Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka Bring The Drama To Sag Harbor

Bay Street Theater honors the actors (along with community leader Georgette Grier-Key) at its annual fundraising gala on July 6. The East Hampton residents Zoomed in with Purist to extol the virtues of local theater and their love of the idyllic hamlet.
Husbands, honorees: David Burtka and Neil Patrick Harris. Photo by Arnaldo Anaya-Lucca

By Ray Rogers

Ray Rogers: Hi guys. Where is everybody today? 

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: I’m in Belfast, Ireland. I’m making a film that’s the third of a series of these Becky violent. horror-adjacent films. I’m the antagonist. I’m a bad guy.

RR: Do you like playing bad guys?

NPH: Sometimes playing the happy, positive, nice guy is limiting in its own ways. Bad guys get to have more fun sometimes.

RR: David, where are you?

David Burtka: I’m in rainy East Hampton. I came out here to work on our garden and I’m stuck inside. But it’s supposed to stop raining in the next hour, so hopefully I’ll be able to get some galoshes on and go out and weed.

RR: What are you planting for the season?

DB: You name it. We expanded our flower garden again this year. We’ve already planted peas and spinach, and my kale is already up, as are the arugula and radishes. 

NPH: David’s garden is awesome in that every year he gets to refine what he makes or try new things for, and do less of things that were more time consuming. It’s really cool to see what he comes up with.

RR: You guys are being honored by Bay Street Theater, our world-class theater right here in the hamlet of Sag Harbor. You’ve both been on stages big and small. I’d love to hear your thoughts on regional and community theater—what role it can play in people’s lives and what role it’s played in your lives.

NPH: I’m from small-town New Mexico, born in Albuquerque but lived for most of my adolescence in a town about three hours south from there called Ruidoso. And there was not much in the arts and theater world as options for kids or for anyone, really. It was a Southwestern, sports-centric kind of farming town. So when I discovered that there was the Ruidoso Little Theater—it didn’t have a home; it just performed at the country club a few times a year where they would put up sets and invite people over—I quickly reached out to them and found my tribe. I think without a sense of local community theater so many people would have no access to witnesses people perform or, even more, being able to perform as an outlet. So, I find it very important, especially in the world that we currently live in where arts in the education system is being truncated at best. I think any way one can support those who are choosing to spend their time being artistic, being theatrical, giving up their creative spirit to others, is a really important cause.

RR: Can you recall your first role in community theater?

NPH: I was Toto in our high school production of The Wizard of Oz when I was not in high school. I was young. My brother, who is three years older, wasn’t in high school yet, either. He and his friends all went to audition to be munchkins. I was too young to even be a munchkin. Someone suggested I would make a good Toto, so that was probably my first thing. But I did Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors. I remember it all very fondly.

RR: How about you, David?

DB: I don’t have a dissimilar story. I grew up in Michigan, a suburb outside of Detroit, and I was an artistic kid. I was not the sports kid that my dad wanted me to be. So, a friend of mine was auditioning at the Northville Marquis Theater in Northville, Michigan. It was a production of Peter Pan and they needed a bunch of kids. I auditioned, and got the part of John Darling. In that production, I met other young actors, including Celia Keenan-Bolger, Hunter Foster, Sutton Foster, Danny Gurwin and Randy Becker, who were all in that show, which is crazy. We were just a group of kids that went through the ranks. We all grew up in Michigan, and we all ended up doing it for a living. I would do community theater and I worked a lot in college. 

I remember auditioning for Bay Street when I was in college. They would do this thing in New York, and you would go to different places to audition for all the summer stocks for the year. I remember having a callback for Bay Street for something, and everyone was like, ‘That’s such a great place to work.’ I never made it into a Bay Street Theater production, but I worked at the Weathervane Theater in New Hampshire, and the Weston Theater Company in Vermont. So, those are my two big community theater experiences for summer stock.

NPH: I got to play John Darling in the Albuquerque Civic Light Opera production of Peter Pan. One summer I went from Ruidoso, I auditioned and got the part of John Darling and had to spend the summer with my aunt and uncle in Albuquerque because we lived three hours away. So you and I have both played similar roles—we both got to fly.

DB: And I got to fall.

NPH: Yeah, you got dropped. I didn’t.

DB: My harness broke one performance and I beat the curtain down. My body bounced and I had to be taken to the emergency room. 

NPH: Another reason to see community theater. You just never know what’s going to happen!

RR: You’ve each had many accolades throughout your careers; how does it feel to be honored by our local theater?

DB: It feels great. Anytime there’s a moment to do service and bring awareness to theater and get people in the seats to raise money for a good cause, I’m all for it. So, if we can shed light on the Bay Street Theater and make some money for the company, I’m super-happy and grateful to be a part of that.

NPH: I think it’s a recognition of the fact that we’ve both been in theater and supported theater at large. David and I as East Hampton residents are massive fans of Sag Harbor. It’s one of my favorite towns in the entire world and every time we go there, we feel so welcome and it’s just so quintessentially idyllic, and honestly so, and not pretentious. 

DB: Our son wants to go there for pizza tonight. Sag Pizza is fantastic, every time.

NPH: So, we may not be the old Bay Street Theater brigade with multiple shows as stripes, but we certainly love that it exists, and can’t wait to participate in some way in the future.

DB: We spend a lot of time at Big Olaf Ice Cream next to the theater in the summer, so we’re always reading who’s on the posters. It’s amazing how many great people they get to come do shows there. It says a lot for the theater.

RR: This summer alone they have John Slattery and Talia Balsam and their son Harry in a new production, and Patti LuPone coming up in July.

NPH: She’s doing her Carnegie Hall show?

RR: Yes, A Life in Notes. What for you would be the perfect Sag Harbor day or night, surrounding a play at Bay Street?

DB: I think I’d start off Saturday morning at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market. I’d get some beautiful produce or go grab some local berries that someone’s selling—I want to give props to the farmers over there.

NPH: Walk down Main Street, stop at the Main Street liquor store and get a nice bottle of wine or two. Go to that great cheese shop that’s around the corner, Cavaniola’s. Get a nice picnic’s worth of food and then hope someone invites you on their boat. Then you spend a couple of hours on someone else’s boat that you’re not having to pay for, that’s really fun and lovely. And then come back sun-kissed, have a nice late lunch at Sag Pizza or maybe The American Hotel.

DB: How are you going to fit in going to the hardware store, Neil—it’s your favorite hardware store, isn’t it?

NPH: It might be my favorite hardware store in America. That would probably be in the morning before the boat. They’re so nice at the hardware store that you go in with a problem and they’ll help you solve it. Then as you’re looking around you think oh, I might as well get some additional drill bits and light bulbs, and work shoes. And who doesn’t need more adhesive of some sort? I end up leaving with seven or eight different things that I will use throughout the weekend.

DB: Meanwhile, I’m across the street at Sylvester & Co. getting an iced coffee.

NPH: Sylvester & Co. is fantastic.

DB: And looking at all of the things that they have and it’s such a great group of oddities and fun things that are great for gifts, and books, kitchen items and cookbooks.

NPH: And then we would go and have a late lunch at Sag Pizza. We’ll go see a show at Bay Street. We’ll see Patti LuPone. And then it’s right near Sen so then we’ll have a later dinner at Sen—the sushi is so delicious and they’re so amazing there, too, they’re so nice. And then a quick walk, a post-Sen trip to the bookshop which is open late and always right there, much to David’s chagrin. Every time we leave Sen, I have to go to the bookshop with the kids and the family and David is anxious to get home.

DB: That’s not true. That was only the night when we were in COVID and the kids had school the next day and I needed to get them to go to sleep. Also, we would have to stop maybe at Grindstone and get some doughnuts for the next morning if we have people over. If Patti LuPone is staying over at our house in East Hampton, we’ll have to have some doughnuts for Patti.

NPH: We could get some doughnuts at Grindstone and bring them to the stage door for Patti and the crew.

DB: That’s it. Although she’d probably want a bottle of rosé.