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Category — Building Character

Do You Care More About the Captive or the Captor?

Justin Kirk (r) and Usman Ally

Justin Kirk (r) and Usman Ally

Usman Ally brings alluring layers to Ayad Akhtar’s latest play

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Nick Bright, the American investment banker who’s kidnapped and held for ransom in Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand, certainly evokes some sympathy. In the play, which is now at New York Theatre Workshop, he has to raise his own ransom by playing the stock market, turning a $3 million investment into $10 million. He endures mercurial treatment at the hands of his kidnappers, plus he’s got a wife and 3-year-old back home. Yet despite all this, you may find yourself drawn to Bashir, one of Nick’s captors.

Played with a razor sharp edge by Usman Ally, Bashir is British born of Pakistani heritage. “I think the audience gets thrown off by that,” says the actor, who also starred in the first production of Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced. “In the first scene they meet [the character] Dar, who speaks English with a Pakistani accent. When they see me they expect me to sound the same, but instead I’ve got this middle-class English brogue.”

As Bashir stalks the stage, spitting out Britishisms like “dirty old geezer,” the audience gets fleeting information about his past and what turned him into toward militancy. But Ally’s performance never falls to caricature: Bashir’s anger, disenfranchisement, and angst are all very real. His student/teacher dynamic with Nick, from whom he learns the tricks of the economic trade, is also surprising, and in these scenes Bashir is like that disruptive schoolmate who could be the smartest in the class if only he could manage to control his outbursts. (When he lashes out at his captive, though, we remember just who is in control.) [Read more →]

December 15, 2014   No Comments

How to Put Soul in a “Honeymoon”

Tony Danza & Brynn O'Malley

Tony Danza & Brynn O’Malley

How Brynn O’Malley creates a leading lady in Honeymoon in Vegas

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Make no mistake: the new Broadway musical Honeymoon in Vegas is supposed to be a lark. Based on the 1992 film, it’s a fizzy romance about Jack Singer, a guy who won’t propose to his girlfriend Betsy because his mother cursed his love life. (Like, literally cursed.) He almost loses his lady, however, when she’s seduced by a flashy gambler, and getting her back requires a trip to Hawaii, a visit to a mysterious tropical monument, and a skydiving trip with a planeload of Elvis impersonators.

So again… this is not Greek tragedy. And Jason Robert Brown’s score, with its swinging Vegas sounds, is designed to keep toes tapping while these lovelorn dorks sort out their lives.

But despite all the goofiness, the actors have to take their roles seriously. If their performances don’t have legitimate feeling—if they don’t show some recognizable humanity—then the whimsy won’t work. Just ask Brynn O’Malley, who plays Betsy: “The show is so much fun and the circumstances we’re put through are so ridiculous,” she says. “But we also feel like our job is to be the ambassadors of truth and make sure that no matter what is put in front of us, we approach it from the most grounded place.”

That’s one reason she’s glad to have another crack at her role. O’Malley also played Betsy when Honeymoon in Vegas premiered at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse last year, which means the Broadway run at the Nederlander gives her the chance to go further with her performance. (The show is currently in previews and officially opens next month.) “What’s been fun this time around is we get to dig a little deeper and really track Betsy’s journey through the show,” she says.

Of course, digging deeper doesn’t always mean breaking brand new ground. In one crucial scene, for instance, Betsy has to decide if she’s going to impulsively go to Hawaii with the romantic gambler (played by Tony Danza) and leave Jack alone with his commitment-phobia. At Paper Mill, O’Malley motivated Betsy’s decision with both anger and excitement, while both her paramours fought for her attention. “We liked that scene,” she says. “But we weren’t sure, coming in to this round, if the scene as written was what we wanted to do for Broadway.”

She continues, “We thought, ‘Well maybe we can play it this way, or we can take Jack out of it, on an on.’ We went through four or five versions, only to discover that the one we started with is the one we’re gonna do. But now we know exactly what we’re doing, and we know exactly why.” [Read more →]

December 9, 2014   No Comments

Why Alessandro Nivola Loves “The Elephant Man”

Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man

Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper wasn’t the only actor obsessed with bringing the Williamstown Theatre Festival revival to Broadway

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

When director Scott Ellis called Alessandro Nivola back in 2012 about playing the part of moralistic Victorian doctor Frederick Treves in a mounting of The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the actor knew he couldn’t say no. After all, his old friend Ellis was responsible for his entire career in the theatre and beyond. “It’s true!” Nivola insists. “In 1995, Scott cast me in a revival of A Month in the Country opposite Helen Mirren. I was just one year out of college and that play was not only my Broadway debut but my first show in NYC. It was entirely because of that exposure that all the other opportunities came.”

In fact, so many Hollywood offers flooded in that Nivola’s stage career was immediately sidetracked. Although he and Ellis attempted to work together many times over the years, their schedules never aligned… not even for The Elephant Man. “I was filming a movie [Devil’s Knot] in Atlanta at the same time as rehearsals,” Nivola recalls. “I had to fly to and from Williamstown three times if that gives you any indication of my level of commitment. There was no way I wasn’t going to do this thing.”

The life of Joseph Merrick, a real 19th-century Englishman afflicted with mysterious deformities who was treated and befriended by Dr. Treves, seems to have a compelling effect on actors. Nivola’s costar, Bradley Cooper, who plays the title character, recently revealed that David Lynch’s movie The Elephant Man is what inspired him to become an actor. And when he discovered Bernard Pomerance’s Tony-winning play of the same name, he did it for his grad school thesis.

Nivola, similarly, was introduced to Merrick’s story through the film, but he was pleasantly surprised when he realized the movie and the play were completely different. “I remember loving The Elephant Man but it was so filmic, especially Dr. Treves, who was played by Anthony Hopkins,” he says. “The character was fascinating but so understated. I couldn’t imagine how it would translate into a great theatre role. And then I read the play and was struck by Treves’ main arc. He goes from having supreme confidence and conviction in his own beliefs and the cultural values of the time and place to just total loss of faith and self-loathing. There are hints of that in the film but nothing like what plays out onstage. I saw it as a huge opportunity.”

Thanks in part to Cooper’s movie star cred, The Elephant Man was an insanely hot ticket at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, so a Broadway transfer seemed like a no-brainer, especially since the lead actors and director all wanted to do it. It was just a question of juggling everyone’s commitments, which wasn’t easy. As Nivola explains, “We were supposed to do it last fall so I had blocked out that time but when it fell through, that’s how I ended up doing The Winslow Boy,” which was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, where Ellis is associate artistic director (yup, him again).
[Read more →]

November 20, 2014   No Comments

His Rage Is My Rage Too

Gretchen Mol & Hari Dhillon

Gretchen Mol & Hari Dhillon

How Hari Dhillon channels the anger and revelations in Broadway’s Disgraced

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

It’s clearly been a very bad day. Amir (Hari Dhillon) doesn’t so much enter his dusk-lit apartment as storm it, quickly loosening his tight corporate-lawyer tie and pouring himself a stiff drink. His wife Emily (Gretchen Mol) isn’t home, and somehow, that only intensifies his anxious, angry pacing. He stomps out onto the terrace, sips his drink… then hurls his cocktail glass against the wall, shattering it to pieces. He comes back and pours himself another round.

Soon enough, Emily, a visual artist, arrives with some last-minute groceries, reminding Amir that a couple of friends are on their way over for a significant soiree. The guests are Amir’s co-workers and her curator husband, who may have big news about Emily’s inclusion in a new Whitney exhibit. And thus the table is set for a familiar theatrical battle scene: The Dinner Party From Hell. No more glasses will be smashed, but the lives of all the diners will be significantly dented.

Though all four share some blame for the collision, Amir’s rage is the engine that drives the long, volatile third scene of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, now at the Lyceum Theatre. So one obvious question for Dhillon would be: What does he do as an actor to psych himself up before coming onstage?

“The writing is so tight, there’s never a point where I have to stand off to the side and rev up my own personal motives,” says Dhillon, who, though American-born-and-raised, is better known in England as heartthrob doctor Michael Spence on the BBC series Holby City. “The train ride feels kind of inexorable. I never feel like, ‘On Line X, I have to do this.’ ”

In any case, much of the fuel for the evening’s conflict is buried, Dhillon explains. [Read more →]

October 21, 2014   No Comments

The Secret to Surviving a Terrible Family

Eric Lange in The Country House

Eric Lange in The Country House

Eric Lange adds texture to Broadway’s The Country House

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

The ghost of Konstantin, the tortured young playwright whose diva mother withholds her love in Chekhov’s The Seagull, seems to haunt Donald Margulies’ The Country House, now on Broadway from Manhattan Theatre Club.

In the new play, the broken artist shuffling through the living room is Elliot Cooper, a failed American actor-playwright whose unrealized career is partly due to the selfishness of his famous actress mother, Anna. There’s also a hint of the disappointed Uncle Vanya in Elliot, a depressed alcoholic who might’ve been something if only he’d been bolstered by his extended showbiz clan.

Given all this, you might assume rehearsals for The Country House were guided by lengthy discussions about Russians, but according to Eric Lange, who makes his Broadway debut as Elliot, there were none.

“It was mentioned early on, in our first meeting, that the play is inspired by characters in Chekhov and there are themes inherent throughout,” he says. “It was a jumping off point for Donald. [Director] Dan Sullivan said, ‘I want you to throw all that away. This is not a Chekhov play. Let’s just make this about a family.’ We never gave Chekhov any real attention.”

Lange—known for recurring roles on TV series like Lost, The Bridge, and Weeds—resisted the urge to re-read The Seagull or Uncle Vanya. He also sought to avoid “the trap of the role”—overplaying Elliot’s “pity-me” quality.

“Elliot is someone who is deeply wounded, from childhood on,” the actor says. “So to get through life, you adopt these shields, these protective devices. His mind, his sense of humor, his caustic wit.” [Read more →]

September 25, 2014   No Comments