Tall, lanky James Cromwell, 72, is best known for his Oscar-nominated role as Farmer Arthur H. Hoggett in 1995’s “Babe” and most recently as the dedicated valet of George Valentin in the Oscar-winning “The Artist.” He’s also appeared in countless movies, including 1997’s “L.A. Confidential,” and in TV series such as HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and NBC’s “ER.”
The son of award-winning actor-director John Cromwell (“Of Human Bondage,” “The Prisoner of Zenda”) and actress Kay Johnson (“Madame Satan”), Cromwell has toiled in the theater since the 1960s.
He is treading the boards once again in the Mark Taper Forum’s well-received production of Samuel Beckett’s masterwork “Waiting for Godot.” Cromwell plays Pozzo, a bombastic, vicious aristocrat who keeps his slave Lucky, who is saddled with heavy baggage, on a long rope.
Cromwell talked about how “Godot” has resonated in his life.
In Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” self-made businessman Joe Keller doggedly denies accusations he sold defective airplane parts to the military during World War II. When the truth — and the true cost of his actions — is revealed, he risks losing everything, including the son who idolized him.
Alex Morris, who plays Joe in the current Matrix Theatre Company revival, says “I want people to see that he is a man. A family man who did what he thought was good for his family. It’s up to each of us to judge whether that was right or wrong.”
Morris’ and his cast mates’ ability to “hold a mirror up to humanity and show the humanness” — as A.K. Murtadha, who plays Joe’s son, Chris, puts it — earned acclaim when the production was first staged last fall and again during an encore engagement, which ends March 18.
The Matrix is presenting the ’40s drama with a multiracial cast — as part of a series of plays through which it is examining race in America. Thus, Joe is African American; his wife, Kate, is white; Chris is biracial and other characters are Asian American, Latino and white.
The first thing you notice about Evan Brenner, who plays Buddha in a new one-man show at the Bootleg Theater, is that he looks nothing like the pot-bellied, crossed-legged, jolly-looking figure of popular imagination. Brenner’s a lean, middle-aged Jewish guy who grew up in New York.
Never mind that the ancient spiritual leader was probably pretty thin himself. The point of “Buddha — A Fantastic Journey,” which was just extended through April 1, is to show that everyone has a bit of Buddha inside him — starting with Brenner himself.
Brenner, an actor and filmmaker from privileged beginnings, began what he reluctantly calls his “midlife crisis” at age 40. Money and mind-altering substances, in the form of a just-sold hedge fund and a lot of alcohol, weren't leading to spiritual fulfillment.
“Relating it to the play,” Brenner says, “I was unhappy living in the world of consumption.”
Like just about everybody else, James McMenamin hadn’t read Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” since high school. So when he got the call to audition for George Gibbs, the play’s all-American boy next door, he naturally reread it. Something in the play surprised him — an unexpected closeness with the character. “I know this guy,” McMenamin realized. “I played ball with this guy. I know exactly who he is.” Three years later, McMenamin has played George in about 670 performances — in New York, where he joined the cast after the the play's Chicago debut, and now in Los Angeles.
Any major differences between this and the New York production?
The room’s drastically bigger. In New York we played to 151 seats and now we’re playing to over 360 seats. Everybody in “Our Town” talks a little bit louder now and enunciates a little bit more, but the audience seems to be responding just the same. Everybody’s very close still, the way the stage is configured. You can’t get very far from us.
Theater and history can intersect in haunting ways. The Odyssey Theatre’s production of “Way to Heaven” tells the story of Jewish prisoners at the Theresienstadt camp who were forced to act as though they were well treated; they "performed" in a fake village built to convince Red Cross officials that rumors of extermination were false.
German-born Norbert Weisser, who plays the camp’s commandant, has his own complicated relationship to the legacy of Nazi Germany. The veteran of stage and screen (“Midnight Express,” “Chaplin,” “Schindler’s List”) sat down to talk about how his experience connects to Juan Mayorga’s play.
You grew up in West Germany — what was the atmosphere after the war?
I was born in 1946, right after the war. My teachers in junior high and high school had been teaching during the Third Reich. When they taught this particular subject, they tried to change their spots because they had to. But their old beliefs were still there. We as children caught a certain dissonance, but couldn’t quite decipher it.
I saw [Alain Resnais’ Holocaust documentary] “Night and Fog” when I was 12. I thought there was something genetically wrong with Germans, including myself.
How did your family deal with it?
Nazis occupying the houses of Parliament. Churchill shot by an SS firing squad. Noel Coward’s alternative history of World War II, chillingly imagined in his 1946 drama “Peace in Our Time,” is now on stage at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood. The production by the Antaeus Company, says the play's director, Casey Stangl, offers us a chance to examine our ideas of patriotism. With a few musical numbers thrown in.
How was this new version of “Peace in Our Time” created?
Three years ago, then-artistic director Jeanie Hackett made a connection with the Coward Foundation to discuss bringing Coward to new audiences. The foundation gave Antaeus member Barry Creyton permission to do the adaptation. The original version is long-winded and has political references we don’t know. Barry cut it while retaining the wit and the characters. Now there’s a laser-beam focus. The other idea was to add songs.
We associate Noel Coward with dry martinis and witty banter. This play shows a different side of him.
I think of Coward as being so removed in his comedies; there’s always a certain barrier. Here, his heart’s on his sleeve. There’s a longing for heroism. How can individuals band together and make something change?
There are rumors Coward served in the British Secret Service.
Patrick J. Adams is having a good run. After working a brogue and a kilt in playwright Bill Cain’s Ovation Award-winner “Equivocation” at the Geffen Playhouse two years ago, the Toronto-born Adams snagged a role in the much-anticipated HBO drama “Luck,” the horse-racing series written by David Milch ("Deadwood," "NYPD Blue") and directed by Michael Mann.
Adams followed that with a lead in the USA legal dramedy “Suits,” playing a quick-witted con artist who makes a living taking other people's bar exams — until he's hired by a law firm that expects him to actually practice law.
Now the actor is back on the L.A. boards in another award-winning play by Cain, opening at the Bootleg Theater: “Nine Circles,” the story of an Army private recently returned to the U.S. with an honorable discharge, only to find himself engaged in a fight for his life.
He's cute, he's Southern and he's going to need a bigger mantel place for all those awards. Michael Matthews, 35, was born in South Carolina but cut his teeth on Chicago theater before coming out to L.A. During his three years as artistic director of Celebration Theatre, Matthews established a name for himself as a versatile director, recently winning two NAACP awards for "Take Me Out" (for which he also is nominated for an Ovation Award) and "The Women of Brewster Place." His latest project, "What's Wrong With Angry?," looks at homophobia in a British school.
What is a white boy doing winning two NAACP awards?
(Laughs) I have no idea. I’ve been very blessed to be in a place to where I get to tell fantastic stories. When the NAACP honored me, they honored the casts and the theaters. Those awards were for everybody.
When you came out here from Chicago, what was your initial impression of L.A. theater?
The first thing I saw was a production of "Buried Child. The flier said agents, managers and casting directors admitted for free. I didn't even know what a manager was. "Buried Child" is so Chicago. Edgy, in-your-face. But in this production, everyone looked like a model. There was no mud! How can you do "Buried Child" without mud? I was so scared. Was this L.A. theater? Of course, I learned the answer is no. Now if I hear, "Is L.A. really a theater town?" one more time, I'm going to shoot someone. There is fantastic theater here.
Name some favorites.
From Juliet to Scarlett O’Hara, Vivien Leigh shocked audiences with her combination of beauty and ferocity. Now Rick Foster’s one-woman play explores the woman behind the Southern accent: Set in 1967, a few days before Leigh died of tuberculosis at age 53, this intense portrait of the British star features soap opera veteran Judith Chapman in the eponymous role.
What do America audiences understand least about Vivien Leigh?
All we know is Scarlett and Blanche du Bois. No one knows Vivien’s theatrical work because it was never filmed. The major bone of contention in her relationship with Laurence Olivier was that he never hired her to be in his Shakespeare films. They performed together onstage, so she assumed she would be his Ophelia onscreen. But he hired Jean Simmons instead.
Leigh and Olivier are one of showbiz’s high-drama couples. What’s your assessment of their relationship?
When they met, Vivien was 23. Both were already married. But she saw him and she wanted him. In their early films like “That Hamilton Woman” you can see their extraordinary chemistry. But Vivien was bipolar and eventually her illness became too much; she wore Olivier out. He broke up with her on her birthday. He told her he wanted children; Vivien always miscarried.
How did a Brit end up playing a Southern belle in “Gone With the Wind”?
Sheer determination. She followed Olivier to Hollywood because Olivier’s agent was David O. Selznick’s brother, and Selznick was the man to convince. George Cukor, the film’s original director, loved her. Clark Gable apparently had Cukor fired. Vivien struggled to keep Scarlett’s character at the center of the movie. She was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, probably from stress and to fit into those costumes. She and Olivia de Havilland would sneak off and get Cukor’s advice on scenes.
There’s a line in the show about Leigh powdering over the burn marks on her forehead from electroshock therapy.
Her symptoms started to manifest during “Gone With the Wind.” She was only 26. There were wild mood swings. Violent episodes. She had an insatiable sexual appetite. They had no idea how to treat her mania until shock therapy came long. I had the chance to see her onstage in “Tovarich,” about two exiled Russian aristocrats turned au pairs. She won a Tony for it. She would have shock treatments during the day and then go on at night. Vivien chose to have the treatments rather than be committed. She was terrified of being institutionalized.
So she was the ideal person to play Blanche du Bois.
She said, “I don’t know anything about this Method stuff. Acting is life.” She was typecast as a delicate beauty, but hers is a story of survival. She was preparing for her next job, a London production of Edward Albee’s "A Delicate Balance," when she died. She was skeptical about playing the role, saying: “I have no business seeking a delicate balance.” Mostly of us are deathly afraid of living at the extremes. Vivien wasn’t.
"Vivien," presented by Rogue Machine, plays at Theater Theatre through Sept. 4 . For the L.A. Times' review, click here.
Above: Judith Chapman as the late Vivien Leigh. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times
A cast of 40, epic battle scenes and a killer death scene: How else would you want to spend the summer? A pair of young actors are living it up in Schönberg and Shakespeare: Colin DePaula, 12, plays Parisian gamin Gavroche in “Les Misérables” at the Ahmanson while Judy Durkin, 11, gender bends to become the doomed Duke of York in “Richard III” at Theatricum Botanicum. Here, the prince and the pauper talk showbiz.
Give us the basics.
Judy: I grew up in Santa Monica and I go to John Adams Middle School.
Colin: I was born in L.A. but moved to New York when I was 3. I live in Brooklyn. L.A. is my 16th city on this tour. I’m home schooled — my mom travels with me.
Regular school versus home schooling: discuss.
Colin: Home schooling’s way better because you don’t have to sit in one room all day.