Brian d'Arcy James seems to have earned a reputation as the fellow to call when you require an actor who can make a creepy character palatable to an audience. In the short-lived Manhattan Theatre Club production of Andrew Lippa's musical The Wild Party, the talented Mr. James played the homicidal vaudeville clown Burrs and somehow managed to engender sympathy for the guy. More recently, he scored a great personal success as the amoral press agent Sidney Falco in the Marvin Hamlisch-Craig Carnelia Broadway musicalization of Sweet Smell of Success. And people are still talking about his performance in Conor McPherson's The Good Thief as an unnamed Irish thug who becomes involved in a routine caper that goes awry. James allowed the character's humanity to shine through in New York performances of the one-man play at the Jose Quintero Theatre and the 45 Bleecker Street Theatre in 2001.
Now, audiences in L.A. will get to see what all the fuss is about: The Good Thief is soon to open at the Court Theatre there, with James on hand again in a role that many theatergoers would say he owns lock, stock, and barrel. Here are some of his thoughts on the show and the character.
THEATERMANIA: The Good Thief packs quite a wallop. How familiar were you with Conor McPherson's work before you came to do the show?
BRIAN D'ARCY JAMES: Fairly familiar. I saw The Weir on Broadway, and I saw This Lime Tree Bower at Primary Stages. I fell completely in love with his writing. Then I saw The Good Thief in Scotland at the Edinburgh Festival on the same bill with another of his monologues, Rum and Vodka. I saw it with my wife, and it just knocked me for a loop. When I read that The Good Thief was going to be done here, I started salivating at the thought of being involved.
TM: How was your preparation affected by the fact that this is an hour-long monologue?
BRIAN: The director, Carl Forsman, and I spent a lot of time getting to know the terrain of the whole piece, the ebb and flow of it. We talked a lot about the character: what he was saying, what he wasn't saying, what he wanted and needed to reveal. I give Carl complete credit for the construction of the performance -- the way the various moments are connected. He orchestrated it so beautifully. Some people have actually asked why a director is necessary for a play with one actor, but there are a lot of nuances that can be deceiving. So I'd just like to trumpet Carl's ability and my gratitude for being able to work with him.
TM: Did you make more of an effort than usual in terms of fleshing out the character's bio, his history?
BRIAN: Yes, that was my homework. I definitely have an idea of the guy and where he came from. I had an interesting point of reference because I did a play in Dublin a while ago called Public Enemy. It was set in Northern Ireland. We did it at the Dublin Theatre Festival and we actually performed it in a jail there. The guy who was playing the lead role, a terrific actor named Paul Ronan, was from Dublin originally. After the show, the inmates were filing back to their cells, and one of them recognized Paul; it was a buddy of his, a childhood friend. They had this fleeting chat before he was whisked off. That encounter has been a kind of a bedrock for me in doing The Good Thief, as far as the reality of a person's fate is concerned. This isn't just a story about a guy in jail; it happens all the time.
TM: How do you envision your character's surroundings as he tells his story?
BRIAN: It's not really spelled out in the script. The idea is to keep it in the present moment -- to have the actor, or the character, present in the theater and talking to the audience, rather than setting up the conceit of this happening in an interrogation room or what not.
TM: How about the sheer memorization of the piece. Was that very difficult?
BRIAN: Well, I never had to do something like this before, so I approached it in kind of a three-act sense. I separated it into three chunks and then tried to get them down. The play is structured so impeccably that it was kind of easy to do that. It was basically rote memorization; you just tip away at it.
TM: I was wondering if you had taped it as an aid to memorization.
BRIAN: You know, it's funny you should say that; I did tape it, but not until the end of the process. I had two-thirds of it down, and then I listened to myself doing the last section of it on a tape recorder. That was helpful as an overview of the piece, a way of looking at it as if from a helicopter and getting the whole thrust of it rather than the specifics.
TM: Are you 100% Irish?
BRIAN: Almost! I come from Kellys, O'Briens, and Collatons, but the James name is Welsh. This is the first time I've done a Dublin accent; I worked on a Northern Irish accent before, but that's extremely different. For The Good Thief, it helped that I worked with Dublin actors in Public Enemy. I'm basically parroting them.