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Quick Wit: Howard Witt

Rees's Pieces

Roger Rees of the Roundabout's Uncle Vanya on the plays he loves, etc.

By New York City
It's lunch break during the second rehearsal week of the Roundabout Theatre's Uncle Vanya, and the company's green room area (on the fourth floor of a nondescript East Side office building) positively teems with Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier, and Obie Award winners and nominees. Sir Derek Jacobi--who hadn't yet been knighted when he won his Tony for the RSC's Much Ado About Nothing in 1985--enters in deep conversation with Vanya director Michael Mayer, no slouch in the award department himself (Side Man, A View from the Bridge). Meanwhile, Brian Murray (Travels With My Aunt, Noises Off) makes a phone call; Anne Pitoniak ('night, Mother) orders Chinese food; and David Patrick Kelly (who won an Obie for Sustained Excellence of Performance in 1997/98) is in the midst of a discussion about a two-tape version of something by Tarkovsky.

Last to enter from the rehearsal room is actor-director Roger Rees, who took home a Tony almost 20 years ago for his Broadway debut in Nicholas Nickleby. Although Rees has never worked with Sir Derek before, Murray starred in Rees' New York directorial debut (Mud, River, Stone at Playwrights Horizons). Rees knew Laura Linney (Yelena) through friends, and Rita Gam (Maria Vasilyevna) threw him a welcome party when he first came with Nickleby. Today, sporting a vaguely Stalinesque mustache for his role of Dr. Astrov, Rees makes a curiously contemporary fashion statement by mirroring the latest facial hair fad (think Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson). Clad in traditional rehearsal jeans and carrying a large take-out container of carrot juice, he's relaxed and ready to chat.

With Vanya, Rees becomes the first person to direct (Shaw's Arms and the Man) and then immediately co-star at the Roundabout during the same season. That kind of thing does happen all the time Off-Broadway, in regional theater, and in England, so Rees finds nothing unusual about it. "I acted and directed quite a bit in Bristol [he was the associate artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, 1984-86]. And, last summer at Williamstown, I directed The Taming of the Shrew and played Petruchio opposite Bebe Neuwirth," he notes. "I think it's just a continuation of that old Victorian concept of the actor/manager."

Rees attended art school in lieu of university. "Then my father died, and I began painting scenery at Wimbledon Rep," he relates. "It was within the sound of the tennis courts and it was run by Arthur Lane, one of the last of those great, old actor-managers. At some point, they needed an actor--and there I was." He doesn't like to discuss his preparation for a character, perhaps because he didn't train formally. When asked for his take on Astrov, he replies, "He's a doctor in Russia in 1900 who plants trees. We're doing this play, so I'll just be doing what Astrov does. I know some actors will say, 'Oh, he's dying of cancer,' or something like that. But I really don't think that way. I just learn the lines and I don't think much about what happens in the wings.

"For me, theater's a bit like a soccer game," Rees continues. "There are 22 people on the pitch [the playing field], and the permutations are infinite. I mean, by definition, if you're playing Hamlet, you're known by the cuts you make. Well, on stage [in Uncle Vanya], it'll be me playing these lines. Michael's a wonderful director. And rehearsal is, after all, when you find out what the play is about and who your character is. Of course, Vanya has only three weeks of rehearsal, which is rather short for Chekhov. I've done The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters before, but I've never even seen Vanya.


When asked if he prefers acting or directing, Rees states quickly and emphatically, "I never think about that; I quite enjoy them both. I do like directing actors--because, as an actor myself, I think I can help. But I seem to have the same difficulties and problems doing either, probably due to some inadequacies in myself." In July, he'll direct the American premiere of a new Simon Gray play at Williamstown: "He's a brilliant man of the theater and a wonderful, wonderful writer. The play takes place in England, just after the war. It's about a 12-year-old kid who plays the piano, and about the breakup of his family." Then, in August, Rees is off to San Diego to direct Love's Labour's Lost at the Old Globe.

We talk about the soon-to-open Broadway revival of The Real Thing starring Stephen Dillane; Rees was Henry in the original British stage version, the role played in the first Broadway production by Jeremy Irons. "I think it's the greatest play written in the last 50 years," he states unequivocally. "It says some incredible things about life, and it contains this line about writing: 'If you get the right words in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.' That's pretty good." Rees is a writer himself, something he began to do as a child of six or seven; his play Double Double ran for three years in the West End. "I've also been writing some small, contemporary character pieces set in New York," he says. "I guess you'd call them screenplays, and I'd like to direct them myself."

Rees--who's had a long career reading books on tape, including all of Nicholas Nickleby--chuckles over the "lingerie voice" classification he's earned in that industry. Ten years ago, he compiled a one-man show of the King James version of the Book of Revelations, which he performed at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Theatre Festivals. "It's filled with such wonderful expressions," he enthuses. " 'And I will kill her children with death.' That's good, isn't it? I had to learn 21 chapters in about three months, and the show ran one hour and 28 minutes with a minimal set--just a chair and some very simple little properties in a bag. I've also done one-man shows on Shakespeare, Dickens, and the poet Thomas Hood. It's common practice in England for actors to work six days and then go off to some stately house and perform on a Sunday night. Judi Dench, her husband Michael Williams, and I did a show. And I had another one called Sons and Mothers that I did with Virginia McKenna; she played Gertrude to my Hamlet, and Ken Branagh was our Laertes."

Once Vanya is up and running, Rees--a professor of drama at Florida State--will also be teaching a master class in Shakespeare at New York Performance Works on Chambers Street. "Of course, I'm attracted to the classical companies in this city," he remarks as the break ends. "I have the greatest respect for Todd Haimes here at the Roundabout and Barry Edelstein down at the Classic Stage Company. I did The Misanthrope for Barry at CSC last year; they take big risks, and they should be supported. Actually, Kevin Kline and I are doing a benefit for CSC on Monday, May 1. We'll do some Shakespeare. You know--scenes, soliloquies, jokes."

Roger Rees and Kevin Kline telling jokes by the Bard? Now, that's an evening of theater!


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