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.

Mike Nussbaum and Maureen Gallagherin The Infidel
Mike Nussbaum and Maureen Gallagher
in The Infidel

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.

Nussbaum as State SupremeCourt Justice Garvey
Nussbaum as State Supreme
Court Justice Garvey
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."


Does he have any sympathy for this lost soul? "Yes, of course. But I have difficulty accepting his arrogance and his unwillingness to face the truth of what he's done. When I read Saul Wachtler's prologue to his book about prison life, I was astonished at how much he blames everything on his bi-polar disorder and the thousands of uppers and downers that he was taking at the time. Yes, he apologizes, but it's always about something else, never him. That's the part that I found useful. In my mind when Garvey is listening to these accusations, he's merely reflecting on what this strange person did under the influence of medications. It doesn't really connect with who he is."

For Nussbaum, Garvey's detachment from his self is curiously not contemporary: "One of the most uncomfortable sides about modern life is how obsessively we examine our insights into our condition. We contemplate our navels so much. But in his refusal to have any sense of what he did and why he did it, Garvey is a lovely throwback. Bruce has written such a difficult acting role, replete with all these levels of complexity. It's just a matter of saying the words to make the point."

But the part has pitfalls: "Early in the rehearsals I made the man much more entertaining than he should have been. Anna Shapiro told me that you simply have to tell the facts and let them speak for themselves: 'Just remember that Garvey considers himself superior in intellect and achievement to everyone around him.' It was valuable advice and, moreover, it was a pleasure to work with a young person and not feel a multi-generation gap. I went by her feelings about what the play is about."

So how lonely is this ex-judge? "Very. Like the Unabomber, he has this rigid self-view that has permitted no outside influences to alter his processes. You've got to play him as strictly as he's written. Over the years I've learned not to intellectualize a part but to trust it through instinct. As Mamet argues, just say the words. Bruce Norris has written a powerful play, all the more so because he's comparatively young."

Is Garvey's fall as tragic as, say, that of Oedipus? "I think so. It conforms to all the definitions of a great man falling into an abyss. Even he must have recognized the difference between where he started and where he fell to. At one point he says that it troubles him that his colleagues are treating the stalking like a pornographic cartoon but that's the extent of his regret." Like Oedipus, Garvey achieves a kind of final dignity, argues Nussbaum: "The ending of the play, where he decides in effect to restage his fantasy, is in a weird way life-affirming. He's saying that maybe it really was a magnificent gesture."

But for most audience members the gesture is just one more act of hubris. This is no easier to see than to perform it. "I'm astonished at the audience reaction. Some people wish for an intermission because it is so difficult to take it all in one sitting."