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by Michael Portantiere

That's Acting!

  • Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz in FIFTY WORDS; photo by Joan Marcus

    That's Acting!

    I think it's fair to say that the general level of theatrical talent is significantly higher in the arena of acting than in such other disciplines as directing and playwriting. This is only natural: Over and above whatever formal training one receives, any human who's part of society can be said to "study acting" by observing the facial expressions, speech, and body language of others on a daily basis, whereas few of us are regularly required to pen our own dramatic scenarios and/or instruct people on how to perform them.

    Still, having attended professional theater performances for more than 35 years, I remain awed by the terrific acting I enjoy almost every time I see a show. The reason I was prompted to write an article in praise of New York theater actors at this particular juncture is that the overall quality of work being done on our stages right now seems even more impressive than usual.

    Let's start with MCC Theater's Fifty Words, at the Lucille Lortel. Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz are brilliant in Michael Weller's unnerving play about a man and wife who have an epic, potentially marriage-ending fight during a night spent alone together while their young son is away on a sleepover. These two performances are so finely observed in every detail, and the characters' constantly shifting emotions are so affectingly communicated, that the line between art and reality blurs to the point of disappearance.

    Elsewhere Off-Broadway: Clifton Oliver, Nathan Lee Graham, Andre Holland, and Erik King shine in the ensemble cast of the Vineyard's Wig Out! Angela Christian, best known as the sweet ingénue Miss Dorothy in Broadway's Thoroughly Modern Millie, gives an unsparing performance as the distraught wife of a prisoner of war in the Platform Theatre Group production of Lee Blessing's Two Rooms at the Lion Theatre. And Logan Marshall-Green and Corey Stoll were frightfully good as two grievously injured Iraq war veterans in the New York Theatre Workshop production of Beast, another play by Michael Weller, which closed on October 12.

    There was a time when British actors were generally considered to be better at their craft than Yanks, but three current Broadway revivals remind us that there's excellence on both sides of the pond. Kristin Scott Thomas and Mackenzie Crook of the U.K. are wonderful as Arkadina and Konstantin in the London import production of The Seagull, and so are Americans Peter Sarsgaard as Trigorin and Zoe Kazan as Masha. Daniel Radcliffe is very good in Equus, as are Anna Camp and Lorenzo Pisoni -- this despite a poor effort on the part of director Thea Sharrock, whose lack of guidance must be at least partly responsible for the unsatisfactory performances of the normally excellent Richard Griffiths and Kate Mulgrew. In the Roundabout revival of A Man for All Seasons, New Jersey native Frank Langella comes through with yet another of his magnificent, classical-theater-style portrayals, having recently demonstrated in Frost/Nixon that he can be great in just about any type of role.

    When it comes to musical theater, the performing talent pool in this city is so deep that even some of the worst shows have had great people in their casts. Looking back over the past few seasons, we note that the disastrous Lennon featured such top-drawer singing actors as Will Chase, Julia Murney, Chuck Cooper, and Terrence Mann, while the awful Dracula had the wonderful Tom Hewitt, Melissa Errico, and Kelli O'Hara in the leads. Currently, James Barbour is so powerful in A Tale of Two Cities that he practically carries this disappointing musical on his shoulders.

    The recently concluded New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) provided ample opportunity to savor the talents of triple-threat performers, even when their vehicles weren't up to snuff. The quality of writing in the shows I caught ranged from excellent (Bonnie & Clyde) to abysmal (a production in the developmental series that will remain nameless), but the average level of performance was very high. Among the best of the best: Elena Shaddow as neo-ingenue Cassie Purdy, Beth Curry as the fabulously slutty Ida Dunham, and Jennifer Perry as earthy Aunt Pearlie in Idaho!; Kevin Carolan, whose turn as a cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover in Bonnie & Clyde was the stuff of comic genius; and Jim J. Bullock, hysterically funny in The Fancy Boys Follies.

    Those with an eye towards the future can only be heartened by the accomplished-beyond-their-years performances of the all-teenage cast of 13, whatever the long-run prospects of this funny and touching new musical. I haven't yet seen Billy Elliot on Broadway, but it's a safe bet that there are a several very talented young performers in that show, too. And don't forget the little girls in Gypsy!

    In sum, I've been generally thrilled by the stage acting I've experienced over the past several weeks -- and I can say that without having yet seen All My Sons, Speed-The-Plow, or any number of other shows that promise great things from such worthies as Dianne Wiest, John Lithgow, Raúl Esparza, and Jeremy Piven. It would be very wrong of us to take the extraordinary abilities of these thesps for granted. So, here's to the people who act. Aren't they the best?

    Published on Monday, October 13, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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