T. Scott Cunningham, Actor of Off-Broadway Stage, Dies at 47

By Robert Simonson
22 Jun 2009

T. Scott Cunningham
T. Scott Cunningham

T. Scott Cunningham, a simultaneously zany and empathetic performer of the Off-Broadway stage whose short, but productive career saw him originate roles in plays by Nicky Silver and Douglas Carter Beane, died at NYU Medical Center in New York City on June 20 from complications due to pneumonia and Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, according to Sam Rudy, a spokesperson for The Vineyard Theatre. He was 47.

Mr. Cunningham, of medium height and build, was equipped with a soft, malleable face and large brown eyes which, depending on the role or the scene, could express a soulful sorrowfulness, a pained yearning or a verging sense of panic. Equally adept at drama and comedy (and often embodying both at the same time), he first came to critics' attention as the lead of Silver's break-out play Pterodactyls at the Vineyard Theatre Off-Broadway. In it, he played the sanest member of a Philadelphia clan sliding into an advanced state of dysfunction, and would, professor-like, periodically lecture to the audience, comparing his family to long-extinct dinosaurs. Soon after, he starred at Playwrights Horizons in another Silver play, Fit to Be Tied. His manically lovelorn character kidnaps a beautiful young man playing an angel in the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, simply because he wants someone around the house. One critic commented that Mr. Cunningham's eyes seemed to spin like pinwheels during the opening monologue.

The actor was one of the founding members of the Drama Dept., a vivacious theatre troupe that thrived Off-Broadway in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He played a variety of characters in the company's first and biggest hit, Beane's comedy about fame and self-creation, As Bees in Honey Drown. He would go on to play roles in Drama Dept. productions of Beane's The Country Club and Music From a Sparkling Planet.

"That's got to be the reason you hear about people starting companies all the time," he said of Drama Dept. "It's about having a place to go. I sometimes just like having a place to go."

During the late 1990s, Mr. Cunningham had many places to go. He was rarely not working. His other Off-Broadway credits include the part of a bitter, henpecked husband in Richard Nelson's New England (Manhattan Theatre Club), What You Get and What You Expect (NY Theatre Workshop), The Stand In (Naked Angels), David Ives' Don Juan in Chicago (with frequent co-star J. Smith-Cameron at Primary Stages), It Changes Every Year by Jon Robin Baitz (Naked Angels) and The Eros Trilogy, another play by Silver (Vineyard).



T. Scott Cunningham and Jean Smart in Fit to be Tied
photo by Joan Marcus
D.J.R. Bruckner, writing of the 2003 play The Chinese Art of Placement in the New York Times, neatly summed up the unique marriage of a comically overtaxed brain and an aching heart that the actor often brought to his roles. "T. Scott Cunningham, who has created a number of lovable losers onstage in the last decade," he wrote, "lets the audience share the passionate satisfaction he finds in making this shattered man a very funny tour guide through human bewilderment."

He occasionally made appearances on Broadway, such as in a 2001 revival of Design for Living and a 1996 production of Tartuffe, but these rarely matched the opportunities he was afforded Off-Broadway.

During the past decade, he worked increasingly at regional theatres such as South Coast Rep, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Seattle Rep, NY Stage and Film, Geffen Playhouse, Alliance Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre and Alabama Shakespeare Festival. He played the title role in Hamlet at Utah Shakespeare, and was part of the national tour of the Broadway hit Twelve Angry Men.

His final performance was this past spring in the Philadelphia premiere of Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo, the recently renamed pair of one-acts formerly billed as Peter and Jerry. The Inquirer termed it "a perfectly measured performance."

Cunningham is survived by his partner of 14 years, actor Harry Bouvy. A memorial will be held in New York in late summer.

In lieu of flowers donations can be made to the Actors Fund of America, 729 Seventh Ave. New York, NY 10019.