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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Can an actor be good when playing opposite a bad one? Filichia's readers respond. logo

Carolee Carmello in The King and I
(Photo: Jerry Dalia)
Some days ago, I mentioned that when I reviewed The King and I at the Paper Mill Playhouse, I called Kevin Gray terrible and Carolee Carmello wonderful. One e-mail I received from a woman said I obviously didn't know anything about theater, because anyone who's studied the medium knows that no one can be good if he or she is playing opposite someone bad. Could this possibly be true, I wondered? So I asked my readers for their opinions.

Valerie LaCount said, "Certainly!" Wayne Tagg wrote, "Absolutely!!!" Matthew Windman exclaimed, "Yes!" and Chris Paz insisted, "Yes! Yes! Absolutely, positively, spiritually, physically, undeniably, and reliably YES!" Most readers--but not all--who wrote in felt the same. Robert Jay Cronin said, "A true star can shine acting opposite a puppet." Coyact asserted, "To suggest that one star can't be excellent because the co-star isn't is ludicrous." And Brian Vinero wittily observed, "If you can only be good if the person opposite you is just as good, then I guess it's impossible to be good in a one-person show."

Allen Neuner noted, "Saying you can't be good under those circumstances would mean that all acting is played at the level of the worst actor." Roger Calderon decided, "Actors go through long processes to prepare. Many an actor keeps a journal in which he analyzes every line he says--and everyone else's. He'll research why his character feels the way he feels and does what he does. There's so much book work before the actual performance that when it's time to execute that on stage, even if his scene partner is not on par with him, a good actor would have so much else to play." And Bill No-Last-Name said, "If one performer is particularly bad, the good partner seems even better than he would have been with an equal partner. That also means the lesser performer usually seems even worse."

Said Chris Van Ness, "What we have here is someone trying to invert an old adage as an arguable proposition. Yes, a good or great performance can better the work of those around it, but the inverse is simply not true. A bad performer may even look worse if the performers around him are doing their jobs." But Dave Judson wasn't so sure. "The great performers find that something extra to make up for the other's deficiencies. But where I'd agree with the e-mailer is that the key to any good scene is conflict: What does this person and the other person want? The magic happens when the characters' eyes meet and the internal negotiations occur. There are few characters with more negotiations than the King and Anna. While Gray's posturing may not have taken away from Carmello's performance, it had to rob the audience of those moments of true negotiation." David Carlyon had a similar observation: "Whether I've been acting or watching, I've seen individual performers who seem to shine despite a lack of quality around them. And yet, I also know that a performer can do things to look good despite the production, the director, the fellow actors--which can mean betraying the others. So I'm always suspicious of praise that gives all glory to one particular performer."

Some who answered were performers themselves. Michael Innocenti reminisced, "I was performing at the annual Shakespeare Festival at the Folger Library in Washington, as Clarence in Richard III, and the person I was playing against was not exactly Sir Laurence Olivier. But I won the distinguished outstanding acting award, and the judges later told me that I won because I was able to keep the flow and pace of the scene moving...and provide the atmosphere for the both of us. So, even when you're acting with the next Mariah Carey, you can still be good."

But Krebsman said, "I played over 800 performances of The Fantasticks with constant changes in personnel. There were times when terrific actors played the roles and times when they were succeeded by talentless ones. The show must go on. But if the person is not on your wavelength, you compromise here and there. So I'm sure Carolee was 'charming,' 'powerful,' 'mellifluous,' and 'wonderful,' but my guess is that she would have done so much more with a different King." And Thursday Farrar added, "I've worked on shows that were not well received on Broadway. Going higher on the food chain doesn't necessarily mean better. It's that old adage: You're only as good as the company you keep."

Frank Soldo pointed out that, "If the performer is good playing opposite a poor one, then it's probably all the more reason to praise the good performance, for she has had to rise above a major obstacle." Lisa Raymond said, "While I think I'm better when my scene partners are good, when I play opposite someone who isn't good, it doesn't mean that I'm not. I try to react truthfully while being true to the script and the direction." And Dorothy Brady sniffed, "Of course I can be good even if my partner isn't. I'm always good. Well, just about always."

Not every performer was that sure of himself. Said David Martinek, "I was in a production of The Boys Next Door [with] a group of wonderful, New York-based actors who were leagues above me. I had to work extra hard to come up to their level. It was a great challenge and a show that I treasure as a result." Paul Mendenhall came clean, too: "In my blessedly brief career as an actor, I was invariably atrocious, but that did not prevent my fellow thespians from being very good indeed!"

Added Glenn Rosenblum, "You can be great if the entire show is a bomb. The one performance that is still the epitome of that to me is Allyson Reed in Marilyn." Eric Hurst observed, "I have seen actors who might have gone unnoticed, but they were celebrated because they were so much better than their scene partners." Geoffrey Soffer said, "It's a requirement for the actor to be able to deal with those dreaded situations, regardless of the co-star. A wonderful actor knows how to transport himself to the place that the text and the situation requires." Marcelo Kolitar said, "A bad acting partner can ruin your part if you let yourself fall down, but a bad performance can make your own performance look better in the eyes of the audience than it really is." Ryan DeFoe agreed, though Susan Cassidy cautioned, "But it's a lot harder. An actress on tour was so bad, the others playing with her couldn't look her in the eye. They'd gaze at her third eye--that spot in the middle of your forehead."

Thomas McCarthy, Patti LuPone,
and Robin Weigert in Noises Off
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Some readers were very specific. Rob Bullock cited Patti LuPone in Noises Off, Ann-Margret in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Faye Dunaway in Master Class as performances he found wanting in casts he found otherwise worthy. Simon Saltzman wrote, "Florence Henderson was a dream and José Ferrer a nightmare in The Girl Who Came to Supper. Mary Martin was stupendous while Dennis O'Keefe (out of town, of course) was stupefying in Jennie. Nanette Fabray was delightful but Robert Ryan was deadly in Mr. President. Art Lund was a trouper but Libby Staiger a travesty in Sophie. And, last but not least: There was the entire other half of Two's Company to offset Bette Davis." Ron Fassler mentioned that "Geraldine Page was so good in Agnes of God and Elizabeth Ashley so God-awful that I watched the play with my hand in front of my face vertically, splitting the action so that I didn't have to watch Ashley." Bobbi Owens insisted that "the lead actress who played the mother in Side Man shone despite Christian Slater. One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch." Steve Barikian applauded Heather Headley and Sherie René Scott in Aida while indicting Adam Pascal, commended Tony Vincent in Jesus Christ Superstar while crucifying Glenn Carter, and concluded that "Colleen Sexton and Andrea Rivette in Jekyll & Hyde convincingly pulled off loving Sebastian Bach. What harder task is there to do?"

But Richard Ouzounian said, "Everyone hated the book scenes in Funny Girl, where Mr. Chaplin was the designated hitter, but loved the songs, because there Barbra's partner was the audience--who knew exactly what to do. So much of Anna's role [in The King and I] is played to Louis, Lady Thiang, the children, and the audience that I fully believe Carolee could have been great while Kevin could have failed to make the grade." Jan Dorland echoed that with, "Luckily, Anna starts the show and gets to score points with the audience on her own. Most of her scenes are with others, not the King, and so he is not apt to pull her down or set her on a downward spiral that cannot be stopped."

But we'll give Jason Thomas Fitzgerald the last word: "Your irate reader is confusing acting with tennis. My sisters who play [tennis] tell me that you always play your best game when your opponent is as good or better than you are, and that you play your worst when your opponent is inferior. But tennis isn't theater!"


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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