Mark Rylance is, famously, a tough act to follow. On April 21 he got an inkling of how tough when he followed himself into the Music Box Theatre in Jerusalem, having already just spent 101 performances there (Oct. 13, 2010-Jan. 5, 2011) in La Bête.
It's a calculated one-two punch, lightning striking twice at the same place in the same season, Rylance jangling madly both theatrical masques — the comic vulgarian who fancies himself a wit and belabors the point in an epic, 600-line monologue that runs uninterrupted (though people will try) for 35 minutes (in La Bête), and now the brutally dramatic Johnny "Rooster" Byron, who has little to crow about but throws his chest out defiantly at the world, anyway, like a rooster in full strut.
A glittery disco ball hangs symbolically and incongruously from a tree branch over his ragtag mobile home in the English woods in this Jez Butterworth play that gets no closer to Jerusalem than the William Blake poem about an idyllic England that has lost its soul to industrialism. Amen to that, seconds Rooster, who is being threatened with eviction from an encroaching real-estate development.
Speeding that plow is the raucous revelry going on at his campsite by local teens, abused or abandoned, who are fueled with his drugs and booze. "It was a gathering," Rooster offers for an explanation as the smoke clears from one low-life orgy. A professional daredevil who took one too many dares, he hobbles around his front yard with a horrible limp, dispensing over-the-top yarns and ruling his unruly roost. It's a gigantic performance, so much so that when one encounters Rylance later at the opening-night party at Brasserie 8½, he seems implausibly life-size and accessible.
One ring adorns his finger — a simple little band of gold — whereas Rooster had every finger accessorized. "That's the Egyptian thing about wearing your weight," he explained. "I always like to find ways to decorate and amplify the characters I play."
Not unexpectedly, he declined to name his favorite Broadway child of the season — La Bête's Valere or Jerusalem's Rooster. That's something for the Tony nominators to wrestle with and weigh. "I'm not in this for the awards," he said. "That's not the way I look at it. I just try to do the best I can with what I've got."
Not that he would pooh-pooh the Tony. He gladly accepted the one he got for his other previous Broadway outing, Boeing-Boeing. The three faces he has presented to New York audiences — a gamut from boob to rube to roughneck — would hardly lead you to suspect there's an intellectual life lurking there, that he has a legendary rep with the classics, but he does, and he will be showing it soon. "In the 2012 season, I'm planning to bring over a revival of Twelfth Night," he said.
Butterworth spent his big night wearing a big smile and what could be called "the Bobby Cannavale hat." Cannavale is Rylance's rival drug-dealer across the street at the Schoenfeld in The Motherf**ker With the Hat. (Such a pity that High is coming down so fast at the Booth; its young druggie would be in constant Nirvana, having two suppliers in the same half-block. What a commute!)
"I bumped into Bobby on the street the other day, and he might have called me that," cracked Butterworth, carefully skipping the asterisks altogether. "Actually, I found this hat in a shop here. I figured, 'It's my Broadway debut. I can wear a hat.'"
Being "a Broadway playwright" from here on out is not something he takes lightly. "There's nothing to compare it to. We've done West End, and we've done openings at the Royal Court, but this is a terrific experience, and you just feel like, 'These are the games you want to play. You want to be coming here and doing this.'"
Is a puzzlement, how he actually got to Broadway. "I didn't set out to write 'a Broadway play' because I really, to be completely frank with you, don't know what Broadway is. I know that we're in a beautiful theatre — probably, the nicest one we've actually played — and the size of the house itself is quite impressive."
As is the size of his cast — 16 in all. "We came over with at least three-quarters of the original cast, and these are people that have been involved in the creation of the show as well, so we're a real tight band," said a man happy to share the wealth.
"I don't know why you write things," he replied when asked what motivated this particular work. "When you know that you have to, I think you end up revealing something in the heart of a play. I don't write plays from any sense of ambition to want to write plays — those plays don't get written. The ones that boil up in you — you feel you need to say something, reveal something — those are one that I write.
"Only at this distance can I stand back and look at it and say that it's a play about time. The first word in the play, funnily enough, is time. This was never really conscious, but look — I was 40 when I wrote this play, and it's about someone who's having to move from one state to another, so I think on some level it's a play about a man who has to go and wants to stay — and aren't we all in that position?"
And speaking of time, the play's set in 2011 on St. George's Day, April 23. How will he mark it? "I dunno. I'll be here on Saturday…it'll be a big celebration."
Director Ian Rickson was aware of the holiday and was planning for it accordingly: "I'm going to think about the best things in Englishness, and I'm going to think about St. George and dragons, and I'm going to salute my actors."
So how does one direct a force of nature like Rylance? "It's a workout," he sighed, more happily than heavily. "I'm getting stronger and stronger. It's like playing tennis with Agassi or Federer. You have to really meet them, and you can work at a level that's deep and satisfying and fulfilling for everybody."
And by "everybody," Rickson specifically includes the people on the other side of the footlights. "I want audiences to be affected in a very visceral way. I want them to think about the play's questions in terms of what's at stake in the culture today."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Mackenzie Crook, whom Rickson imported three years ago to make his Broadway debut as Kristin Scott Thomas' terminally troubled son in The Seagull, is the redhead among Rylance's seedy camp-followers. He's called Ginger or, derisively, Maureen (after Maureen O'Hara), and his chief function is to challenge and puncture Rylance's tall tales. "First of all, babies have no teeth," he responds when Rylance says he was born with a bullet between his teeth.
"It's a great character to play, and it's great to work so closely with Mark," Crook said. "He's an incredible actor. I've never seen him give the same performance twice. He's constantly inventing, constantly exploring, trying to find new dimensions."
Geraldine Hughes, a local hire (from Northern Ireland and Belfast Blues), values her stage time with Rylance, playing the closest thing he has to a love interest. "You get better yourself just acting with him," she said. "I know that sounds ridiculous, but I believe it's true. Working with Mark is truly extraordinary."
Another local hire, Tony winner (for Spring Awakening) John Gallagher Jr., joined the Rylance chorus without coaxing. "Part of the gift is just to be able to watch him on stage," he admitted. "He keeps all of us on our toes night after night."
Gallagher rates points for melding into English trailer-trash, accent and all. "I got to go to London to rehearse — and to Wiltshire where the play is set. I got to spend two days in the town of Pewsey, meet a lot of locals, hang out at the pubs there. I talked to everyone. A bartender took me under his wing and gave me lessons. The accent is getting better. If you talk to my dialogue coach, she'll tell you all the reports of how much I've improved from the beginning. In the beginning, I was miiiiiiiles away."
Alan David, who stands out as the elderly, effete member of the rabble, came aboard in an odd way. "When I was sent the play, my character was not in the play," he recalled. "The director said, 'Would you read the play? If you would like to do it, we'll write you in. I was very doubtful about it all at first, but, literally in two days, they sent me the opening scene, and I said, 'I'll do it if I can have more to do.' And in about a week or two weeks, I had the whole character. I had no idea what my character would be, but I could see that it was getting somewhere, so I said yes."
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Sitting beside Butterworth four rows from the stage on the night of his Broadway debut was, rather fittingly, the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, who introduced the playwright to New York audiences in 1996 with Mojo and followed that with two more (The Night Heron in 2003 and Parlour Song in 2008). He's not averse to presenting the fourth of his five plays (The Winterling), either. "Jez's working on some new ones, too," Pepe said. "We're doing a one-act festival at the Atlantic called 10 X 25, and he's writing a new one for that, just probably a 15-minute play or something."
The three-act, three-hour Jerusalem is right where it belongs, Pepe believed — on Broadway. "I think it's probably the most ambitious play that Jez has ever done," he contended. "I feel like he's getting into so many different things, not only in terms of who this character is but also the theatricality of it, what it means to be English, the whole idea of St. George, all of these various themes which he has touched on in other work, but I feel it's everything that's great about Jez's work."
Rylance's Le Bête co-star (when he could get a word in edgewise), David Hyde Pierce, waited around graciously until the actor had finished all of his post-show press duties before corralling him and extending his congratulations.
"I thought it was absolutely stunning," Hyde Pierce earlier relayed to any who asked. "I had seen Jerusalem about two years ago in London, and Mark's performance is one of the reasons I did La Bête. We had met back then to read through our play, and I saw him in this, and I just thought I couldn't miss an opportunity to work with him. And I just had all of that confirmed to me tonight. I love the play. It's such a beautiful play, and his performance is incredible. There are no words."
Then, when you factor in Boeing-Boeing, alongside La Bête and Jerusalem, he said, "you think, 'It's amazing that it's the same human being.'" A baseball-capped James Bond (Daniel Craig) and his Oscar-winning seat partner (Rachel Weisz) played an aggressive game of hide-and-seek with the press all evening. When the lights went up at the intervals, they had disappeared, but they returned to their seats just before the curtain went up again — and both of them stayed to participate in the boisterous standing ovation at evening's end.
Director-choreographers Kathleen Marshall and Jerry Mitchell were inexplicably in attendance, as was Laura Benanti, Zero Hour's Jim Brochu, Disney Theatrical Group's Thomas Schumacher, a couple of Zoe Caldwell sons (Sam and Charlie Whitehead), That Championship Season director Gregory Mosher ("It gets better every week, and the guys are working so hard"), and playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, coming down from the high of those raves for The Motherf**ker with the Hat but realizing he has to return to The Public for business-as-usual as LAByrinth co-artistic director ("We're moving back downtown so I got to put on my hard hat. Our new season is going to be posted within the next week or ten days.").
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Laila Robins said she has gotten back into the work grind here with a little work on "Damages" with Glenn Close (whom she originally replaced in The Real Thing) after returning from an eventful trip to California. She went out there a star and came back a singer: "I just returned from the Pasadena Playhouse where I did my first musical, Dangerous Beauty. I had a good time. It was lovely to sing with the orchestra and meet that challenge every night. Jenny Powers was a dynamo in the show. She plays my daughter, and she's the lead. Jeannine Dominy wrote it, based on a movie, 'Dangerous Beauty' that she wrote. Music by Michele Brourman, and lyrics by Amanda McBroom. It was absolutely beautiful, and Sheryl Kaller directed it. I think they're going to try to tweak a few things and bring it into the city."
Obie-winning Juliet Rylance showed up for a repeat viewing like the dutiful stepdaughter, with the hubby she met doing Sam Mendes' Bridge Project, Christian Camargo. When she first laid eyes on him, she told the tabs, she thought, "Oh, you're the one!" — a Sondheim song if I ever heard it!
Little Shop of Horrors's Lee Wilkof, one of the original, authentic Assassins — like, from the Playwrights Horizons incubator — dropped by with another original, Greg Germann, who gave Gina Gershon a start with: "The last time I saw you, you were in the backseat of my car." She stuck around for an explanation, which was innocuous.
Also among the first-nighters: Heather Lind, who was Al Pacino's runaway off-spring in The Merchant of Venice; Janet McTeer, Broadway's most recent Mary Stuart, with her husband Joe Coleman; "The Dry Land" writer-director Ryan Piers Williams and his leading lady, America Ferrera of "Ugly Betty"; Gillian Jacobs of "Community," plus a host of Stella Adler students filling the free seats generously doled out by Rylance, who had already given quite enough that night. That's how it's done, kids!