Fifteen years ago, Roger Rees and David Threlfall were the toasts of New York, starring on Broadway as Nick and the battered orphan Smike in the Royal Shakespeare Company's acclaimed eight-and-a-half-hour production of Charles Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Now they are together again on Broadway in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Jean Anouilh's 1950 tragicomedy, The Rehearsal, which co-stars Frances Conroy and is directed by Nicholas Martin. Now in previews, it opens Nov. 21.
"It's like working again with my brother," Rees says, sitting in the Roundabout lobby and remembering the seven months of rehearsal for Nicholas Nickleby, the two seasons in repertory in London and the sold-out 14-week run at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway. "We were very, very close."
The admiration is mutual. "We really went through a lot together," Threlfall recalls, relaxing after a day of rehearsal. "Doing Nickleby was a real roller-coaster ride. And like all roller-coaster rides, they finish and you go home. But I've wanted to come back to New York and act here ever since. There's so much energy in this city. When I knew the deal involved working with Roger, that made it even better."
Rees won the Tony as Best Actor for Nickleby, and Threlfall was nominated in the featured-actor category. They have gone on to continued and frequent success. Rees's pieces have included Hamlet at the R.S.C. in 1984, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and Hapgood in London's West End, Jon Robin Baitz's The End of the Day Off-Broadway and Jean Cocteau's Indiscretions on Broadway with Kathleen Turner and Eileen Atkins (for which he got another Tony nomination). He also became a familiar face to television aficionados as Robin Colcord on "Cheers."
Threlfall's many stage credits in the intervening years include playing Edgar opposite Laurence Olivier in King Lear, portraying Bolingbroke last year in the National Theater's Richard II and starring as Leslie Titmuss on the BBC and American public television in John Mortimer's "Paradise Postponed" and "Titmuss Regained." His movie appearances include The Summer House with Jeanne Moreau, The Russia House with Sean Connery and Patriot Games with Harrison Ford.
Both men agree that it was the power of the Anouilh play as much as the opportunity to work together again that brought them to the Roundabout. Anouilh, who died in 1987 at age 77, was one of the great French playwrights of the twentieth century. His plays, which include Becket, The Lark, Antigone and The Waltz of the Toreadors, are often pessimistic and cynical; they are dark comedies or tragedies and yet, amid the hopelessness, there is frequent hilarity.
The Rehearsal is set in France in 1950. A Count (Threlfall), his Countess (Frances Conroy) and their aristocratic acquaintances among them Hero (Rees), the Count's childhood friend repair to a chateau in the country, where the Count is preparing an amateur production of a 200-year-old comedy, Marivaux's The Double Inconstancy. The Countess countenances her husband's frequent affairs, as he does hers but as the play begins he has fallen in love, suddenly and deeply, with a beautiful young woman. The Countess disapproves and enlists in her cause Hero, who years earlier had been persuaded by the Count to abandon the one true love of his life. "It's a thrilling play and a great part," Rees says enthusiastically, his lean, lined and smiling face mirroring his years of stage experience. "It's a play about the theatre, about revealing layers, just like Hamlet, and it's terribly, terribly, frighteningly poignant. The play is very wise and very sad, and it will take as much grief as you wish to investigate. The play within a play is a trick that's been used since Greek times, by so many playwrights since Shakespeare, and it was used by Tom Stoppard in The Real Thing. What it does is it reveals the truths underneath, which can be terrible or wonderful. And the major truth this play reveals is that life is both terrifying and wonderful."
Threlfall considers The Rehearsal a "surprising" play. "It's a play that ambushes and I like that," he says, a smile piercing the dark beard that envelops his gaunt, almost Rasputin-like face. (The eyes, though, are not Rasputin's. They perceive rather than pierce; they are the eyes of a knowledgeable actor learning his role.)
"It's a play about love," he continues, "but it has many complicated layers. It's a bit like one of those Russian dolls, where you open it up and inside is another doll, and you open that one up and inside is another, and so on. It's also a play about betrayal of oneself and others. Its subtitle is Love Punished, and it's a very appropriate subtitle. The Count, my character, has spent his life living from the head, and this play teaches him to experience life from the heart, from the soul. He's complex, he's charming and he's lovable, as well as being in love." Threlfall smiles: "Which of course, I am, too."
Rees is similarly intrigued with his character. "Hero is one of those great, savagely wonderful poetic parts that attract me," he says. "He's a mess, and he's a mess for a reason. He's not a very successful human being, and he drinks a lot. My father was an alcoholic, and that's one reason I'm interested in exploring the character, but it's not the sole reason. On the surface he's a very good-natured man, but in truth he's terribly, terribly cruel. I'm interested in playing characters who have two things going on at the same time."
Threlfall says that while he loves performing, for him the preparation's the thing. "It's just great being in rehearsal," he says. "That's where I'm at my best in a rehearsal room with actors. We work together trying to sort out the reality and the nonreality, and how we can be as real as we can be in a nonreal situation. That's what we do all the time. That's what being an actor is about."
And this time, of course, just as in an Anouilh play, there's that additional layer because not only were they in rehearsal, they were in rehearsal for The Rehearsal.