Richard Thomas(Photo © James Leynse)
Richard Thomas
(Photo © James Leynse)
For some people, Richard Thomas will always be John Boy Walton -- but, as theater audiences on both coasts are aware, he is also a highly regarded classical stage actor. "It used to irritate me, but now you can call me 'boy' any time you want," grins the 52 year-old Thomas. "It's gratifying, though, when people tell me that they saw me in Peer Gynt or in Richard II. At least you know that the work hasn't dropped down a well somewhere."

The actor has returned to the New York stage to star opposite Isabella Rossellini in The Stendhal Syndrome, a new work by Terrence McNally that opens at Primary Stages this month. The piece comprises two thematically linked one-act plays that explore how people respond to art. In the first play, titled "Full Frontal Nudity," a tour guide in Florence (played by Rossellini) discusses the attributes of Michelangelo's David with her group; in the second, "Prelude and Liebestod," an orchestra conductor (Thomas) relives key moments of his life during a concert performance of music from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

Thomas became involved with the McNally play last December after Frank Langella dropped out to take on another project. He had known McNally since the early 1960s, when the playwright was partnered with Edward Albee; but Thomas didn't perform in a McNally work until André's Mother, a 1990 American Playhouse drama about a bereaved gay man who has to confront his lover's mom at the funeral. That same year, he also starred in the West Coast premiere of McNally's The Lisbon Traviata. Thomas was subsequently slated to play the closeted bus conductor in the 1994 Lincoln Center production of the McNally, Flaherty, and Ahrens musical A Man of No Importance, but he bowed out after the workshops in order to do a television series in Canada.

"I was thrilled to do this play for a number of reasons," says Thomas of The Stendhal Syndrome. "First of all, I rarely get a chance to do a new role; I usually get to work on stuff that is getting another look. I also felt bad about pulling out of A Man of No Importance, so this was a chance to make that right. And, of course, it's a fabulous role." Avid McNally fans with long memories may recall that an early draft version of "Prelude and Liebestod" was seen in New York, in a 1989 evening of one-acts presented by The Manhattan Class Company (with Larry Bryggman playing the conductor) and again in a 1991 showcase production of unpublished McNally scripts (with Dominic Cuskern in the role). But the current Primary Stages production marks the piece's official world premiere as part of The Stendhal Syndrome.

McNally phoned Thomas about the play and sent him the script when Langella became unavailable. According to Thomas, "I called Terrence back and said, 'You want me to go to that place, don't you? You want me to go out on a limb with you and then we'll saw off the limb together.' And he said, "Yeah, that's right!' The character is very outrageous and very exposed. I like the way Terrence brings the sublime and the ridiculous together: One minute, it's a transfiguration and the next minute, you are in the gutter. That appeals to the ham in me!"

One may be tempted to identify real-life counterparts to the theatrical, egotistical, brilliant, sexually voracious conductor portrayed by Thomas in "Prelude and Liebestod," but the actor insists that the role isn't supposed to represent any one person. "It isn't like Zoe Caldwell doing Maria Callas in Master Class," he says. "The play is about that split between being caught up in the art and wondering if there are any empty seats out there tonight. I've sometimes been aware of making eye contact with a young woman in the third row and thinking, 'She's cute. Maybe she'll be at the stage door for an autograph.' Not that it ever becomes an event beyond the performance but, for that moment, you think about these things."

"We all have those strange splits," Thomas continues, illustrating the point with another anecdote: "I remember, during a performance of Fifth of July [the 1980 Broadway production of Lanford Wilson's play, in which he replaced Christopher Reeve], seeing this guy in the front row who had his head down all through the show. 'He doesn't like me,' I thought. Later, I found out from the stage manager that he was blind -- and here was I with this entire fantasy of how he despised me! That's very much what's happening with the conductor [in 'Prelude and Liebestod']. I think it's a fantastic portrait of the performance personality, the narcissistic aspect of what we do."

The roller-coaster emotions experienced by the conductor during the performance of Wagner's music remind Thomas of his 1993 performance in Shakespeare's Richard II in Washington, D.C. "It's the alternating inflation and deflation of the character," he explains. "There is no middle ground for Richard. He is either going to be a god-king or he is going to be nothing -- just like this conductor. With all of his power, his ultimate fantasy is to be completely powerless. Like a lot of people in his situation, he has a boundary problem; he's either jumping over people's boundaries or hoping that his own will dissolve."

Richard Thomas in The Stendhal Syndrome(Photo © James Leynse)
Richard Thomas in The Stendhal Syndrome
(Photo © James Leynse)
When I spoke with Thomas, it was just a week into rehearsals for the production. He expressed confidence in his ability to deal with the text and the raw emotions of the piece but, after having taken his first class in conducting, he said that he had only just discovered a new challenge ahead of him. Because the stage perspective is flipped, the conductor faces the audience all through the performance: "I don't know yet what the convention is going to be, whether I will have to conduct all the way through this piece of music -- but, after that lesson, I realized just what the job is. Thank God, I love opera and I know the music very well. With Terrence, there's no shade. You can run but you can't hide! It's all out there."

The opportunity to be "exposed" and "out there" is what keeps bringing Thomas back to the theater. He began his career on stage as a child growing up in New York and made his Broadway debut at the age of seven in the 1958 Roosevelt saga Sunrise at Campobello. As a youngster, he experienced the heady years of New York theater in the '60s first-hand and he appeared in José Quintero's 1962 Broadway revival of O'Neill's Strange Interlude for The Actors Studio; he was recommended to Quintero by Jane Fonda, one of the members of a cast that also included Betty Field, Geraldine Page, Ben Gazzara, and Franchot Tone.

Thomas now lives in L.A. and makes his livelihood in television, mostly in TV movies. (Viewers of a certain age may remember that The Waltons began as a one-shot TV movie at Christmastime before becoming a weekly series.) But, every once in a while, he returns to the theater. Over the years, he has given a string of acclaimed classical performances. In addition to Richard II, he has played the leads in Peer Gynt, Hamlet, and Richard III under Mark Lamos's direction at Hartford Stage; the title role in Robert Wilson's production of Death of Danton at Houston's Alley Theater; and Puck in Sir Peter Hall's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Los Angeles. His last New York appearance was in the 2000 Second Stage revival of Albee's Tiny Alice. This coming June, Thomas will be performing at the Kennedy Center in A Distant Country Called Youth, a solo piece adapted from the early letters of Tennessee Williams.

Before we end our conversation, Thomas talks about the meaning of the collective title of the McNally works and about his hopes for the plays' reception in New York. The Stendhal Syndrome, he explains, is a state of mind recognized by psychiatrists, first identified in the 19th century by the French writer Henri Stendhal. According to Thomas, "It was fairly common at the time that, when viewing certain works of art, the observer would be transported -- and, usually, these transportation would be erotic in nature. Women would faint! My guess is that it's rare today because we are less buttoned-down, but I did have the experience of transportations of ecstasy when we doing Streamers [a Vietnam play by David Rabe] in L.A. Six times during that production, we had paramedics come in and take men who had passed out or who had heart palpitations because they were profoundly upset by the play. The women were different; they would scream at the stage, throw Playbills, and walk out. But the men -- I think because they wanted to be 'manly' -- tried to soldier through it and they would pass out."

"What I am hoping," Thomas says, "is that the audiences for The Stendhal Syndrome can have some of the same responses that the characters on stage have to the works of art to which they stand in relation. After my wife finished reading the script, she said, "Oh my God, I'm excited. This play has got me all worked up.'" When Thomas's older sister expressed an interest in seeing the play and asked what it was about, he replied, "Let me put is this way: After you see it, you'll have the best sex you've had in 20 years!" Carried away by the thought, Thomas adds with a gleam in his eye, "I think we should advertise it as the ultimate date show!"