The phrase "Thanks a lot but no thanks" was uttered most memorably by Dolores Gray in It's Always Fair Weather -- a film classic that, in my book, ranks right up there with Wild Strawberries and Amarcord. (Of course, Gray was singing some of Betty Comden's and Adolph Green's wittiest lyrics.) These words reverberated in my brain night after night of the past theatrical season as I contemplated the fates of actors trapped in thankless roles. I'm referring to those pesky but necessary character parts that exist to move a plot along but lack any intrinsic appeal; they're the drab figures who get the exposition delivered, act as sounding boards for the leads, and occasionally provide pro forma romantic interest. They are endemic to plays and musicals alike. Sooner or later, they happen to even the most gifted and worthy of actors, who deserve our deepest sympathy for such assignments no matter what kind of paycheck they're earning.
Every season is notable for a certain number of thankless roles but the wacky, wild 2003-2004 season had far more than its fair share. In some cases, actors put up with shocking forms of abuse on stage, leading to a new definition of the word "thankless." In any other line of work, they would have recourse to OSHA or, at the very least, a human resources officer; in the theater, they are forced to suffer publicly in the name of art, or at least, for the sake of their Equity health plan. So, now that all of the season's awards have been doled out, we should pause to recognize the folks who took on the Most Thankless Roles of 2003-2004.
Liza Minnelli in The Boy From Oz:
Why is this a thankless role? Would YOU want to play Liza Minnelli onstage? Love her or hate her, La Liza is an indelible personality; so one can only pity the talented Stephanie J. Block, who has to recreate her nightly. For one thing, there's the challenge of trying to play Liza while the Minnelli/Gest soap opera churns on with allegations of husband beating, Botox injections, and other marital misdemeanors. The problems multiply from there: For most of the first act of The Boy From Oz, Liza once again has to play second fiddle to her mama, looking depressed while Judy sings and cracks wise. After Judy makes her big exit, Liza still gets no respect: She has to stand around while hubby Peter Allen eyes the chorus boys. On top of that, she returns in Act II as the uber-fabulous "New York, New York" Liza when Allen is dying of AIDS and no longer wants to perform. She finishes off the evening with the hootiest line in a musical full of them: "But Peter, darling, we ARE show business!" Next season: Stephanie J. Block in a revival of The Act!
Bobo in A Raisin in the Sun:
In Lorraine Hansberry's majestic but lengthy play, Bobo doesn't even show up until after 10pm and, when he does, it's to deliver the news that protagonist Walter Lee has lost the family's money in a bad investment. Bobo is the modern equivalent of the messenger in all those Greek tragedies who shows up only to point out that, say, Oedipus is married to his mother. He's purely functional and as such has little interest for the audience; it's pretty funny when character actor Bill Nunn, who is well-known from the movies, gets an ovation in the current Broadway revival for what is essentially a walk-on. On the other hand, Nunn gets to high-tail it out of there quickly, thereby missing Sean Combs's attempt to act his way through Walter Lee's big breakdown scene.
Madame Morrible in Wicked:
Great name, lousy part. Lost in the shuffle of the dueling divas, tap-dancing wizards, and flying monkeys that make up Wicked is Madame Morrible, the sinister headmistress at the boarding school where Glinda and Elphaba first meet. In Act I, we get the impression that Morrible will play a major role in Winnie Holzman's convoluted libretto. But, as the story wears on (and on and on), turning into an Emerald City Aida, poor Carole Shelley is left with little to do but flare her nostrils elegantly and sport a series of ensembles that make her look like Elizabeth I. Madame Morrible isn't a character. She's window-dressing and you can't help wondering if, between entrances, Shelley -- who deserves better -- isn't on the phone to her agent, making discreet inquiries about the next Harry Potter film.
Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:
Yeah, yeah, it's a classic -- but even they have plenty of thankless roles. To make matters worse, Jason Patric of this season's revival had to endure a public spanking from Big Daddy Ned Beatty, who blabbed to The New York Times about the awkward emoting of Patric and Ashley Judd (as if we hadn't noticed ourselves). But the truth is that no Brick has ever gotten a good review, for one simple reason: The character has nothing to do but lie around half-naked, muttering and guzzling cocktails for three acts while Maggie and Big Daddy devour the stage whole. (This was true even with psycho-thriller movie queen Judd in the cast, displaying the same delicate acting technique she used in such films as High Crimes and Twisted). You have to marvel at the gallons of fake booze that any Brick ingests during a typical evening, and he doesn't even get much time for bathroom breaks within the acts! The role is an exercise in self-control in more ways than one.
Robert Baker in Wonderful Town:
Pity poor Gregg Edelman, saddled with one of the dullest male leading roles in the musical theater canon. Bob Baker is the magazine editor who discourages Ruth Sherwood's writing ambitions only to fall in love with her. Because Donna Murphy has all the laughs covered as Ruth and Jennifer Westfeldt has cornered the market on charm as Ruth's sister Eileen, Edelman as Baker has little to do but stand around looking wry and occasionally bursting into song. At times, he appears to be scanning John Lee Beatty's set, looking for a magazine to pass the time until he and Ruth get together just before the final curtain -- and just after the sisters' show-stopping number, natch! Edelman makes a game attempt in his big ballad, "It's Love," even jumping up on a lamppost à la Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, but he doesn't believe it and neither do we. Get this man a character part!
Marcus in Taboo:
It odd that Taboo, a show that strenuously strove to be outrageous and original, should have provided us with a classic example of a thankless role. Marcus is a young, dishy-looking, putatively straight photographer who becomes the young Boy George's problematic companion, running out on him when the drugs and the fame become too much to bear. It's nothing against Cary Shields, who was both skillful and easy on the eyes as Marcus during Taboo's all-too-short Broadway run. It's just that, in a cast of characters that includes cross-dressing pop stars, promiscuous performance artists, and male Marilyn Monroe impersonators, Marcus is a pretty colorless guy. He's the modern equivalent of Marilyn on The Munsters, living proof that good looks are less compelling than true eccentricity. Worst of all, he's revealed during the course of the evening to be a composite character, made up of bits and pieces of all of Boy George's ex-boyfriends. Believe me, nobody ever got famous playing a composite.
Mrs. Truckle in Sly Fox:
In the rude, raw, burlesque world of Sly Fox, Mrs. Truckle is the ultimate trophy -- a virtuous woman. That's why husband Abner (Bob Dishy in the current revival) is so obsessed with maintaining her innocence and why protagonist Foxwell J. Sly (Richard Dreyfuss) is so determined to bed her. Those two characters get lots of laughs while Mrs. T. is forced to stand (or, occasionally, kneel) at center stage, striking pious attitudes while various lechers and rogues try to feel her up. One more leering gag and the actress playing her could sue author Larry Gelbart for sexual harassment. You have to feel for Elizabeth Berkeley who, having reached one career dead end playing a lap-dancing showgirl in the movies, now has learned the bitter lesson that virtue provides no rewards, either. The closest she gets to a laugh is when Dreyfuss, double-cast as a hanging judge, announces that "The lady's a bimbo" -- a line that's repeated for a second, even more embarrassing, laugh. After this experience, Berkeley may decide that parts in such TV movies as Student Seduction are preferable.
The Dead Jumper in Jumpers:
Well, it's not really a part. Still, in a way, it's the focal point of the play. To the extent that anyone has ever really understood it, Jumpers is about George, a professor of moral philosophy whose work is interrupted: His wife, Dotty, is throwing party and the guests include a team of philosophers whose avocation is gymnastics. Unfortunately, one of them gets shot -- largely because, if he didn't, the play would have even less of a plot than Tom Stoppard has managed to contrive. Much of the first act turns on Dotty's attempts to get rid of the corpse. Finally, Dotty's lover Archie shows up with the rest of the Jumpers, who proceed to empty the body into a giant trash bag and then take off. (I can only imagine what it's like inside that bag -- call the Equity deputy!) The choreography of the current production is impressive but, on a stage full of non-stop talkers, it's Eliza Lumley as George's silent but provocative secretary who steals scenes. The Dead Jumper gets left behind with the trash.
Mike in Match:
Those of you who missed Match are going to be sorry someday. After all, how many plays have a plot that turns on the existence of an all-night DNA testing lab in New Jersey? Actors, beware: If someone offers you the role of Mike, keep that restaurant job instead. Stephen Belber's play is virtually a monologue, offering the actor who plays Tobi -- an aging, garrulous, excessively fey, bisexual choreographer -- a license to ham it up for two hours. (Frank Langella took that license to the limit on Broadway). The actress playing Lisa, who interviews Tobi about his career, at least gets a few good lines while her husband Mike sits around and glares for most of the first act, then gets a DNA swab from Tobi and heads off to that all-night lab. (For the millions of you who missed Match, Mike thinks that Tobi may be his father and isn't at all happy about it.) Actors sign on happily for roles like Mike, thinking that they can smolder effectively enough to gain audience attention. Forget it! The play's wholly false, last-minute reconciliation scene does offer Mike a chance to emote but it's so laughably awful that nobody could bring it off. Don't blame Ray Liotta if you never see him at Angus McIndoe's again.
The Dryer/The Bus in Caroline, or Change:
Talk about your demanding dual roles. Chuck Cooper, gifted singer and actor and Tony Award winner (all right, so it was for The Life), is forced to appear in Caroline as not one but two inanimate objects -- and the show wasn't even produced by the Children's Television Workshop! A product of Tony Kushner's fevered imagination, Caroline takes place in a world where objects talk back to the heroine. In his first appearance, Cooper is The Dryer, a Satanic presence next to Capathia Jenkins's Washing Machine and the trio of talented, Dreamgirls-ready ladies who play The Radio. Later on, mournfully crossing the stage, he's The Bus, charged with delivering news of the Kennedy assassination. Did Cooper's training prepare him for this? Would Uta Hagen have wanted him to write out The Bus's biography? (For that matter, is there a sense-memory exercise for playing a dryer? Something involving lint, perhaps?) Dear Mr. Kushner: Please give Chuck Cooper a better role in your next epic.
Allison Smith in Prymate:
There are some roles that scale the Mount Olympus of thanklessness. They are both irrelevant and abusive, so much so that you can't believe that anyone ever accepted them. So it is with the role of Allison in Prymate, the Moose Murders of 2004. In Mark Medoff's wild, wild plot, Smith (played by Heather Tom) is an experienced sign language interpreter who accompanies a scientist (James Naughton) on a visit to his hearing-impaired ex-lover (Phyllis Frelich). Naughton wants to get control of the ape (André De Shields in what would be, hands-down, the top thankless role of any other season) that Frelich has kidnapped for her own purposes. We'll skip the rest of Medoff's yeasty blend of melodrama, bad science, and windy philosophical musings and get right to one of the most eye-popping sequences ever seen on Broadway: DeShields gets Tom alone, urinates on her, and then forces her to, um, satisfy him. (At this moment, all I could think of was Adrian Zmed singing a number titled "Hot Monkey Love" in the flop musical Eating Raoul.) It should be noted that Tom has had a fairly substantial career on the soaps; it's not often that a daytime TV player gets to Broadway only to be involved in activities that are far more demeaning than anything seen on The Young and the Restless. For work below and beyond the call of duty, we offer Heather Tom our award for playing the Most Thankless Role of 2003-2004. Honey, you've earned it!