Dick Latessa
(© Tristan Fuge)
Dick Latessa
(© Tristan Fuge)
For over four decades, Dick Latessa has effortlessly jumped between musicals and plays, including such Broadway hits as Chapter Two, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Sweet Charity, Damn Yankees, and Promises, Promises, along with his Tony Award-winning role as lovable Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray.

Now, he's back on Broadway opposite Linda Lavin as her character's dying husband in Nicky Silver's dark comedy The Lyons, which is at the Cort Theatre -- just months after its world premiere at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. TheaterMania recently sat down with Latessa to talk about the challenges of this demanding role.

THEATERMANIA: How did you first get involved with the production?
DICK LATESSA: I got a phone call from my agent. I read it and loved it. I'm also just in the first act, and I like that. When you get to be a certain age, you play people who pass away. So it's either the first act or the second act. I like that aspect of it, and I like Nicky's writing. He's got this black humor, you know? It's a really good play.

TM: You spend that entire act lying down in a hospital bed. Is that challenging for you as an actor?
DL: Yes, it's challenging, but I don't think about being in bed. I just can't get up. I'll push myself forward. I've always used a lot of my body.

TM: As much as your character constantly yells and curses at his wife, he still loves her. Is that what grounds the performance for you?
DL: Yeah. And you see she constantly needles him about, you know, redoing the living room as he lays there dying. You can understand a woman like that driving a guy like that crazy. It's wonderful playing with Linda. Her looks. My looks. Half of what we're doing is just in the looks to each other besides the dialogue.

TM: Has the play gone through many changes during previews?
DL: Oh, yeah. I wish it hadn't. You're rehearsing every freaking day. That's the biggest problem. However, I wasn't in any of the scenes that were cut.

TM: This couldn't be more different from your role in Hairspray. Is that okay by you?
DL: That's exactly right. People come and see this and tell me, "I loved you in Hairspray, how do you feel about this?" I hate to do the same part over and over again. Hairspray was an easy role. That was like rolling off a log. This is harder. You've got a guy who's a curmudgeon and cranky, but you have to bring humor into that personality.

TM: What's the main difference for you between doing plays and musicals?
DL: Musicals are kind of off the ground, and you've got to keep them up. You've got to balance them. With a play, you're grounded. Here, I'm stuck in a bed. No dancing or singing in the bed. In one sense it's more difficult, and in another sense it's easier.

TM: You recently had a knee replaced, right?
DL: I just had a knee replacement in-between doing the show at the Vineyard and this. I asked the doctor what kind of time I needed, and he said four to six weeks. I knew I had that kind of time between this, and there was also the possibility this play was not going to come to Broadway. It was a tough one, though, because this knee was in bad shape.

TM: Do you think it was from all the dancing in your career?
DL: Probably. I've done a lot of dancing in my career and pratfalls early on. Eventually, it wears and tears on the knee. You've got to take care of your knees. You need them. If you can't get to the toilet, that's when they put you in a home.