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Jud Fry the Incel? Patrick Vaill Discusses His Unlikely Turn in Oklahoma! on Broadway

What happens when you approach a classic American musical like a Shakespearean drama?

Patrick Vaill played Jud Fry in director Daniel Fish's production of Oklahoma! at St. Ann's Warehouse last year. He's now reprising that performance at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre.
(© Teddy Wolff)

When Patrick Vaill talks about playing Jud Fry in the new Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, he refers to the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as "the play." He calls Oscar Hammerstein's book and lyrics "the text." One might expect such reverential terminology from an actor performing Shakespeare, but not necessarily from one in a Broadway musical — but few things about this revival conform to expectations.

Chief among the production's many surprises is Jud Fry: Typically dark and barrel-chested (he was last played by Shuler Hensley on Broadway, and famously by Rod Steiger in the 1955 film), Jud is lanky in this production, with a tangle of windswept blond hair. It's an unorthodox choice for the brooding farmhand locked in a battle of wills with cowboy Curly (Damon Daunno) over the beautiful Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones), but it is one that has stuck with the production for over a decade.

Vaill first gingerly stepped into the role as part of a college production helmed by experimental director Daniel Fish. Twelve years later, Fish is making his Broadway directorial debut, and Vaill's portrayal of Jud Fry is about to become one of the most talked-about performances of the year.

SPOILER ALERT: Key plot points of Oklahoma! are discussed in this interview.

Patrick Vaill stands outside Circle in the Square Theatre, where Oklahoma! is playing.
(© Janie Willison)

Did you ever expect to play Jud Fry on Broadway?
No. No. No. I definitely did not. The idea that this production is on Broadway is not something I ever thought would happen.

How long have you been with the show?
Twelve years. When I was a senior, Daniel Fish came to Bard College to direct something for the students. JoAnne Akalaitis ran the theater program and she asked him what he wanted to direct. He said, "Well, no one in their right mind would ever let me direct Oklahoma!, so I'd like to do that." And she agreed. So I auditioned as a student. I wanted desperately to play Curly, but Daniel cast me as Jud, much to my surprise. Over the course of rehearsing and creating it with him, I fell completely in love with the part and the play and Daniel's vision.

What is that vision?
Daniel comes from considerable experience with Shakespeare, so he takes the language and text very seriously. What is going on in Hammerstein's book is so complex, and there's so much to be explored. What he's done seems groundbreaking, but it's really as simple as knowing that the play has a lot to say, finding it, and putting it onstage.

Did you resist being cast as Jud at first?
Absolutely. I was stuck on the traditional way this character is cast, as this large, imposing figure. I remember I got the part right before winter break, so I had six weeks to develop an idea of how I would play someone big and scary. I walked into rehearsal and Daniel gently, quietly worked to release me from those constraints. The best thing about Daniel is that he treated Oklahoma! like a completely new play. So he encouraged us to look at the text simply for what it is. The character started to come alive for me in ways I wasn't expecting. Over time, he coaxed from me this very personal and tender portrayal of someone who is in profound pain.

Rebecca Naomi Jones plays Laurey, and Damon Daunno plays Curly in Oklahoma!
(© Teddy Wolff)

The reviews of your performance in both the 2015 Bard College run and the recent off-Broadway run at St. Ann's Warehouse have overwhelmingly described your Jud as an "incel" or a "school shooter" type. Do you think these are fair labels?
Oh gosh. I don't know. People are going to see what they see in it. Every night, I go out there and I say the words that Oscar Hammerstein wrote, and I try to give a truthful portrayal of someone who wants something so badly — and can't have it. Jud is someone who is longing for love, and to be touched. If people want to call him an "incel," fine. That's one of the great things about art: We can see our own times and experiences mirrored back to us.

Your portrayal of Jud is the most sympathetic one I've ever seen.
He's a sympathetic guy, when you look at what happens to him: The girl he's always dreamed of going to the party with agrees to go with him. He's saved up his money for two years to bid on her dinner at the auction, and then he watches an entire community work together to prevent him from getting the only thing he wants.

He's kind of like Carrie.
Exactly! Carrie has actually been hugely inspiring to me in this role. He thinks he's finally going to get what he wants and he watches as everyone onstage takes it away from him. It's a heartbreaking thing for anyone to have to go through. He's not just a "villain" who dies so that young love can prosper. We have to look at the kangaroo court that takes place after: Whether or not you like Jud, he's dead, not by natural means, and we watch a rigged justice system cover that up.

Tell me about your adorable tuxedo cat!
Lola was rescued by my parents from a backyard in Brooklyn. She had terrible ringworm when they first brought her to their apartment, so she had to live in the bathroom while they bathed her with all that stuff. Now she is a delightful, healthy, docile, and somewhat stupid cat that I just love. She's named after Lola in Damn Yankees — whatever she wants, she gets.