Sam Waterston in New Haven
The Yale grad co-stars in the The Black Monk, a new David Rabe play based on a story by Chekhov, at the Yale Rep.
While Waterston was at Yale on scholarship, the concept of acting as a career took hold: In 1960, he appeared as Lucky in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Yet the stalwart New England youth decided that he'd better try something better suited to making a living, so he took off for Paris in his junior year to study architecture at the Sorbonne. Fortunately for theatergoers, that move did little to kill Waterson's acting bug. In Paris, he managed to find a group of mostly American ex-pat actors working under the tutelage of fabled director John Berry. After graduation, Waterston played Godot's Estragon for another Connecticut summer stock company.
Although he has played several architects on stage and screen -- in Woody Allen's Hannah and her Sisters, opposite Glenn Close on Broadway in Benefactors, and in Hartford Stage's The Master Builder -- Waterston eventually put architecture on permanent hold in favor of an acting career that has garnered him dozens of Tony, Emmy, Oscar, and Golden Globe nominations. Not bad for an actor once dubbed "The Busiest, Most Unappreciated Young Leading Man Around" (in After Dark, December 1968). In the 33 years since then, Waterston returned to Much Ado About Nothing to win an Obie and a Drama Desk Award for his portrayal of Benedick. Among his subsequent roles: The Glass Menagerie's Tom Wingfield (on TV, opposite Katharine Hepburn), Hamlet, J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway, and journalist Sydney Schanberg in The Killing Fields. But playing lawyers has brought Waterston his highest accolades: He won the Tony for Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Emmys for his performances as Jack McCoy in Law & Order's and Forrest Bedford in I'll Fly Away.
Now, Waterston is back on stage in Connecticut, performing in Yale Rep's The Black Monk. Based on a Chekhov story, the play was written by David Rabe, whom Waterston has known "ever since the '70s, when we were both down at the Public working on different plays." The actor became involved with The Black Monk after Rabe called and asked him to do an informal reading a year or so ago. "I loved the play," he says. "I mean how often do you get to do a new Chekhov play?" (He played Vereshinin opposite Law & Order castmate Dianne Wiest in the Manhattan Theatre Club's 1982 Three Sisters.) Director Daniel Fish came on board when his agent, who also represents Rabe, gave him a copy of the script; Fish brought it to the attention of Yale Rep artistic director James Bundy last spring, and Rabe has been deeply involved in the rehearsal process.
The Black Monk tells the story of Kovrin (Thomas Jay Ryan), a brilliant but mentally ill philosophy student, who, after earning his degree, returns to live with the dysfunctional Pesotskys: Tanya (Jenny Bacon) and her father, Yegor Semyonitch (Waterston). Kovrin is visited by the vision of a Black Monk who predicts future greatness for him. Then Kovrin marries Tanya, who is none too stable herself, and they leave the estate for the city. Chaos ensues. "The whole story of the Black Monk is deeply ironic," says Waterston. "It's so interesting and rich, the way Chekhov manages to show the day-to-day, living and breathing characters juxtaposed with this magical quality. A lot of that is Daniel -- the miniature white horse, the set, and the way it ends." The play is staged in non-realistic fashion, and Waterston's Yegor often recalls the physical humor of his long-ago Benedick.
"This is a homecoming of sorts -- not to this theater, but to this town," he says in discussing his periodic need to get back on stage. "There's the pull of getting back in front of an audience, but I don't know whether it's not just important to do something else besides Law & Order -- a movie or something." As for rumors that The Black Monk might be an out-of town tryout, Waterston shakes his head and says, "I just know that this production is for here. I never heard anyone speak of anything else, but it's a good play and I'll bet it will be done a lot."
His Law & Order hiatus is over at the end of July. "It takes eight 12-hour days to finish each episode," Waterston tells me; in fact, he stays in New York during the shooting season rather than commuting to his Connecticut home. The actor knows first-hand about the difficulty of directing for television. "I directed an episode of I'll Fly Away with the entire company holding me up," he reveals with a laugh. "I would never try to direct an episode of Law & Order. It's such a complicated puzzle to solve because of the time pressure; there's maybe 15 minutes of leeway in a day to think of things that you'd like to do, and if you lose time because you're not completely on top of your game about camera placement and all, then you're just running to catch up for the rest of the show." Waterston also has no desire to direct theater, explaining: "It's just something I never did. Acting has always been so interesting."
During a recent hiatus, he worked again for Merchant-Ivory on the film Le Divorce, set to open this August. "It was more like a delightful paid vacation in Paris with friends," Waterston beams. He plays Kate Hudson's dad and Stockard Channing's husband in the film, which also features Glenn Close (his co-star in Benefactors), Naomi Watts, Bebe Neuwirth, and Leslie Caron.