A ‘Curious’ confluence: 2 Broadway debuts
NEW YORK — Their text messages to each other that day conveyed the excitement known so well by actors scrambling for their next job.
“I was called back!” Andrew Long typed out to Nancy Robinette. “Me too!” Robinette replied. In this case, the sense of expectation was even more intense than usual. The parts that Long and Robinette were auditioning for represented a level of visibility and security they had rarely known.
The two old Washington hands, friends from any number of D.C. productions over the years, had been contacted separately by their agents in the spring about auditioning to replace original cast members on Broadway in the hit Tony-winning play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
What made this remarkable was not only the year-long contract in the offing — a veritable eternity of paydays for an itinerant actor — but also the unlikely confluence it defined, of careers forged on the stages of the District’s Shakespeare Theatre Company and Folger, Signature and
Studio theaters. Even more remarkably, it would mean that after decades in the business, each of them would at last be making a Broadway debut.
And wouldn’t you know, following a grueling, nerve-wracking process, both Robinette and Long made the cut to join the cast on Sept. 15. They officially became part of the family of “Curious” actors who nightly bring to life the adventures of a boy on the autism spectrum, groping hisway through adolescent turmoil and domestic upheaval.
“The odds are astronomical,” Long said of the likelihood that he and Robinette would at the same moment and in the same production walk onto Broadway for the first time. Robinette, seated across a table from him on a recent afternoon in a Times Square office, chuckled in agreement. “The casting lady said, ‘Nancy has been coming up here to audition for 25 years,’ ” Robinette recounted. “And she was so glad she could finally get me something!”
The rarity of this opportunity cannot be overstated. As opposed to hit musicals that typically run for years, straight plays on Broadway virtually never survive long enough to require replacement casts.
The British-born “Curious Incident” is an exception. Having begun its New York life on Sept. 10, 2014, it is, for the moment, Broadway’s longest-running play and the only non-musical holdover from last season besides the irreverent “Hand to God,” which will close in January.
So when Robinette and Long and four other actors in the cast of 10 — including Tyler Lea, taking over the lead role of Christopher Boone from Tony-winner Alex Sharp — walked onto the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre last month for their first performance, they joined a club that only infrequently welcomes new members. Long assumed the meaty role of Christopher’s hotheaded father, Ed, while Robinette inherited the crucial supporting part of Mrs. Alexander, a kindly neighbor in whom Christopher hesitantly confides as he investigates the “curious incident”— the killing of another neighbor’s dog.
In one other unlikely twist, the actress Robinette succeeded as Mrs. Alexander was Helen Carey, who makes her home in the D.C. area and is well known to Washington audiences.
“She texted me right away and said, ‘Did you have anything to do with this?’ ” Carey recalled. She did put in a good word, but only later, after she learned that Robinette had auditioned. “And I did tell Benjamin” — the show’s associate director, Benjamin Klein — “‘You have won the jackpot!’ ”
Being a Broadway replacement is not normally a glamorous assignment. As cast additions are not routinely reviewed, unless the newcomer is a moonlighting TV or movie star, the actors coming in garner minimal media attention.
But if Robinette or Long needed reminding of what it’s like to be in the spotlight, all they had to do was consult their résumés. Few actors are regarded with more affection by Washington audiences than Robinette, who has appeared on D.C. stages several times a year for 35 years, whether to play a dithering matron in a classical British comedy or the distressed wife of a defeated salesman in an American tragedy. Long has amassed his own distinguished record in Washington, ranging from portraits of a stuffy Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” to a passionate Antony in “Antony and Cleopatra.”
There has been some outside notice as well: a supporting role in a 2013 Woody Allen movie, “Blue Jasmine,” came Long’s way after an agent saw him in Kevin Spacey’s “Richard III” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Their careers have intersected — as those of most established actors in Washington eventually do — and most often in classical productions at the Shakespeare or Folger.
But perhaps their most memorable collaboration was as a serial killer and the mother of one of his victims in Studio Theatre’s 2006 staging of Bryony Lavery’s analytically astute crime drama “Frozen.”
This latest overlap is likely to go on much longer. Embracing a Broadway life has entailed adjustments of different sorts for the two actors: While Long juggles work and family from the apartment in upper Manhattan that he shares with his wife, actress Katherine E. Hill, and their two children — including a newborn — Robinette had to rent out her house in Northern Virginia and move to New York. She is living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with her son Jacob, a producer of interdisciplinary arts pieces, and adjusting to the rhythms of the city.
Not that she minds. D.C. theater has nourished her, and she has even been in the occasional off-Broadway play, but an extended New York stay is a gratifying detour.
“What I love about being here is the sense that an artist is more integral to the community,” she said. “It’s like being an actor is a viable occupation. It feels like it’s an artist’s city.”
Carey, who had been with “Curious Incident” since its first preview more than a year ago and stayed for 416 performances, rented an apartment in New York where both her daughters live; her husband, who is retired, traveled up to be with her. As for the challenge of doing the same role so many times, well, that’s what being a pro is all about.
“Anything this long has its ups and downs, people get colds, they’re exhausted at times,” Carey said. “But luckily with this particular show, it’s so worth stepping up to the plate and just reaching downand finding [the energy]. Of course you have better shows or looser shows. But you think of the people coming to see it who have to get the babysitter and park the car for 50 bucks— and you find it.”
Finding it was the mission for Long and Robinette all through the weeks of rehearsal. Mimicking the graph-paper outlines of the set of “Curious,” the floor of the rehearsal room at New 42nd Street Studios, five blocks from the Ethel Barrymore, was divided by tape into a massive grid. The play, by Simon Stephens, based on the widely read young-adult novel by Mark Haddon, takes us inside the mind of an autistic youth; Bunny Christie’s set evokes in visual terms the highly ordered routines that Christopher follows to feel safe.
The progression of the story depends on the confident execution of the movement through that space, as devised by director Marianne Elliott and choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. The meticulous blocking of the piece is so tough to learn that Long, Robinette and the four other newcomers were given six weeks of rehearsals, an unusual length for replacement actors.
“It’s created in a very structured world, where the movement is regimented,” said Klein, the associate director. “But when you look into a scene, it’s very naturalistic.”
“It’s like learning two shows at the same time,” Carey added. “Light and sound cues are so specific. All around the perimeter of the stage, the apron is numbered: plus and minus 1 to 10. Along the sides, it’s alphabetical. So for example, for your cue you have to be at the spot: ‘minus 4-J.’ The tech stuff is so laser-precise. The show really moves at the speed of thought.”
On a Wednesday afternoon in early September, Long and Robinette were in the studio, trying to get it all down— their characters, the movement, the exact spot on the grid that they were supposed to occupy at any given moment. Klein was their experienced guide.
“I was there for the original creative process with Marianne,” he explained during a break. “This is a living, breathing piece of theater, so you don’t have to do it the same way every single time. But we also know there’s a lot to live up to.”
Robinette worked through a scene in which Mrs. Alexander gingerly discloses some disturbing facts to Lea’s Christopher about the nature of his parents’ relationship.
Now and then, Klein asked a question or suggested an adjustment: “She’s got to be intrigued at how his brain his working,” he interjected at one point. Robinette’s look of curiosity indicated that she was absorbing it. At times, a dialect coach, Ben Furey, would saunter over to suggest some small refinement of her English accent.
Then Long took a turn, attempting Ed’s most delicate scene with Christopher, which occurs late in Act 1. Because he has to kneel over the distraught Lea, Long wore knee pads. “I’m going to tell the truth about everything,” he intoned as the scene unfolded, his voice melting softly into that of his anxious character.
“Very nice, really nice,” Klein said, as Long finished. And then the director asked him to do the whole thing again.
“The cast that’s staying, they’re excited by the new stimuli,” Long was saying a fewdays later, after a long afternoon of rehearsing the play on the Barrymore stage with all of the lighting cues for the first time. “They’re hearing lines in a new way. It’s reinvigorating the play.”
He was still feeling like the new kid on the block. He was now sharing the dressing room of Ian Barford, the actor he was replacing; it would be soon be entirely Long’s, but for the time being, he was being cautious about taking up too much space with his things. Out of respect, he said.
Robinette, meanwhile, was contemplating the novelty of life in a long run.
To honor her long time commitment, she had to relinquish a mountain of a role in Washington, that of Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” later this season at Ford’s Theatre. The trade-off felt worth it to her, she said, especially since she’d be earning a Broadway wage; the minimum salary for actors was $1,861 a week.
“It does feel good,” she said, “to be paid well.”
“The casting lady said, ‘Nancy has been coming up here to audition for 25 years.’ And she was so glad she could finally get me something!” Nancy Robinette, on her long journey to a Broadway debut in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”
Andrew Long, top left, as Ed Boone, reaches out to Tyler Lea, as his son, Christopher, in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City. They, along with Nancy Robinette, above right, are among six replacements in a cast of 10. Long and Robinette are longtime fixtures on the D.C. theater scene. In an interesting connection, Robinette is replacing Helen Carey, who is well known to Washington audiences, as neighborMrs. Alexander.