid. I loved it and I hated it and I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted to do.
Then one day a guy called from Second City (the legendary Chicago improv group). He’d heard me on the radio just driving through. He was just someone in the office. It was such a random call and we had a very small listening audience. Our power only went out to about 12,000 people.
So I auditioned and got in. … I started getting commercial work and little TV bits, and then I started doing plays with all the different theaters throughout the city.
Q: And didn’t you start your own group?
A: That was White Noise. There were six of us. It was innovative for the time … because we went from doing improvs to sketches. We started writing.
Q: Did the New Theatre put you up in one of its remodeled houses?
A: Yes. I’m living like a king. Got this big house in Overland Park. I’ve just been roaming around this big old house. They do it right. They know how to produce.
Q: Has the New Theatre lived up to your expectations based on the reports you received from George Wendt and Richard Karn?
A: It’s exceptionally well run. Just the space itself is fantastic. It’s as high-tech as a Broadway show. And it doesn’t hurt that the food is amazing. It’s all good.
Q: A number of stars have made repeated return visits to the New Theatre through the years. Can you picture yourself doing that?
A: In a heartbeat. (Producer) Joe Fox is like, “You know, if there’s a play you want to do, let us know.” So I would definitely want to come back.
“You Can’t Take It With You” runs through Nov. 29 at the New Theatre, 9229 Foster St., Overland Park. Call 913-649-7469 or go to newtheatre.com.