Stolen Moments

TimeOFF’s theater critic finds that opening nights can reveal more than just wine and cheese.

By: Stuart Duncan
Last of the Boys at McCarter Theatre.>
   Thornton Wilder once wrote: "I regard the theater as the greatest of art forms, the most important way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being."
   One of the most rewarding experiences for a theater critic comes at those "opening-night receptions." These affairs feature everything from coke and cookies to wine and cheese, and, at some of the major companies, an amazing array of food and beverages.
   But more importantly they offer the opportunity to meet and chat with the performers. It is a rare time, when actors are at their most exuberant and yet, most vulnerable. They have accomplished much, but don’t know yet whether or not it really worked as hoped. It is a time when something more than the perfunctory "thanks — loved your performance" can bring great dividends.
   One of the most revealing meetings came after Macbeth at The Shakespeare Theatre in Madison. Four years ago, when Robert Cuccioli had played Marc Anthony in Anthony and Cleopatra, I had dared to ask him why he had risked so much to do a Shakespeare role. After all, with his voice and history on the musical stage (many leading roles at Paper Mill and the starring role in Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway) he could have made a substantial career doing John Raitt’s parts, or those of Alfred Drake, across the country.
   His answer was very succinct: "I want to learn my craft." After Macbeth, I, for one, believe he has learned it well.
   On another opening night, this one at McCarter, I talked to Joseph Siravo, who was both exhausted and very excited. He and Tom Wopat had just stunned the audience with Last of the Boys, moving many of us to tears. As actor Siravo finished the evening, ironing an American flag on a rickety ironing board, in a debris-filled, almost-abandoned trailer park in California, sobs could be heard throughout the intimate Berlind Theatre. But Siravo wanted to talk about something else: "I’m worried," he said, "that the youngsters aren’t going to get it. What do they know about the Vietnam War; it was so long ago."
   Apparently the youngsters "got it." Perhaps when it comes to human values, age isn’t that important.
   On another opening night — this time Sweet Charity at Bucks County Playhouse, I talked with long-time friend Jim Lynch. For a start, this troupe is unusual. Some spend as much as 39 weeks straight rehearsing one show, playing in another, and travelling between three theaters, Bucks, one in the Poconos and a third in western Pennsylvania. It’s a brutal schedule. You can learn a lot, of course, and get tired, as well.
   Lynch was playing only part of the season. He was also on a national tour, mostly in Ohio. National tours are what many of the young talent at Bucks is yearning for — a chance to make good money and possibly attract the attention of Broadway producers. It has been happening a lot recently at Bucks, but in between tours, many return for a show or two in New Hope, Pa.
   This particular evening, Lynch had been playing all three male lovers in Charity. It had never been done before (the roles are very different, usually performed by three rather different actors) and I wanted to know how it had been set up. Well, the answer wasn’t complicated: the director, Michael Licata, had understudied all three male roles on Broadway in 1986. He knew that the three never appeared on stage at the same time. Obviously he had filed away that tiny piece of knowledge until he found an actor as versatile as Lynch.
   And so, over "wine and cheese" in the lobby, history was explained. Of course, Jim Lynch had his own take on it: "I don’t think they pay me three times," he mused.