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An Actor Channels His Inner Journalist to Play a Marine

Jonny Orsini in Almost Home

Jonny Orsini in Almost Home

Jonny Orsini’s passionate preparation for his latest role


“I wanted to become a journalist before I became an actor,” says Jonny Orsini. “I think I approach roles the way a journalist approaches stories.”

That means he does a serious amount of research for every part he plays. Take his work in Almost Home, a new drama by Walter Anderson that’s now at Theatre Row in a production from The Directors Company. Orsini plays Johnny Barnett, a Marine going back to the Bronx after serving in Vietnam. The character not only confronts his own guilt at being called a hero, but also grapples with the expectations of his family and mentors, some of whom have shady ulterior motives.

For Orsini, who’s too young to remember what Vietnam veterans faced when they came back to America, books and films have been essential to his preparation. Even more importantly, he’s had long conversations with Anderson, who fought in Vietnam himself. “Walter didn’t necessarily experience everything in the play, but a lot of it draws from his life,” the actor says. “So to have him in the room was incredible. And he had the best suggestions about what to read and what to watch.”

The research, though, is only part of Orsini’s journalistic impulse. “I was always interested in learning about people and things that weren’t necessarily widely known and then bringing the story to light,” he says. “If you’ve gone through something and you feel alone, then seeing it in a respectfully told story can make you feel less isolated. Anything I can do to make people feel less alone is very much what I want to do with my life.” [Read more →]

September 26, 2014   No Comments

This Audience Laughs at the Strangest Things

Julia Stiles & James Wirt

Julia Stiles & James Wirt

James Wirt on the unexpected humor in the play Phoenix

Phoenix doesn’t sound like the funniest play. The show, which is now at Cherry Lane Theatre, opens with a nurse named Sue (Julia Stiles) confronting a laid-back dude named James (James Wirt) just a few weeks after their one-night stand. Turns out she’s pregnant—whoops—and she’s not planning to keep the baby. And oh yeah, after this, she and James are never going to see each other again.

To repeat: Not an obvious laugh riot. But playwright Scott Organ injects his script with so many startling turns—and gives both characters such vivid personalities—that their odd relationship is as charming and amusing as it is bittersweet and sincere.

It’s a very particular play, for instance, that can deliver both tense uncertainty and awkward comedy while two almost-strangers sit in the lobby of an abortion clinic, discussing the fate of their unborn child.

The audience response to these moments has certainly surprised Wirt. “There are so many laughs in so many random places, especially in the abortion clinic [scene],” he says. “I’m trying to get the scene driving, and then we hold for a laugh at Julia saying something. We never knew that line was funny, and now we can incorporate that.” [Read more →]

August 4, 2014   No Comments

Return of the Gargoyle Woman

Everett Quinton & Jason Cruz

Everett Quinton & Jason Cruz

Everett Quinton finally plays another shady lady

Although the Peccadillo Theater Company’s new comedy Drop Dead Perfect sends up a wide range of American cultural touchstones—from The Glass Menagerie to I Love Lucy to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?—its greatest inspiration is arguably the high-camp, cross-dressing work of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. As with Ludlam classics like The Mystery of Irma Vep, Drop Dead Perfect is a smorgasbord of high- and lowbrow references, and it stars a leading man decked out in glorious drag.

In this case, the gender-bending star is Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s longtime artistic and romantic partner and a Ridiculous fixture during the company’s heyday in the 70s and 80s. When Quinton enters in a fitted 50s gown, meticulously coiffed auburn wig, and jungle red nails, he seems absolutely in his element. It’s as though the part of Idris Seabright—an overbearing matriarch who’s keeping a major secret from her beautiful ward, her long-lost Latin nephew, and her pill-pushing lawyer—has been written just for him.

And perhaps it has been, though the credited playwright, Erasmus Fenn, isn’t saying. That’s mostly because he doesn’t exist. “If I may be slightly coy about it, I’ll say he speaks only to me,” says director Joe Brancato, the founder and artistic director of upstate New York’s Penguin Rep, where Drop Dead Perfect had its world premiere last summer. (It’s currently playing at the Theatre at St. Clements.) “He was born and raised in the Bronx, just as I was, but he’s agoraphobic. He doesn’t want to besmirch his life with the business of the theatre like doing press; he’s a child at heart.”

Brancato, however, gleefully reminisces about going to see Ridiculous shows. “The abandon was amazing,” he says. “They were just breaking all rules and at the same time saluting everything that was great on film and on stage, and that always stayed with me. I remember Everett so clearly, which is why I asked him to do this play.”

Though Quinton forged his career playing what Brancato calls “gargoyle women,” he hasn’t trod the boards as a broad since 2010′s Devil Boys From Beyond. “I had been praying for a role that was as meaty as things I had done in the past,” Quinton says. “I cut my teeth on big juicy parts like Idris, and I wonder if that gets in my way at auditions. The whole ‘tone it down’ thing is my dilemma. I object to terms like ‘over-the-top.’ To me it’s just high comedy. It’s like the Restoration comedy of our time, all these fabulous extreme characters.” [Read more →]

July 22, 2014   No Comments

The Sweetest Crazy Clown

Jessica Frey

Jessica Frey

The woman behind Clown Bar‘s twisted ingenue

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

Considering all the gunfights and sex and dirty jokes in their show, you wouldn’t think anyone in Clown Bar would base their performance on It’s a Wonderful Life. But that’s one reason this raucous play has become such a downtown hit. It never met a vintage reference it couldn’t use.

Written by Adam Szymkowicz and presented by Pipeline Theatre Company, the show is a noir parody about the gangster underworld of professional clowns. Dressed in full makeup, the hardboiled characters gather at their seedy local watering hole, pausing between songs and jokes to make threats, run rackets, and occasionally kill each other. Even Happy, the local cop who’s trying to clean up the scene, is a former gangster clown, and there’s no guarantee that the life, the power, and the dangerous dames won’t pull him back in.

But like any good noir, Clown Bar has an angel among the devils. Or at least, she’s about as angelic as it gets with this twisted show, which plays on Saturday nights at The Box. Her name is Petunia, and even though she’s a prostitute with a foul mouth, she’s still a swell dame.

That’s why actress Jessica Frey’s performance is inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life—specifically Gloria Grahame’s turn as flirty bombshell Violet Bick. “I was trying to use the style of that era as a baseline, and then pump it up,” she says, adding that even though Petunia is a hooker, she’s not a hopeless case. “She’s so sweet, and she’s just trying to do her best by everybody. I think that makes her very endearing. It potentially makes her the audience’s ally in the show.”

Frey adds, “In her mind, this clown bar is nothing seedy. It’s nothing disgusting. She’s trying to spin horrible things that have happened to her into positive things. She makes light of her STDs. She makes light of being a prostitute. She has to remain positive, or the audience won’t root for her as much.”

Not that Frey has always been the good clown. Last year, when the play had its first successful run, she was cast as Popo, a sociopathic enforcer. But when Kelley Rae O’Donnell, the original Petunia, couldn’t return to the role, Frey changed characters. “I have such respect for Kelley, and her performance was intimidating from the beginning,” she says. “I couldn’t get it out of my head, and during the first couple of weeks of rehearsal, I was thinking to myself, ‘I’ve made a horrible mistake!’ [Read more →]

July 8, 2014   No Comments

The Life and Times of Matilda’s Second Dad

Matt Harrington as Mr. Wormwood

Matt Harrington

How Matt Harrington assumed a major Broadway role

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

Every night before Matt Harrington goes on stage for his first scene as Mr. Wormwood in Matilda, he does a little dance in the wings.

Matilda’s television-loving, car salesman father makes his first appearance in “Miracle,” the opening number, and shortly after his wife gives birth, he bounds in wearing a checkered green suit. “Wormwood’s got to come in at an 11,” Harrington says. “So I’ll start bouncing around and getting into the rhythm of the song.”

Based on the beloved children’s novel by Roald Dahl, Matilda follows the title heroine as she grows up among adults who don’t understand her intelligence, her sensitivity, and eventually, her telekinesis. Worst of all are The Trunchbull (her school’s headmistress) and her parents, who are alternately furious and disappointed that she’s not, well, stupider.

Harrington has been playing Mr. Wormwood since March, when he replaced Gabriel Ebert, who won a Tony for the role. He didn’t want to mimic his predecessor’s performance, however, so he refrained from seeing the show until he was far along in his own rehearsal process.

Director Matthew Warchus and assistant director Thomas Caruso gave Harrington permission to make the role his own, which helped take the pressure off. “If I went in there and tried to watch Gabe and do his bits, it would get in the way of me finding my own organic actions to play and finding my relationship with Matilda and with my family,” he says.

The rehearsal process for a replacement presents the challenge of not being able to work with the company, who are in performances. Instead, Harrington rehearsed with Caruso in a studio far away from the Shubert Theatre. There were no sets and no tech elements, and stage managers played Matilda and the other characters.

He did have a few opportunities to work with Lesli Margherita, who plays his wife, and Taylor Trensch, who plays his son, but other than that, the only time Harrington rehearsed with the full cast was during his put-in, which is a replacement’s one shot to perform the entire show in costume with full tech elements. “I had weeks to prepare little bits, but once it comes time to jump in, it becomes a very fast process and you really are learning on your feet,” he says. [Read more →]

May 13, 2014   No Comments