Monday, April 5, 2010

...these are a few of my favorite things...

Reconnected with an old friend and wonderful actress, Jennifer Piech, a couple of days ago.  Jenn was my first Guinevere out of three King Arthurs I did in Camelot.  And my favorite.  Taken as a whole, Camelot is a rather unremarkable musical.  The group numbers are not that exciting.  The music only serviceable.  But for the three leads, Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, it's a pretty cool show.  Some surprisingly well-written passages for a musical.  Arthur's end-of-act monologue is especially well done.  I didn't know it at the time but that was an amazing cast I had around me.  Jenn as Guinevere (she went on to do a ton of big-time theatre including a long run of Titanic on Broadway), Mitch Kantor as Pellinor (Mitch is now in public television, but he was a fine character actor in his day) and James Barbour as Lancelot.  Jim, of course, has done a ton of Broadway leads since that time and is still one of my very best friends.  He and his amazing wife, Dana, live very close to Angie and I out here in L.A. and he is currently doing the lead role in a new musical at The Geffen called Nightmare Alley.  They have a baby girl named Hudson (cool name, huh?).  He's also agreed to be my best man at our upcoming wedding-slash-bowling extravaganza.  Jim has his own bowling ball with "Hamlet" written on it.  Okay, we're not having our wedding in a bowling alley, but Jim DOES have a bowling ball with "Hamlet" written on it.

Anyway, by reconnecting with the beautiful and talented Jennifer Piech, I've gotten a tad nostalgic.  My students sometimes ask me, "What's your favorite role?"  I counted them up a while back.  As near as I can calculate, I've done 117 roles as a professional.  To be honest, I can remember with any clarity only about half of them.

The old, "What's your favorite role" question is impossible to answer, of course.  Most of the time it really is the one I happen to be doing.  But that's a bit of a cop-out.  On the other hand I can honestly say as a playwright, the piece I'm writing at the time is always my favorite.

And, not surprisingly, the role is sometimes caught up with the cast surrounding me.  For example, I once did a role at The Asolo, the lead in a very funny new play, but the cast was snippy.  Loved actually doing the role, but for some reason the actors didn't get along that well.  That tends to shadow the actual work, sometimes.

But King Arthur in Kentucky, of all places, with Jenn and Jim is right up there.  For one reason it was in a giant, outdoor theatre, I think about 700 seats, no electronic help as I recall.  Actually, I think they did mike us but it wasn't a very good system and I remember constantly getting in trouble with the PSM because I would simply reach under my costume and turn it off.  We did a bunch of plays in that huge space - Camelot, Drood, Funny Girl, 1940's Radio Hour, West Side Story, South Pacific, The Music Man, Hello, Dolly - and that was where I learned to project without hurting my voice.  Very important for an actor.  I learned to play that space.  Many actors, even seasoned ones, can't do it.  They don't know how.  But for Jim and Jenn and I, we learned.  It was a sink or swim kind of thing.  And, in a very friendly way, it was every man for himself.  Barbour and I were forever locked in a battle as to who could command the stage.  And Jim is no light weight.  I lost as many as I won.  It solidified my theory of "if you can take the stage from me, be my guest."  A little nebulous for non-actors, but for my actor buddies reading this, you know what I mean.  I remember a few years after that doing a play in Dallas and there was a moment when I had to do a dramatic moment but there were, by necessity, a couple of people moving scenery behind me.  The director stopped rehearsal and said he needed to re-think this.  He said he was worried I wouldn't "have focus."  I said if the audience is more interested in the chairs being moved behind me than in what I was doing, I DESERVED to lose focus.  We moved on.

So, yes, that first Camelot of mine stands out as one of my favorites.

Another is the third time I did Lost in Yonkers.  I was doing it in Chicago, the first production away from Broadway, and playing the Uncle Louie role.  This is the role Kevin Spacey had won a Tony for in NY.  I was surrounded by heavy hitters:  Paula Scrafano, a multiple Jeff winner in that city, and the incomparable Marji Banks, known at the time as the first lady of Chicago theatre.  Paula and Marji were both astonishing actors.  Marji has since passed away, but Paula is still a stalwart on the boards in Chicago.  Marji had worked a lot with Tennessee Williams years back.  Tennessee Williams!  I spent time in her home high above Lake Michigan and she had pictures on the wall of her and Tennessee hanging out.  Good Lord.  So that one remains one of my favorites if for no other reason than the sheer talent by which I was surrounded.  No room for error in that one.  It was the big leagues every night.  You either showed up to play or you got the hell off the stage.

Another is, God help me, Run For Your Wife down on Sanibel Island in Florida.  This little innocuous English farce is one of those plays you hope no one you know sees you in.  I did it twice.  Once there and later in Rochester, NY.  I played the exceptionally silly role of Stanley both times.  But say what you will about this stupid play, when we did our final dress in Florida the show ran an hour and fifty minutes.  On opening night it ran two hours and forty minutes.  And ALL of that added time was simply holding for laughs.  Audiences love this thing.  They eat it up.  I blush to confess I had so much fun doing it and more, playing INSIDE the play.  I experimented with manipulating the audience for eight weeks, eight shows a week, sold out.  I loved it.  Got to the point I could raise an eyebrow and get a laugh.  This is why actors sacrifice so much of a real life.  So they can be in the middle of something transcendent like this show was.  It's a high that drugs or alcohol can't even begin to compete with.

And finally a one-person show I did on an Equity national tour, Give "Em Hell, Harry, about the life of Harry Truman.  Two hours in the make-up chair before every show.  Something happened in that play that rarely, if ever, happens to an actor.  I would sometimes lose myself.  I would step out onstage and begin the piece and the next thing I knew it would be two hours later and I was taking a curtain call.  For the layman this may sound impossible.  It is not.  It is when everything clicks, all the training, all the rehearsal, all the endless preparation.  The lines are so secure one could recite them in the middle of the night in a dead sleep.  The audience latches onto the actor at the first moment and just holds on.  I would sometimes do that show and a half hour later be too exhausted to drink a glass of water.

So there you have it.  Some plays that stick out in my head as not only fun to do, but possibly my best work as an actor.  There are others, of course, that I remember fondly:  Long Day's Journey, The Rainmaker, The Boys Next Door, 1776, Moon for the Misbegotten, Julius Caesar.  All of those plays had some terrific moments that I always recall with a smile.

As for roles I still want to do?  Well, that list used to be a lot longer some years back.  Now, as I get older, there are really only a few that I think about now and then.  One is Willy Loman, of course.  That is the American Lear.  Any actor worth his salt should want to take a crack at that one.  MacBeth is another.  The cursed Scottish play.  It's my favorite role in Shakespeare's canon.  Not my favorite play by The Bard, but my favorite role.  I'm convinced there are lost scenes from that play.  But that's for another blog some other day.  A lot of roles I dreamt of playing have simply passed me by.  I can't play them anymore.  That's sort of sad.  I recently told my mentor and teacher of note, Michael Moriarty (in my mind, the finest actor I've ever seen), that it was unfortunate we never got to see his Hamlet.  Michael, whom I think is aging far more gracefully than I am, was unconcerned.  He admitted he would have liked to take a crack at it, but it didn't bother him or make him in the least regretful.  Pity.  I think he would've made the greatest American Hamlet since Barrymore.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.  I've turned down so many over the years.  Often times I would have an offer to do something I really wanted but I couldn't do it because I was doing some other play that was paying a ton of money.  Choices like that have to be made sometimes for the actor.  Sometimes a roof over one's head and a warm meal trumps a moment of glory.

I'm learning lines right now for my own play, Praying Small.  It's a mammoth role.  Two straight hours on stage.  Get to swing every club in the bag.  Get to go from raging against the dying of the light to flat-out stand-up comedy.  Cry, laugh, blubber, whisper, resign,'s one of those.  It's playing at NoHo Arts Center from June 11 to July 25 of this year.  Come see it.  I'll meet you in the lobby afterwards and tell you if it made it into my top five.

See you tomorrow.