“I would say that he is a cynic, but cynicism is always born out of a hope for something better,” said Baltimore resident and actor Marc Unger in regard to Adam Kelner, his alter ego and the main character of his television show “Thespian.” “And a desire to be better, personally, professionally. That’s what kind of creates cynicism.”
Set and shot in Baltimore, “Thespian” follows the ups and many downs of a 50-year-old Kelner as he struggles to transition from a less-than-successful career as a stand-up comedian to one as a dramatic actor. As of the writing of this article, the first two episodes of its second season are currently available on Amazon Prime.
Originally from Brooklyn, Unger’s family moved to Baltimore when he was still a child. In his 20s he left for Chicago, and found some success there as a stand-up comic.
However, “ultimately I was really unhappy, spiritually and emotionally, creatively,” Unger said, and he moved back to Baltimore to spend some time with his family. While initially expecting his return to be temporary, he eventually met his future wife, Maria, and has remained while working on his program.
“The first episode of season one is pretty autobiographical,” Unger said, referring to a scene in which his character, Kelner, is standing on the porch of his house, looking across the street from the apartment where he grew up, and feeling that after five decades of life he is literally right back where he started.
“I guess it starts with me looking at that, knowing that I’ve come back to Baltimore after all these years, feeling that frustration and wanting to find a way to tell the story and get out things that I wanted to get out as an artist filtered through this fictional version of myself,” Unger said.
Maria Unger, who plays an integral part of the show from directing to editing to coordinating everything that happens on the set, felt that the lessons learned from creating season one improved the quality of season two. “Aside from the equipment, we, having season one under our belt, we had more of a feel and more of the experience to get the kind of shots that we wanted to get, and more crew to be able to pull it off, in terms of having it look the way we want it to look, and to portray the moods that we wanted to portray,” Maria Unger said.
Regarding the plot, Marc Unger stated that the world of the show would be expanding significantly from season one. Unger said that season two entails larger story lines for such characters as Kelner’s wife Abby, played by Nikki Estridge, and the character Petra Antonelli, played by Sasha Carrera. Along with seeing more of Kelner’s family, Unger viewed this as one of the ways that season two presents a more “vivid” and “fully realized” world.
The Ungers were still in the process of shooting season two when the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down the nation. Currently, the first six episodes of the eight-episode season have been filmed, while the last two episodes have been partially filmed. Stating that the fifth episode provides a logical mid-season break, Unger’s plan is to release the first five episodes first, and then release the last three once social distancing has been relaxed to the point where he can finish production.
When asked how his Jewish heritage has impacted the show, Unger explained that “growing up Jewish, that is my sensibility. Whatever that thing is, the idea of Jewish humor, it permeates everything that I do, in some corrupt capacity.
“The neurosis, the intelligence of it, comes from my background as an Ashkenazi Jew with family that came here in the early 1900s from Russia, Poland, Austria,” Unger continued. “Adam is a lapsed Jew, in some ways, but once a Jew always a Jew.”
One of the more unique things about “Thespian” is its setting, as Baltimore is not often the first choice to set the plot of a television series.
“One of the things that people really loved about season one is that it is set in Baltimore,” Maria Unger said, “and that it is Baltimore shown in an artistic and interesting light, rather than ‘The Wire.’ And a lot of people love seeing their hometown places, or their theaters that they like to go to, or the restaurants that they frequent.”
Marc Unger said that another story about a struggling actor in Los Angeles is not needed right now, but that a struggling actor in Baltimore attempting to recapture his previous success is significantly more interesting.
“I’ve lived in New York, LA, Chicago,” Unger said. “I’ve performed and traveled through 45 states. So I’ve had a chance to live and work in most of the country. And I think Baltimore is singular in its pride and its desire to see good work come from this city.”