A ‘Cu­ri­ous’ con­flu­ence: 2 Broad­way de­buts

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PETER MARKS

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”

JOAN MAR­CUS

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.

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