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Wherefore Art Thou Dromio?

Lee Wilkof and Chip Zien slave away in The Boys From Syracuse. logo
Chip Zien (l) and Lee Wilkof (r) with Toni DiBuono
in The Boys From Syracuse
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Oh, brother! In the new Roundabout production of The Boys From Syracuse, the identical-twin slaves, each named Dromio, are played by Lee Wilkof and Chip Zien. The show opened to mixed reviews on August 18 after what both actors describe as a demanding but productive rehearsal period.

"We've rehearsed a lot since we started previewing," says Wilkof in an interview 10 days before opening, and Zien concurs: "We've never stopped rehearsing -- but I think we're looking much better." Wilkof notes, "We've been friends for 25 years." Zien jokes, "Actually, it's 55 years. Lee is 78." (Look for them next in The Sunshine Boys From Syracuse.)

Both actors definitely prefer performances to rehearsals. "I don't often take as much advantage of the rehearsal period as maybe I could or should," observes Wilkof. "I love the whole process of getting to know the show and the people. But rehearsals are very hard for me; I find my way in performances. I think some early performances suffer because of that." Zien, for his part, says: "I get moody during rehearsals. I suddenly think I'm great when I'm not." It's interesting to learn that Scott Ellis, who directed this revival of the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart-George Abbott musical (which has a new book by Nicky Silver), happens to be a twin. "He gave us insight about the psychic connections," says Wilkof. "I once went over to Scott [who directed Wilkof as Sipos in She Loves Me] at Joe Allen's and congratulated him on a show -- and it was his brother. They're incredibly identical."

In the 1938 original, the Dromios (Dromii?) were played by Teddy Hart -- brother of Lorenz -- and the similar-looking Jimmy Savo. The 1940 movie version cast Joe Penner as both Dromios. (Incidentally, an ad for the film read: "On Broadway for a year at $5.50 -- now it's here at popular prices.") This time around, there's been no particular effort to have the twin slaves appear as mirror images. "I could do both parts," insists Zien. "I begged Scott Ellis to fire Lee but he wouldn't listen to me."

Each actor decided on his profession while in college. "That's when it started to make sense," recalls Wilkof, a University of Cincinnati graduate. "I knew nothing about the business and was naïve enough to think I could make a living -- and I have. I'm still slogging away, and I consider myself extremely lucky." Zien, who attended the University of Pennsylvania, wanted to be a lawyer, but "I got sidetracked by this company called 'The Mask and Wig Club.' After college, I decided not to go to law school and went to work for my stepsister, who was running a theater in Chicago. My father begged me to go to Europe for a year and then go back to law school, but I didn't."

Wilkof was born in Canton, Ohio, where his two brothers went into the family iron and steel business. "The joke used to be, 'My mother irons, my father steals,'" he relates "The business was bought out by a company that has since gone bankrupt. My mother lives in Florida; my father passed away when I was doing She Loves Me." The Milwaukee-born Zien has an older sister, a stepsister and a stepbrother. His first professional job "was as Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. I walked in and lied; I said I was in Equity and I got the part." Zien's Broadway debut was in the 1974 play All Over Town. "I went on as an understudy and could not feel my body from the neck down," he says. "Later, I took over the role and went on tour in it."

Wilkof bowed on Broadway as Herman (who loves to cry at weddings) in the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity, appearing next in a Lincoln Center revival of The Front Page. "That was directed by Jerry Zaks," he recalls, "and it starred Johnny Lithgow; he's a wonderful actor and a wonderful person. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to go back and forth between musicals and plays," Wilkof continues. "That's something I've made a really strong effort to do. From Kiss Me, Kate [which earned him a Tony nomination] I went to John Guare's play Chaucer in Rome, then to Steve Martin's The Underpants, and now I'm doing Syracuse."

Zien's long association with composer-lyricist William Finn dates back to In Trousers, in which Zien created the role of Marvin. "First time we met," the actor remembers, "Bill made me stand on a chair and put my hands in my pockets and sing without waving my hands around. I thought he was either a genius or phenomenally rude." When Finn wrote the sequel, March of the Falsettos, he called Zien and told him that he wanted him to play the part of Mendel. "He told me I was too short to play Marvin. We didn't speak for awhile -- then he prevailed." Zien played Mendel in all the incarnations of the show, including Falsettoland and Falsettos. "I was in every single version that was ever done -- every reading in Bill's apartment, every workshop. Bill's one of my closest friends."

Wilkof's breakthrough role was Seymour in the 1982 Off-Broadway musical, Little Shop of Horrors, with a score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The assistant to lyricist Ashman was Connie Grappo, who became Mrs. Wilkof. "My wife said [the choice for the role of Seymour] was between Nathan Lane and me. I think I got it because of my wife!" He later got to work with Lane in the Encores! production of Do-Re-Mi and at the Manhattan Theatre Club in Mizlansky/Zilinsky, or Schmucks; in fact, he got to share a dressing room with Lane, Lewis J. Stadlen, Mark Blum, and Larry Pine. "That and Assassins were probably the most fun dressing-room experiences I've ever had," he says. "We had a lot of laughs; none of us wanted to go home. I have a great dressing room situation now. There's Chip, Tom Hewitt and Jonathan Dokuchitz." (The latter two play the identical-twin masters of the Dromios, both named Antipholus.)

"My two favorite roles," says Zien, "are Mendel and the part of the Baker in [the original] Into the Woods. I'm really proud of those." His casting as the Baker came about in an unusual way: Zien had played Charley in a La Jolla production of Merrily We Roll Along that co-starred John Rubenstein and Heather MacRae. "It was the first reworking after Broadway, and we thought they were bringing it back to New York," he says. "I went to a barbecue at [director] James Lapine's summer house and he said the show wasn't coming in, that he'd moved onto a new project called Into the Woods. At the first reading, I played Cinderella's Prince. I did a Monty Python thing, and thought I was uproariously funny; Lapine said, 'No, that's not what I had in mind.' Then I went out to Los Angeles to do a TV show, and [producer] Ira Weitzman phoned to tell me that I was going to be called back to audition for the Baker. He said, 'I think if you do not come back to audition, Lapine will offer you the part. They're so confused. Tell them you're busy, and you'll get the job.' And that's what I did!"

Also high on Zien's list of accomplishments is the role of Kringelein in Grand Hotel, in which he succeeded Michael Jeter on Broadway. "I loved every minute of it," he enthuses. "I went in with about five days' rehearsal. [Director] Tommy Tune was wonderful to me."

And what are Wilkof's favorite roles? "Most people would think I'd say Seymour," he remarks. "I call it my Hamlet, because he's onstage the whole show -- and I'll probably never play Hamlet! But playing Sam Byk in Assassins gave me the most satisfaction. It's the type of role I never get to play -- a very dark character. A few people who saw the show and remember that I was in it say it's too bad I didn't get to sing. But I did sing: I had two brilliantly written monologues. Steve [Sondheim] said they were arias themselves and didn't need music." Wilkof notes that Little Shop has come full circle: "My wife is directing the [upcoming] Broadway revival."

The Wilkofs are parents of a daughter, Perrie, 15. According to her dad, "Her passion is fashion. She said that she might be interested in costume design, which I think would be great." Zien's wife, Suzy Pilarre, teaches at the School of American Ballet. He met her "while doing a reading at a very fancy Park Avenue apartment. She had her legs up on the wall, in a position that was not possible. I asked the author who she was and he said, 'She's a dancer in the New York City Ballet -- and she just asked if she could meet you.'" The Ziens have two daughters.

In October, Wilkof will be seen in the new Tim Blake Nelson film The Gray Zone. Next up for Zien: "I'll be the announcer on The Caroline Rhea Show [starting on TV in the fall]. Hopefully, we'll chat at the beginning of the program." Our interview ends as the actors prepare for more Syracuse rehearsals. "They plan to freeze the show tomorrow," says Wilkof, "and I think everyone will be relieved just to be able to run it." Zien agrees: "Then, we can relax and pretend that we know what we're doing."

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