By Patrick Christiano
“It’s a Hard Act To Follow” was the topic of a special Drama Desk Panel Discussion and luncheon held at Sardi’s this past Friday March 30th. The conversation moderated by USA Today theater critic Elysa Gardner explored the challenges confronting actors in current New York Theater revivals of plays that originally featured iconic performances by stars, which in many cases launched their careers when the shows were first produced in New York. How does an actor follow in the footsteps of the stars who gave such indelible performances was the focus of the talk?
Probably the most challenging task faced by the panelists falls on Blair Underwood, who will be reprising Marlon Brando’s famous menacing creation of the brutish Stanley in Tennessee Williams’1948 Pulitzer Prize winning drama “A
Streetcar Named Desire,” a role Brando later transferred to film in 1951 opposite Vivien Leigh. The Elia Kazan cinema classic made Brando’s interpretation of the unrefined Stanley even more legendary by providing generations of movie fans the opportunity to see his remarkable and enduring portrayal. Undaunted, however, Blair Underwood, who is currently in rehearsals of what may be one of the most interesting revivals of the season, an all African-American version, said “let the comparisons fall where they may.”
Cynthia Nixon has an easier task of following in the footsteps of Kathleen Chalfant, who gave a tour de force performance chronicling the 8 month struggle of a doctor’s ultimate demise to ovarian cancer in Barbara Edsen’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning drama “Wit.” Less challenging because the play ran Off-Broadway for less than 600 performances, but anyone who saw the magnificent Chalfant will never forget the harrowing perfection and authority she brought to the stage with such disturbing authenticity.
Other members of the panel included Michael McKean, who replaced the incomparable Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” and is now appearing in Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” along with Hunter Parrish, who replaced Jonathan Groff in “Spring Awakening” and is now currently playing the role of Jesus Christ in the revival of “Godspell.”
Also on the panel was Manhattan Theatre Club’s Artistic Director Lynne Meadow, who offered Cynthia Nixon the role in “Wit” and directed the star giving her blessings to steal whatever worked from the original production.
Brian d’Arcy James and Donna Murphy will announce the Drama Desk Nominations at Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency on April 27, 2012 and the 57th Annual Drama Desk Awards will be held at The Town Hall on June 3rd.
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Photography: Barry Gordin