Saturday, October 28, 2006

"A bloody coup d'etat by the second rank"

Brendan Lemon of the LCT blog interviews David Manis, the actor playing patriarch Alexander Bakunin in Voyage while Richard Easton is recovering.

The Understudy
Posted October 27, 2006

On Wednesday, October 18, during the second preview of Voyage, Richard Easton, who plays the Russian landowner Alexander Bakunin, collapsed as he exited the stage during the evening performance. He was determined to be suffering from arrhythmia, and this past week underwent a procedure to install a pacemaker. He is expected back in the show in the next two weeks, and the opening date of Voyage has been moved from November 5 to November 27 to accommodate his return. Meanwhile, Easton is recuperating speedily at home, with an excellent prognosis.

One sign of the upbeat nature of his mood: Easton says he relishes the irony of the line he uttered in the play before collapsing. Easton's character is speaking to his son (played by Ethan Hawke), who has been importuning him for money to go to Berlin, and Easton, denying the request, exited while saying, "That is my last word."

To quote Billy Crudup's Belinsky in another part of the play: "Oh, my prophetic soul!"

As Easton recuperates, his role has been played by his understudy, David Manis. I chatted with Manis this week in his dressing room, after a rehearsal. I asked him how it felt to go from playing his normal role, the senior servant Semyon, to Easton's role, the landowner Bakunin. (Since The Coast of Utopia is rather obsessed with the German thinker Hegel, I couldn't help flashing, secretly, to that philosopher and his famous - famous in academia, that is -- Master-Slave dialectic. But I digress.)

Manis confessed jovially that the speed with which one can go from taking orders to giving orders is "distressingly human." He went on to say that he has understudied leading roles at Lincoln Center Theater three times before: for Sam Waterston in Abe Lincoln in Illinois; for Stephen Tobolowsky in Morning's at Seven; and for Kevin Kline as Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts I and II. He never had to go on for any of those men, however.

Manis continued, "I've been in things where understudies have gone on. "That first night is a little bit like being shot out of a cannon while you try to look calm. And you usually find that for the first performance or two everything goes fine. Because there's so much adrenaline on the stage from everybody. What can be hard is when a week later there's isn't as much adrenaline from everybody."

Manis said that there's been no drop in energy during his current interim run doing Easton's role. "We're very aware that there's still a lot left to do. It would be very different if you went on as an understudy eight months into a commercial run on Broadway when everything was settled. But here, everyone's very aware that we're still climbing the mountain. It's a very supportive cast. They've been pulling together and helping me until Richard gets back. And then we'll help him once he gets back."

I asked Manis why the idea of an understudy having to go on is so fascinating both to theatergoers and to writers - from the young innocent having to go on in 42nd Street to Eve Harrington scheming her way into the spotlight in All About Eve.

Manis replied, "For theatergoers it's about the non-actor's anxiety of being thrust suddenly into the spotlight. It hooks into the Jerry Seinfeld joke about people's number one fear being public speaking; death is only number three. About how at the funeral people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy."

Manis's mention of Seinfeld made me think of that program's storyline where Bette Midler is appearing in a musical called "Rochelle Rochelle"; after Midler is injured in a softball game, her standby ends up going on for her. Somewhere in that episode, Kramer says, "Understudies are a very shifty bunch. The substitute teachers of the theater world."

As for the understudy's fascination for writers, Manis talked about Stoppard. "In his early play The Real Inspector Hound, there are two drama critics. The second-string critic has this long monologue where he says, if my memory serves, 'Sometimes I dream of revolution, a bloody coup d'etat by the second rank. Troupes of actors slaughtered by their understudies.' I played that part in fact."

Manis added that he always hopes that, as an understudy, he is able to go on, though under kinder circumstances than the event that propelled him into Easton's role. "I always feel like, hey, I can play that part."

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