Cast and Characters Part 1

Honestly I’ve been using this as a bit of a writing excercie to get myself out of a rut. But some people asked for takes on the actors/their choices with the characters so here are some notes….(more to follow)

Denise Gough- Harper
There is a part of me that believe Denise Gough just sort of arrives fully formed at perfection in her acting roles. And while I know that can’t be true I kind of want it to be true. Her Harper, a bit like McArdle’s Louis is everything I didn’t know she was but needed her to be. Gough’s Harper is tough, and she’s sharp around the edges, which makes her more vulnerable when she needs to be.
Her Harper is a ‘fighty’ one.  It’s easy to play Harper as slightly broken and a bit demure. But a Harper with some bite (and not just in pulling down trees) is even more tragic in the first part, and even more hopeful in the second. If your Harper is going down, being beaten by her addiction, her Husband’s secret life, her past, her lack of child-it’s easy to just play the despair, but Gough plays Harper as someone being swallowed up by that black hole but fighting all the way. Yes she disappears into her dreams, that’s her escape- everyone needs that- but the rest of the time she’s fighting to hold on to her marriage, to herself and to keep whatever other secrets and past from taking hold. It would be easy to just play the woman slipped into passive drug addiction, but never once does everything that’s led to that slip from Gough’s grasp.
There’s also a real self-awareness to her Harper. She knows what her problems are and it’s like we’re watching her watch herself get dragged down into them with eyes wide open. And that’s terrifying, and incredibly sad. She knows she’s losing her grip, and for a long time there’s nothing she can do about it. But when she’s finally able to she lifts the audience along with here. There’s an element of the ‘threshold of revelation’ that is all the weird dreams and escapes also being Harper’s crystal-clear awareness of her situation- but without self-pity. She also plays a genuine love and affection for Joe- again without self-pity- that makes the loneliness of Part 1 feel even more raw, but also makes her escape from him more triumphant.
It’s a little detail but I love that Gough cut her hair into a pixie cut. Not just because I have that haircut and I think more women should rock it (and she does) but because that was a neat little character choice- the short-haired Harper out of step with Fashion, probably had it cut like that in Salt Lake and kept it that way. She’s not girly, not ‘into’ clothes or fashion because she’s presumably never been exposed to much of that. And there’s a certain nod to ‘will Joe prefer it if I have short hair’ (as much as I hate the short-haired-girls-like-boys analogy it’s certainly one at play here). It also plays into a narrative where she takes some ownership of how she looks- for appearances I’m sure Joe would prefer a girly looking wife. Harper’s unkempt ‘tomboy’ look feels like a defiance of the Mormon wife look, and what Joe would like to hide behind.  And that Gough presumably cut it once then let it grow across the run left her with a slightly unruly crop that worked for a woman for whom a cut and blow dry wouldn’t be top of the list.
Gough plays the love and humanity of Harper’s story, rather than the Mormon or drug addiction sides that can eclipse her as a person. Harper is also a centre point of the story- something easily lost with a (dare I say it) lesser actor and director. I’m not usually one for playing this card but I don’t think it’s coincidence that a production directed by a woman puts Harper firmly in the centre of the story. Because she is at the centre- the story comes ‘through’ her as much as Prior- she’s actually Prior’s counterpoint. And instead of losing her to the ‘poor wife’ in the ‘gay story’ we actually see her as equal with Prior- they’re both ill in different ways, both abandoned in different ways (and then ultimately by the same cheating couple) and they’ve both lost their way. The fact also that I felt Harper’s loss of a child/want for a child as a driver more than in any other incarnation, as well as whatever she had gone through at home. There was a real sensitivity to the way Gough delivered (and Elliot directed) that felt a real sensitivity to the way women experience the world.

Roy- Nathan Lane.
Firstly, hands up- I wasn’t excited about the Lane casting. I know a lot of people partly went to see the play because they wanted to see Nathan Lane on stage and that’s perfectly valid- I’ve previously done that. But for me he wasn’t a ‘Roy’. I commend what he did, particularly in Part 2 but personally I still rest on the side of ‘wouldn’t be my choice’.
This for me came into sharp relief on re-watching the HBO version, where Al Pacino as Roy stops being ‘Al Pacino’ after probably the first scene and melts into Roy. For me Lane never quite disappears into his character in the same way. His ‘Nathan Lane’ ness works really well for Roy, the evil end of the Max Bialystock spectrum works perfectly in fact for the jokey-but-evil Roy of Part 1. And the confidence of an actor who knows exactly how to work an audience translates in fact to Roy working his own audience of Joe within the play. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the portrayal, but for me something never quite landed.
I think honestly, it’s one of those personal intangible actor things that someone doesn’t quite click with an interpretation of the character. And while other actors in this company also didn’t fit the mould on first sight, they won me over. While Lane won me over to an extent- and I don’t deny he does have the acting ‘chops’ I wasn’t ever completely won over- and can’t quite put my finger on anything but he just doesn’t feel like Roy.
Part 2 is defiantly Lane’s stronger part- when Cohn’s illness takes hold and it forces his hand out of the familiar dark-comedic role into something more substantial. This is why no doubt he wanted to play the role- and he does show that he has it in him. There are moments of genuine despair and frustration in his character that make you see a glimpse of the man under the monster. Lane also cultivates the relationships with the two characters closest to him well- the sexual tension filled relationship with Joe comes across as complex yet caring- a contradiction to the Roy-the-Monster we feel we should see. Meanwhile the biting animosity driven almost friendship with Belize is fascinating to watch develop.
Lane was a tricky bit of casting for me- and I still can’t tell if it is my own preconceptions that meant it never quite ‘landed’ for me. Or if there is in fact something about the portrayal that just doesn’t work. But that’s the nature of theatre and performance right- can’t win them all. I will say that his final line got me every time- in part due to my own personal associations with the play. But that on the line ‘What you love will take you places you never dreamt you’d go’ got me every time so really, credit where credit’s due- it’s all in the payoff and that worked.
Belize- Nathan Stewart Jarret
I’ve heard this role called the ‘easy’ one and I disagree. Yes, he’s an inherently likeable character, but it would be too easy to render Belize to his one-liners and trusty sidekick role. In Nathan Stewart Jarret’s hands, he is much more. Take as one example the ‘Angels in America’ monologue. A what ten minutes of dialogue that is James McArdle holding court right? wrong, what Stewart-Jarret does is turn a monologue into a conversation. As much as that scene still belongs to McArdle, what Stewart-Jarret is doing makes what McArdle does possible. And there’s a lot to be said for an actor that enables the other in a scene to shine.  But what Stewart-Jarret does isn’t just about giving his partner a platform, he’s giving us just as much about his character with no words as McArdle does in that scene with more words than should be humanly possible.  Similarly, the Angel’s arrival in Perestroika, is quite rightly dominated by well- a huge Angel having sex with Prior- however Belize is no longer a passive observer in this scene- he is active, driving Prior’s storytelling and engaging the audience with it. Stewart-Jarret spends a lot of time in the background to other characters, but he gives the very definition of ‘supporting’ performance when he is- everything he does elevates the whole scene. And in that he’s given plenty of scope to break through himself.
It’s a great achievement to create so much from Belize- I feel I know him far better as a character from this performance than any other (something that can be said for many of the characters/actors in fact). We actually don’t learn a great deal about Belize- deliberately on Kushner’s part- partly because in a way his life is less interesting- the most ‘together’ of the characters he doesn’t have his own drama but is instead pulled into everyone else’s. However that doesn’t mean he’s not interesting because of it- and Stewart-Jarret pulls that out.
It’s easy in fact to overlook Belize in the narrative- amid the turmoil of the central relationships and Roy looming large- however his character is vital. Belize is firstly a nurse on the frontline of the AIDS epidemic, he is seeing first-hand what the others are only hearing about and fearing. He’s also seeing friends and acquaintances- possibly first-hand given there were only a handful of AIDS wards at this time. And he’s watching his best friend Prior go through that now. While the play centres on the impact on Prior and Louis’ relationship, the relationship with Belize- who steps into Louis’ role as Prior’s emotional support- is just as important. And we don’t see a lot of how Belize deals with that. Partly because Kushner writes him as the most ‘together’ of the characters. But we do see chinks in the witty-loudly-dressed-armour from Stewart-Jarret. We see his care for Prior frequently- and the sweetness of their relationship. He also gives us elements of his own fear for his friend, his concern and yes-when it comes to Louis- a fierce protectiveness. A lot of this is unspoken in the text, but is brought out through the minutiae of his performance. From the sweet flirtations of his interactions with Prior when visiting him in the hospital, to the non-verbal replies to Louis during his monologue to the quiet competing for space in the Epilogue and the overall quiet self-assurance with which Belize carries himself. There are layers and layers to unpick in the smallest gesture and it makes Belize into a lynchpin character between the others, as well as hinting just enough at the life he has beyond these interactions.
And yes, he is very funny in the role. But it’s subtly done without resting on stereotypes or easy humour. There’s a genuine wit to his delivery. In sharing the stage with Nathan Lane for much of the play it would be easy to be overshadowed, in fact Nathan Stewart Jarret gets the bigger laughs (not that it’s a competition) in many a scene with his pitch perfect delivery and perfect timing.
But there’s a lot more to Belize than the ‘sidekick’ to Prior or Roy in a scene and this becomes really apparent though this performance. In other productions, I’ve been left feeling Belize is a little ‘outside’ the central group- here that wasn’t the case, there felt like a rich history to the relationships between the characters. Certainly evident in the chemistry between Stewart-Jarrett and Garfield there was a clear sense of a deep long-term friendship between them and a rich history between the characters. The sweetness and affection in their scenes together- particularly Prior’s hospital scenes, are heart wrenching and the tenderness and affection between them feels so genuine- it’s in fact the look of abject fear and sadness on Stewart-Jarret’s face while Prior breaks down that is more heart-breaking than Prior himself. He may be an observer in many scenes but Stewart-Jarret gives such a sensitive observation of what he sees as Belize the audience is pulled in and heart-broken along with him. Previously as well scenes with Louis and Belize can feel forced, as if actors aren’t quite sure of the relationship between them, here there was a clear history- fractious certainly- but a history of a different sort of friendship and ongoing relationship between them. Even in the Epilogue (the subtleties of which deserve its own post) there was a silent rendering of what has perhaps passed since- and although Belize has slightly less to do in that scene there was a real sense of his presence and his place in that narrative.
Russell Tovey- Joe
The trouble with Joe- the Marlboro Man- Pitt is that as a character he doesn’t know who he is, so how on earth does an actor fathom that? In Part 1 particularly Joe is a bit vacuous, and that’s too easy to read as an actor being somewhat bland in the part. Tovey is in fact almost everything you need from a Joe- a fairly blank canvass (and yes, as Louis points out also gorgeous) which makes him frustrating almost static in Part 1. Tovey has a sweet puppy dog eyed nature that makes Joe charming and loveable within it all- particularly in the early scenes when he’s simply lost, rather than doing Harper and himself any wrong. His sweet-eyed innocence is endearing and we believe him as a man dragged from the safety of Salt Lake and bewildered somewhat by the world of New York, and by himself.
Tovey does play an edge to Joe that makes you believe Harper when she says she’s scared of him. He plays a sharp temper to Joe that appears out of nowhere, and an element of supressed violence to his outbursts (which eventually erupts at Louis, making us wonder perhaps had he stayed would Harper have felt that?). Tovey is physically imposing too, there’s no doubting his fondness for the gym which works on a couple of levels for Joe as a character also although unwritten. That on one level Joe is seeking to create that physique which he desires in another in himself- there is much more to unpick about Gay gym culture obviously that has its place elsewhere. That he uses gym time, much like he uses his walks, to look, to partially satisfy an urge. Second that like many he uses time in the gym to release tension, alleviate some of what troubles him- another hiding place for Joe who seems to have so many. The fact then he is gym honed, works on one level for Louis’ powerlessness to his ‘gorgeousness’ but also in a level that Joe would be using the gym for various purposes. (and all that aside, if I had to get naked every other night I’d probably up my gym game…)
The endearing puppy-dog Joe Tovey continues to play in his relationship with Louis acts as a nice foil to McArdle’s slightly bumbling but spikey edged Louis. In another universe, they could almost work as a couple with the soft sweetness of Joe’s wide-eyed wonder balancing out Louis’s cynicism and anger at the world. However, where this works best is when the sweetness meets Joe’s bubbling anger- a sense this is an unruly almost Hulk-like emotion that he’s actually fighting with continually. Seen best in the utter tour de force that is the ‘Have you no decency’ scene we see sweet Joe, coming in to try and win back Louis, tell him he loves him again and hope for a happier ending, then begin to fight with that bubbling anger while Louis unleashes a torrent of his own anger at him. We see Joe finally snap, but even when he does he pulls it back in so quickly it feels like it’s still a barely contained rage. That’s the essence really of Tovey’s Joe, the man who probably is inherently sweet and good fighting so hard with everything inside him it explodes- but even then, he’s so afraid of the loss of control nothing resolves.

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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