In Japan, Mike Nussbaum would have been designated a "living national treasure" and subsidized for life. In Chicago, this consistently-convincing actor has been on a 30-year roll. Most recently praised in the title part in Northlight Theatre's Visiting Mr. Green (which moved to the Royal George Theatre), he played a curmudgeonly Jewish recluse who opens up to forgive his wandering daughter. Now appearing in the world premiere of The Infidel at the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, Nussbaum well could be in yet another peak of his illustrious career.
No small contribution to his affecting performances is Nussbaum's posture, a gravity-laden bearing that seems to carry the weight of the world's sorrows, and Nussbaum's eyes, so sad that they register despair before a word is said. A quarter-century ago Nussbaum pioneered the part of Teach in David Mamet's American Buffalo (which he recently co-directed, to acclaim, at American Theater Company). He's gone great guns in part after part, perhaps never more so than now.
In what the Sun-Times recently called the triumph of his career, Nussbaum is now playing a defrocked judge in The Infidel, a one-act by Bruce Norris, another noted Chicago actor (although now New York-based). As directed by Anna Shapiro in 85 taut minutes, Nussbaum depicts an unrepentant felon--and former state supreme court justice--to the bottom of his lost soul. (The play is based on the case of Judge Saul Wachtler, former chief justice of the New York Supreme Court.) This harrowing exposure of a broken man's sexual harassment of a court clerk is told through tapes from answering machines, security cameras, and police cars. But it's the criminal's complex testimony that reveals the darkness behind the deeds and the unknowable depths of human perversion.
Playing the ex-Justice Garvey at his sentence-reduction hearing, Nussbaum delivers a damning look at twisted delusion. Out of the small talk between the disconcertingly affable prisoner and the hearing officer (the impassive Robert Breuler) who still grudgingly admires the disgraced jurist, emerges a pathetic portrait of Garvey as an arrogant predator. Garvey's flowery talk can't hide his elitism or misogyny. In contrast, his wife Helen (Maureen Gallagher), a non-judgmental sex therapist, patiently endures his jibes, while Alma (Charin Alvarez), the beautiful Latina woman he terrorized, sits mute.
Garvey's slowly shredding mind erupts in flashbacks in which his obsession with Alma escalates into threatening phone calls, vandalism, and blackmail. What the video monitor depicts is tabloid lurid, but no less appalling than Garvey's inability to ask for forgiveness. To him, the prison sentence is a mere "cut" that healed. His unrequited, unrepentant ardor for Alma remains the norm.
It's a quicksand part. Nussbaum's quavering voice undermines Judge Garvey's impassive pose and his anger belies his look of dignified boredom. Stripped bare, the man seems mired in petulance, a threadbare camouflage for his profound loneliness and isolation. Nussbaum finds Garvey a role unlike any he's tackled: "It's totally different, a real turn for me. That was one reason I was so thrilled to get it. People don't connect me with this kind of role. Fortunately, I've gone beyond the point where roles like this affect my daily life. But when I was younger, this is the sort of role that I would take home with me and agonize over."