Jake Robards on Rattlesnake and Craig Bierko on Modern Orthodox. Plus: Karen Mason celebrates Christmas in three different cities!
As the youngest son of the late, great Jason Robards, it would seem to be destiny that Jake Robards is following in his dad's footsteps, but he almost took a detour. "I thought I might be a lawyer or something boring like that," Robards says. "I studied International Relations at Georgetown, with a minor in French. I took this French Theater course as a requirement my senior year, and this crazy Australian teacher made us act out the scenes in class. I loved it, so I decided to give acting a shot. Of course, I waited until after I graduated and was traveling around Europe for the summer to tell my parents -- by letter. When I came home, my dad was kind of proud, and my mom, Lois, was a little worried about the tough road ahead."
She needn't have worried. Robards, who landed the role of Howie Newsome in the 2002 Broadway production of Our Town after running into director James Naughton in a bar, is doing just fine in his career. Beginning December 2, he will be starring at the WorkShop Theater in Fred Pezzulli's new drama Rattlesnake. His character, Johnny Mariani, is a rich New York boy who decides to join the Army during World War II and ends up in a poor West Virginia town, where he falls for the local prostitute. "I know a little bit about the war because my dad served in it," says Robards, "as did my mother's brothers. There's always been some family lore that's sparked my interest in that era."
Having seen most of his dad's film work and a few of his theater performances -- he specifically remembers numerous matinees of You Can't Take It With You, after which he begged his dad to buy him fireworks --- is there a part that he would never attempt? "I'd never want to do Jamie Tyrone, though I've always wanted to do Edmund," Robards states. "In fact, my dad was originally offered Edmund and had to convince José Quintero to let him do Jamie. I don't think I'd ever try Hickey, either -- but you never say never."
Neither snow nor sleet nor hail can stop New York theatergoers from seeing plays by William Shakespeare -- or works based on the Bard's works. The John Houseman is currently home to Lone Star Love, a musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor. December 2 brings us Best of Both Worlds, a gospel-tinged retelling of The Winter's Tale, created by OBIE winner Diedre Murray and the husband-and-wife team of Randy Weiner and Diane Paulus, while Sonnet Repertory's version of that play, set in the Hamptons circa 1977, premieres on December 9. Meanwhile, the well regarded Aquila Theatre gets into the act with its take on Twelfth Night, running December 10-12 at the Baruch Center for the Performing Arts.
Looking ahead, BAM will present an all-new version of As You Like It in January, directed by Sir Peter Hall; Theater for a New Audience will serve up Coriolanus in February, starring Christian Camargo and Roberta Maxwell; and a future-set version of Julius Caesar starring Oscar winner Denzel Washington is scheduled to open at the Belasco in March.
We all have our own holiday traditions, and one of mine is to catch Karen Mason's fabulous seasonal show Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!, which will play December 11 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, December 13 at Birdland in NYC (click here for details), and December 15-20 at Davenport's in Chicago. (She will also perform a couple of selections from the show in Christmas Carolyn, a benefit at St. Clement's Church on December 12.) The repertoire ranges from traditional classics like "Silent Night" to Joni Mitchell's "River," with some new surprises this year. "I'm going to add two or three songs," says Mason, "which I think will make it interesting for the people who've been coming to see this show over the past 20 years."
While the singer considers Chicago her hometown, the whole truth is that she was born in New Orleans -- which is why she's particularly excited that she's scheduled to play that city's lovely cabaret venue Le Chat Noir, December 31-January 8, with Billy Stritch at the piano. "We moved when I was very young," Mason explains, "but we did go back from time to time to visit relatives. I haven't been there in about 20 years, so I can't wait."
Craig Bierko found a number of compelling reasons to make his return to the stage in Daniel Goldfarb's new comedy Modern Orthodox. He plays Ben, a liberal Jew whose life is turned upside down after one brief meeting with Herschl, the Orthodox diamond dealer (played by Jason Biggs) from whom he purchases an engagement ring for his fiancée Hannah (played by Molly Ringwald). "My mother is Jewish, though she converted to Catholicism," Bierko says, "so we ended up being Christmas tree Jews. I grew up in Westchester with a lot of Jewish friends, and I feel very connected to that part of my heritage. When I read the play, it was the first time I'd seen that part of myself addressed." While Ben at first denigrates Herschl, chiding him about religious hypocrisy, the two eventually come to their own understanding about what it means to be Jewish. "I consider this to be a very fair play -- a life-affirming, faith-affirming play," comments Bierko. "It doesn't just take liberal shots at the silliness of believing in religion."
The actor was also attracted to the piece because it afforded him the opportunity to work with Tony Award-winning director James Lapine. "James is very precise," says Bierko. "He works with very simple lines and doesn't overstylize his direction. He comes in knowing exactly what he wants. In my very first meeting with James, he challenged me about some of my ideas about Ben, and I thought, 'Let's get it on!' I learned that if you're challenging his vision, you need to say something that's really going to convince him otherwise. And I discovered that his vision is largely correct."
Taking on a comedy was also important to the 39-year-old actor, since he spent much of the summer filming Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, in which he plays boxer Max Baer. "There isn't anything much more dramatic than two guys duking it out in the ring," he remarks, "which is what my part basically is. Max is the villain of the piece, though not in that mustache-twirling way. He was a tremendously scary fighter; he used to slaughter cows with a sledgehammer and he even killed two guys in the ring. But he was also an entertainer. He had an act that was a big hit, and they tried to turn him into a movie star."
Audiences hoping to see Bierko back on the musical stage -- he starred in The Music Man and headlined the less-than-beloved Thou Shalt Not -- may have a long wait. "I will do another musical when the right one comes along, but I already I feel like I did the best one ever," he says. "The most important thing for me, having worked with Susan Stroman on two shows, is that I know what I am looking for in a leader. You can never tell how material will play, but you can control who your director is."
LE JAZZ HOT
Le Jazz au Bar is pulling all the stops out in 2005. Among the divas who will grace this swanky space next year are the incomparable Eartha Kitt , Tony Award winners Donna McKechnie, Ruth Brown, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, along with such truly great singers as Shirley Horn, Wesla Whitfield, and Marlena Shaw.
I C U
If you weren't in town during Thanksgiving week, you missed some very interesting sights -- and I don't mean the SpongeBob SquarePants balloon. There was Matthew Morrison cheering on former Hairspray castmate Jackie Hoffman at the opening of her hilarious new show on Monday at Joe's Pub; the talented Craig Rubano applauding the divine Andrea Marcovicci in her superb new show Andrea Sings Astaireat the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room on Tuesday; and Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Silverman, and Frank Rich joining the ovation for the Manhattan Theatre Club's magnificent production of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt on Wednesday. (Was Byrne there to see his countryman Brían F. O'Byrne or his former co-star Cherry Jones?) But for sheer celebrity volume, nothing beat funnyman Eddie Izzard entering the New 42nd Street Studios on Saturday afternoon just as the cast of Monday night's National AIDS Fund benefit concert of Pippin was filing out from a rehearsal.
[To contact Brian Scott Lipton directly, e-mail him at [email protected].]