HOUSTON -- From one type of demise to another. That's one way of describing veteran Broadway actor Jonathan Hadary's association with playwright Tony Kushner.
Hadary played Roy Cohn in the national tour of Kushner's Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America. As the AIDS-plagued scourge, Hadary earned Joseph Jefferson and Helen Hayes Awards. Now Hadary is finishing up the lead in Kushner's latest, Hydriotaphia, which is receiving its first major production at the Alley Theatre in Houston. The show concludes its run at the Tony Award-winning regional company April 25.
At a recent press conference with Hadary, Kushner and the play's director Michael Wilson, Hadary joked about how he seems to be "dying" on stage lately. Hadary also recently succumbed off-Broadway in Defying Gravity.
Defying Gravity was directed by Wilson, the newly appointed artistic director of the Hartford Stage in Connecticut, and Wilson is the director of Hydriotaphia. What's more, Wilson previously worked with Kushner a few years ago on the Alley's repertory production of Angels in America, which subsequently traveled to the Venice Biennale in 1995, and on the Alley's staging of SLAVS! the next season. Thus, a second joke at the press conference was indeed how incestuous the theater really is.
Hadary didn't mind that his character expires in Hydriotaphia. Far from it. With Kushner's interest in the metaphysical and his flair for theatricality, Hadary observed, "there's no reason to believe that my character won't die in the first scene and come back in the fifth." After all, Kushner straddled the here and the hereafter in Angels in America. Kushner is known as a furious rewriter and a fervent collaborator. Hadary liked this interactive approach. He thrillingly recounted a day of rehearsal: "Hot off the press, new copies of Act 5. There I was. I hadn't been in it before."
A sweeping intellectual comedy, Hydriotaphia chronicles the last hours in the life of Sir Thomas Browne (1605 - 1682), an English physician and writer known for the richness of his prose and his attempt to reconcile Christian values with scientific knowledge. As the great man (played by Hadary) wanes, he must deal with not just his wife and amanuensis, but also his Soul and Death, not to mention a love-struck gravedigger, a stuttering preacher, and a trio ranters, among the cast of 15. Each character has an all-important agenda and is single-minded in the pursuit of it in a "fabulous" world that spans heaven and earth, the metaphysical and the mundane, the bawdy and the beatific.
Set against the Restoration, Hydriotaphia continues Kushner's interest in periods of transitions, times when the status quo is changing. Like Angels in America and SLAVS!, both of which used instability as modus operandi, Hydriotaphia has as its backdrop societal disappointment, and upheaval.
Said another way, it's a semi-historical and semi-biographical musing on immortality and death in a threatened era. It invites the notion that there is, as Browne wrote, "something very vital and electric about morbidity."
Kushner first wrote Hydriotaphia in three weeks a decade ago. Under Wilson's direction, this early version was workshopped then at New York University, but for a number of reasons it didn't go as well as planned. It has been drastically revisioned for the Alley mounting. It will continue to be examined during a subsequent presentation in the fall at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Alley's co-producer.
Hydriotaphia, a collaboration with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, concludes at the Alley Theatre April 25. For tickets, $31 - $46, call (713) 228-9341
-- By Peter Szatmary