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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

Once, Twice, Three Times Your Savior

Arthur Aulisi, Daryl Lathon, & Donald Warfield

Arthur Aulisi, Daryl Lathon, & Donald Warfield

The actors in 3 Christs find truth in insanity

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

It’s not every day you sit down with three Jesus Christs. Wait, what’s the plural form of Jesus? Jesi? Jesuses?

“Jesees!” says Donald Warfield, one of three actors playing the son of God in 3 Christs, now at Judson Memorial Church in a production from Peculiar Works Project.

When the audience enters Judson’s grand church hall, they see three men onstage, sitting with their backs to each other in a triangular formation—a trinity. In the background, above the set, stained glass windows of Peter, Paul, and John gaze upon them. It’s a striking tableau about an unsettling subject.

3 Christs, adapted S.M. Dale and Barry Rowell from a real-life medical study, follows the two-year experiment of Dr. Milton Rokeach, who in 1959 brought together three schizophrenics (Leon Gabor, Joseph Cassel, and Clyde Benson). All three believed they were Jesus Christ, and Dr. Rokeach hoped that by encountering each other, they would be shaken of their delusions.

This scenario creates a fascinating acting exercise for the actors playing the Christs (as they’re called by the crew). How do you make sense of insanity? [Read more →]

September 16, 2014   No Comments

How Do You Perform a Stephen Adly Guirgis Play?

Stephen McKinley Henderson & Ray Anthony Thomas

Stephen McKinley Henderson & Ray Anthony Thomas

Ray Anthony Thomas tackles the gruff poetry of Between Riverside and Crazy

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

There are so many pronouncements and jokes and wild, thundering feelings in Between Riverside and Crazy that you may not think about the poetry until you leave the theatre and catch your breath.

The latest from Stephen Adly Guirgis, now in its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company, the play follows Pops (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a recently widowed police officer who’s suing the department, trying to motivate his ex-convict son, and nursing a drink any chance he can get. Life hasn’t licked him, though, and eventually, he starts shedding the memories, the people, and the dark private thoughts that have pinned him down.

We especially feel his fire when he speaks. Whether he’s scolding his son Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), telling cop stories, or just making a salty observation about church ladies who eat too much, he delivers beautifully sculpted speeches. Yes, they’re peppered with curse words and slang, but their artistry is easy to hear.

It’s like that with all the characters. Guirgis, whose earlier plays include The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and The Motherf—er With the Hat, is well known for giving powerful voices to even the most disenfranchised people.

“The characters live in a poetic place, even though they’re not poets,” says Thomas. “The way they express their lives is almost musical, and when we were in rehearsal, all of us were just trying to find that common musical language.” [Read more →]

July 21, 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

How Do Dancers Recreate the Cotton Club?

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (center) and co-stars

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and co-stars

Inside the lives of two After Midnight stars

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

Since previews began last October, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards has danced and sung her way through almost 250 performances of After Midnight, the Jazz Age revue at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre that celebrates the legendary Cotton Club. Whether she’s tap dancing on a set of rotating stairs or belting the apartment-life blues in “Raisin’ the Rent,” she’s channeling the essence of the iconic Harlem nightspot.

But it takes serious work to conjure that spirit. For one thing, Sumbry-Edwards isn’t often asked to deliver the same show eight times a week. “In my line of work, a lot is improvised,” she says. “When I go tap dance [at] places, I very rarely have a set routine. I sometimes don’t even go in for a sound check. ‘I don’t want to see the band. I don’t even want to know what kind of band it is. Let me just go and feel it out.’ But this is not that kind of party.”

Instead, After Midnight, whose seven Tony nominations include a nod for Best Musical, is a consciously sculpted tribute. The setlist zips from classic songs (“Stormy Weather,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) to splashy dance numbers to spoken excerpts of Langston Hughes poems, and the onstage band (better known as the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars) serves every riff like polished pros.

That’s not to say the show feels stodgy—quite the opposite, in fact—but it does feel precise. It’s clear we’re watching a crafted event, not a free-form improvisation.

“But it’s wonderful to be able to work this way, too,” Sumbry-Edwards says. “We’ve settled into the characters and the storytelling, and of course the camaraderie that we have with each other is growing.”

Desmond Richardson echoes that idea. Another of the show’s featured dancers, he solos during a seductive ballet set to Duke Ellingston’s “The Mooche,” and when the band performs a ditty called “Peckin’,” he’s part of a fully synchronized quintet. It’s hypnotic to watch the five men move in unison with each other and also in time with the music, and it’s no wonder Richardson’s connection with his fellow performers has grown so intense. “It’s so spontaneous and so real,” he says. “We tend to listen to the band, and they listen to us. It doesn’t matter how tired you are. When they’re up there with you, you can find the energy you need.” [Read more →]

May 29, 2014   1 Comment