Though the two spend less than 25 minutes on stage in their respective shows, they wring every drop of humor from their time in the spotlight and still manage to garner exit applause on the way out. Finneran took home the Tony Award this year for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical (she won her first Tony for her work in the 2002 revival of Noises Off), and de Jesús scooped up his second nomination in the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical category.
De Jesús reinvented the role of the endearingly inept butler Jacob in La Cage as a juicy urban firecracker with a walk set to a salsa beat. Finneran, whose Marge MacDougall has a laugh like a shot of whiskey, gives her Promises, Promises co-star Sean Hayes (playing Chuck Baxter) a run for his money in a barroom scene part Wild West rodeo, part chess match of comedic wits.
"I think it's tricky to come into a show after it's already started [and] ask the audience to accept a character," says Finneran, who doesn't make her first entrance until the second act. "Sean's been out there with the audience for an hour and a half. I just have to relax and come in and do it." Finneran also coyly reveals that she's able to gauge the audience's energy thanks to a trap door that opens from her dressing room bathroom directly into one of the boxes in the Broadway Theatre. Sharing the stage with Hayes, who established his own comic prowess on the TV show "Will & Grace," is not hard, says Finneran.
"The chemistry was immediate. We have free room for comedic failure. One's not funny without the other. It's a real math problem. You either get the right numbers and get a huge laugh, or you don't."
To define her role, Finneran was determined to be the opposite of Fran, the heartsick secretary played by Kristin Chenoweth. "I wanted to have the really low voice, very dark hair, dark clothing and high heels. Classy, but trampy, and try to be the opposite of that thing Chuck is in love with."
Decked out in a wrap made of owl feathers, Marge employs an owl "hoo" as an inebriated mating call. Finneran kept busy during rehearsals by researching. "They actually have crazy owl fan websites with hundreds of samples of real owl sounds," she says. "I went through all of them and found the one that I liked the best: the Western Screech Owl. I seriously did it as a joke in rehearsal."
The Tony Award–winning "hoo" was kept, and the rest is history.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
For de Jesús, who had just come off a Tony-nominated turn playing Sonny in In the Heights, La Cage wasn't the follow-up project he had in mind. However, director Terry Johnson's vision for La Cage gave him room for "a completely fresh take. That's when my ears perked up," de Jesús says. But a blank slate can be intimidating. "I was lost. I thought, 'I can't believe this person came from France.' The lines come across to me as someone who's very urban, someone who grew up in the 'hood." Calling on a voice he'd heard backstage at In the Heights, de Jesús conceived of Jacob as a Bronx-born NuYorican (a blend of New York and Puerto Rican) who, seeking the glamour of the 1950s film divas, packed up and moved to France. "That's where all the divas went when they were outcast from America. Of course, he picked Saint Tropez because it was the closest thing to Puerto Rico with the tropical climate."
Still, de Jesús barely has to open his mouth to get a laugh, thanks to a series of looks created by costume designer Matthew Wright. De Jesús also uses Tony-winning co-star Douglas Hodge, who portrays the dazzling if fading nightlife entertainer Zaza, as an anchor. "Jacob thinks of himself as Zaza's intern. He would love to do what she does and just wants to be her. Which, to me, is all the more tragic."
For both actors, comedy in front of a live audience can be like a runaway train. "It's a great barometer, but once you get carried away it's more for you than it is for the audience. An audience can tell when the actors are having more fun than they are," Finneran says.
De Jesús adds, "It's so ego-based in so many ways. It becomes about you getting the reaction, as opposed to you giving a performance and being honest."
De Jesús and Finneran share the dictum that there is ultimately truth in great comedy. Says de Jesús, "The fact is, there's room there to explore. There's different ways to be truthful and some are funnier than others." A fact can be a beautiful and very funny thing.
Katie Finneran talks about her owl impression:
(Adam Hetrick is staff writer for Playbill.com.)