He's never won a Tony Award, but that's no matter. Alvin Epstein, one of the truly great stage actors, has played his share of roles that are better than any award could top. Who else can say that they played the Fool to Orson Welles' wheelchair-bound King Lear, starred in the American premieres of both Waiting for Godot AND Endgame, and worked on, as actor and director, over 150 productions from New York City to Israel?
Rarely lacking for work, Epstein has been a steady presence on Off-Broadway's stages in recent years; playing Polonius to Christian Camargo's Hamlet in 2009; Firs to Dianne Wiest's Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard in 2011; and Corbaccio, "the Crow," in Volpone at the Red Bull Theater in 2012. Now he's playing the noted Russian scenic designer Sergey Sudeikin in Richard Nelson's Nikolai and the Others at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
On a Saturday afternoon following a recent matinee, we sat down with Epstein over coffee to discuss, of all things, theater. Excerpts from the long-ranging discussion follow.
How did you become involved with Nikolai and the Others?
I got a telephone call that said "Would you like to be in a play called Nikolai and the Others, directed by David Cromer, written by Richard Nelson, at Lincoln Center Theater?" Why would I say anything but "Absolutely"?
Did you have knowledge of the subject matter before you started?
There is an aside to this play, having to do with the internal relationships between the people and the government. Of course I knew nothing about that. What I did know [was that] I used to go to the ballet quite often back in those days, and I was very familiar with Maria Tallchief as a dancer, and Nicholas Magallanes. And [I knew that] George Balanchine's choreography was already a promise of something grand and wonderful. I remember going to see a performance [in Paris] of a ballet by someone named George Balanchine, called Theme and Variations. I had to pick myself up off the floor at the end, it was so wonderful. So lyrically beautiful and inventive, and because of that, new. In strange ways, it was intimately connected to the past of ballet, but so far advanced in some way that it was not identifiable. I was just knocked out by it. From that point on, any time I could see a Balanchine ballet, I did.
You're playing Sergey Sudeikin, the noted Russian scenic designer. Were you familiar with his work? That's an interesting story. When I was a kid, I used to go as often as I could to the Radio City Music Hall, to see the movies and the stage shows. Back in the thirties and forties, [the stage shows] were very good; they had first-rate people there, a symphony orchestra, a corps de ballet led by Florence Rogge, the glee club…I got the call about doing this play, the part was Sergey Sudeikin. And I was immediately suspicious: I know that name, I don't know why. Where do I know it from? And little by little, it dawned upon me that when I was going to the Music Hall when I was 16, 17, they used to print programs, which had all the information about the cast, the director, all the credits…I realized that the name I had always known as "Sergey Sudeikin." (I had seen it spelled differently [as] "Soudekine.") He designed sets for the Radio City Music Hall. His name was known to me through exposure, from seeing it over and over again. Then, of course, I began to do some research and found stuff on the internet that I didn't know, like that he was a well-known painter aside from [a] stage [designer].
This play, Nikolai, has a cast of 18, which is practically unheard of in today's theater. When everyone came out on stage to dine, I was floored.
[Laughs] Now we do one-character plays and two-character plays. I think it's a tragedy, but not only for the theater, it's a tragedy for modern life. Money has all disappeared under the top, and everybody else is scrambling for a living. I used to go to the theater all the time. I grew up in the Bronx, and I went to the Broadway theater all the time, sometimes for the $3.25 top. It went up from there gradually, but I don't remember anything more than $8 at the most for the best orchestra seats. And now, I'm an elderly successful actor, and I cannot afford to go to the theater.
I have other expenses, and they have to come first because I need a roof over my head. I cannot afford to go to a theater, or to the opera. I used to go to the opera all the time. But for $250 a seat? It's a crime.
Is there any way to solve that problem?
All you have to do is topple the government. [Laughs] Not the government, but the system. It's the system that makes this happen. They've got it wired for themselves. They know how to work it.
But then you have a company like the Red Bull, with which you recently worked on Volpone, and they have a following with their reasonably priced tickets, and lush productions, and great actors.
We had a marvelous time doing [Volpone], but that's the taxi to the poor house. [Laughs] I'm not complaining about it; I'm glad it exists and I can take part in it, but you can't make a living doing that kind of work… I've been very fortunate, particularly as a New York actor, to have been able to get the roles that I've been given the opportunity to play, and, of course, most of my career was spent away from New York, in repertory companies, where I got a helluva lot of experience and opportunity.
You've literally played every great, great role. Do you have a favorite?
It isn't so much that it's a favorite role, but it's a role that I wish I were able to play again and again and again: King Lear. It's the kind of role that can take that repetition and every time you experience it at a different age it's going to be different, and presumably more fulfilling to do it again. Unfortunately, I cannot do the Lear [anymore], because I'm not in the physical shape to do it. [But] There will always be discoveries and revelations. Before I played Lear himself, which was three or four years ago, I had been in it already three times...It was only when I did it myself that I began to really appreciate the play.
What do you look for in a role?
That's really a difficult question. I want the role to offer possibilities. For a richness of character. An interesting situation. In order to really answer your question, I have to stop and think, but that would take another two, three, four hours. It would be silly to say "Good writing," of course. I don't think I can go further than that.