Volume 17 • Issue 31 | Dec. 24 - 30, 2004

When the stage delivers success

By DAVID NOH

Playing the conniving Rev. David Marshall Lee, Neal Huff is one of the definite bright spots in the madness that is the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Larry Shue’s play, “The Foreigner.”

Huff’s character undergoes a surprising, scary twist in the second act, and, of this, Huff said, “I think it must have been much funnier in the original production in 1983. Now the zeitgeist has kind of put a damper on the comedy, and people aren’t quite sure whether to laugh or not. But we have an amazing, perfect cast: Matthew Broderick, Frances Sternhagen, Mary Catherine Garrison, Kevin Cahoon, Byron Jennings, Lee Tergeson. Matthew is literally one of the funniest people I have ever met. I had no idea how dark and totally subversive he is, hysterical. There’s a really interesting streak in him that makes his work very fresh and in a play like this, which is so structured on the surface—a lot of exposition and then payoff—he brings a looseness to the material that really gets it going every night.”

The importance of ensemble acting always comes into play with a farce as wacky as this one, and Huff observed, “There’s totally a danger with this play if I go out there and hit it too hard with the weirdness that comes out at the end. I can go into a different play. There’s a fine line here—it’s about real things but in a totally goofy format.”

We discussed ensemble acting in general and why it is that it often seems so much better in England.

“When I did ‘Take Me Out’ in London we had six weeks of rehearsal and here, you get like three and a half,” Huff recalled. “It might be simple economics—the way stuff is funded there—as well as a long-term approach. Things run much longer there, not like here, where things run for a week. You get a chance to get a real rapport going with the cast.”

Huff explained the importance to his career of his role in “Take Me Out.”

“That was just a dream come true—an amazing ensemble,” he said. “I was with it almost two years, from its start in London, then the Public Theater and Broadway. It then played in Los Angeles at the Geffen Theatre, so it’s having a really nice afterlife. I heard that Ben Affleck bought the film rights and wants to play my role, Kippy. There are so many plays being made into films: ‘Hairspray,’ and, of course, the reason we have to finish ‘The Foreigner’ in January is because Matthew will be doing the film of ‘The Producers.’”

The nudity in “Take Me Out” was, of course, unforgettable.

“I had already done nudity onstage, like as Shane, the go-go boy, in Paul Rudnick’s ‘Rude Entertainment,’” said Huff, “but when I got this offer from Joe Mantello, I said, ‘Yeah, there’s this scene with this shower. How are you planning on staging this—kind of upstage, against the back wall?’ He said, ‘No, you actually walk right down to the front of the stage.’ I said, ‘Uh, I gotta call you back,’ and that threw him a little bit. I took a night, and then called him. ‘Okay, okay, I’m totally on board.’ It was actually very therapeutic. In London, at the Donmar Warehouse, which is tiny, during the shower scene, there was my mom, literally in my eye-line for the whole show! That was like boot camp—after that, you can do anything. We got to the point, several months before the end of the Broadway run, where I was like, ‘You know, baseball players aren’t really cut. I’m not going to the gym anymore.’ Whereas, a year before, every break I’d be working out, furiously, and was never in better shape.”

Huff went into “Take Me Out” with Broadway credits already in hand, including his role as Geoffrey in the 1999 revival of “The Lion in Winter.”

“Again, I honestly feel that production, with more rehearsal, might have been a very good experience,” he said. We didn’t find ‘it’ until the last month, and once we did, it was a great show. It was a dream cast, with two totally different actors, with completely different approaches, in the leads. Stockard Channing has a real connection with the audience that is masterful. She could get the audience to do whatever she wanted, whereas Laurence Fishburne’s connection was with the people in the cast, which ultimately worked perfectly for the show. He’s amazing.”

Edward Albee’s 2002 “Occupant” was another stage experience that presented challenges.

“Part of my own process was trying not to fall in love with Anne Bancroft,” Huff recalled. “Playing an art critic, critical of her Louise Nevelson, it was very hard to be nasty to Anne, as she was so warm and extraordinarily funny. We were working along, and then, five previews in, she got walking pneumonia. The doctors took her out for three weeks, and for a not-for-profit theater to have weeks of their season lopped off… But she came back and finished the run, and it was unbelievable. She was totally brilliant, the best performances I’ve ever, ever seen. And then she went away to do a film and got sick again, very up and down, but now she’s fine. It was a great experience really, and she was heaven to work with, even though she hadn’t been onstage in years.”

Originally from Pelham, New York, Huff caught the theater bug at the very end of high school, when he was cast in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“I went off to college for a liberal arts program and was miserable because I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,” he said. “I spent a lot of summers on the Cape, in Wellfleet, where there was a theater run by Gip Hoppe, who did ‘Jackie’ on Broadway, and I started working there, realizing this is what I wanted to do. I saw this production in Boston of Ian McKellan playing Shakespeare, and sent him this typical young actor’s note: ‘Can I talk to you about my career?’ He was so cool, met up with me after, and told me, ‘Kristen Linklater and Tina Packer have this company, Shakespeare & Company, and there’s no better training for you.’ I literally went straight into that, and then to the NYU graduate program.”

NYU’s graduate school was not an easy road for Huff, who said he nearly left the acting program twice.

“You know how acting school is, so weird. They were going to kick me out, saying I was so strange I had leave,” he said. “I was asked at one point what drugs I was on. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ It was highly suggested that I go into therapy. But my professor, Paul Walker, was kind of the reason I went there, a very dear friend of mine. I worshipped him, as everybody did. In some weird way, he got the best work out of everybody you’ve ever seen. He died in 1993, so sick with HIV that he’d be literally lying in the fetal position between rehearsals, with a catheter in his chest. But he was so tireless, it was amazing. People would wake him up, and he’d stumble into rehearsal and be brilliant.

“After NYU, I started working around the country. I have, thankfully, never had to have a day job. It’s a wonderful thing—one of those badges—when you get on your way as an actor, and can be eligible for unemployment. I never had to wait tables.”

Huff spoke of his girlfriend, Anju.

“She’s applying to medical school, so I’m running home after the show to do mock interviews with her. More acting,” he said as our chat wound down. “‘You’ve been very bad, you’re not going to get in! Show me your periodic table!’ [Laughs.] Good lord, what a racket medical school is. It makes acting look so easy by comparison!”



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