Actors and Critics : Perfect Together

Despite severe weather conditions, about 100 members of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) from around the country assembled in NYC for a weekend in February, highlighted by the annual “Luncheon with the Stars” at Sardi’s.

Nine actors from six shows each addressed a question posed by one of the host critics. Their comments included career insights, comments on their craft, and more than a dash of humor.

Andre De Shields (The Witch of Edmonton) began by expressing pride in his volunteer work on behalf of “my union,” AEA, and its 48,000 members. (He’s a former long-term Council member.) Asked about his own career, he told how playing Willy Loman in Buffalo had expanded his song-and-dance man image. “Shed your skin as often as you can,” he said. “Re-invent yourself.”

Paxton Whitehead (The Importance of Being Earnest) told the group that he always reads reviews, a habit he formed while Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival in Ontario. “Anyone’s opinion could be valuable” drew laughter, as did his self-deprecating suggestion that he gives “exactly the same performance in different roles.”

Stacy Keach (Other Desert Cities) also reads reviews, especially from the Regionals. “Those critics best reflect their area’s particular sensibilities,” he said.

Linda Lavin’s Other Desert Cities character sleeps on stage for ten minutes. Besides fighting really falling asleep (“I’d be sooo embarrassed”), she said she learned how to pretend-sleep in third grade when the nuns enforced a nap in exchange for extra play time. (One never knows what one might use, do one?)

Lily Rabe (The Merchant of Venice) always dreamed of playing Portia. She said she sees the character and Shylock as equal intellects, with Shylock brought down by the nature of the times. She also noted that the production’s month-long layoff and re-opening allowed for refreshed rehearsals, a “real luxury.”

Dan Lauria (Lombardi) is a champion of new playwrights. “I only do new plays,” he said. Asked about the difference between playing fictional and real-life characters, he said the real isn’t more difficult, but it’s a different discipline. When tempted to change a particular reaction in his play, for example, he realized he couldn’t. “That’s how Coach Lombardi did it.” (It was the day before the Super Bowl. “Coach will be looking down on a Packers win,” Lauria assured us. Righto.)

Lauria’s co-star Judith Light, featured elsewhere in these pages, also attended. As Marie Lombardi, she’s a perfect complement to Lauria’s gruff coach.

Dana Ivey (Earnest) was asked what brought her into Theatre as a vocation. “The language,” she said, “and tiaras.” The former passion she said she inherited from her speech-pathologist mother. (As for the tiaras: just consider how regal she looks wearing one.)

Jeffrey Wright was asked if there was a common thread that attracted him to a play. “The roles all tell something about me,” he said, noting the significance of his recent A Free Man of Color. He shared some key advice from George C. Wolfe, who directed him as the gay nurse who’s forced to care for the homophobic Roy Cohn in the original Angels in America (Wright’s – and Wolfe’s – Tony Awards). “We don’t want to watch and think ‘what a great actor he is,’” Wolfe told him, “but what a bastard Roy Cohn was.”

If this critic were to generalize about our ATCA guests, it would not be to state the obvious, what great actors they are; but instead, what terrific luncheon guests they were. Thank you to them all.