On Monday, a colleague stopped by who'd seen "Angels in America." He wanted to talk about Larry Yando's performance as Roy Cohn in the epic drama by Tony Kushner, now playing at the Court Theatre.
There was plenty to talk about. Yando is giving one of the great performances of his long Chicago career — the great performance, I'd say. He captures all the necessary sides of the nasty-but-compelling politico: his cynicism, malevolence, intelligence, sexuality, love of power, formidable insight into the baser aspects of human nature and his sense of humor. He is funnier than Al Pacino in this role and just as mercurial. He has a deeper sense of the man's horror at his own mortality. And, above all, Yando's Cohn is spectacularly present and alive.
It's one thing to turn in such a piece of acting when a show is flying. But, alas, Charles Newell's production is fraught with problems, conceptual, casting-driven and otherwise. I found it, for the most part, a disappointment. But Yando soars nonetheless. "Why," asked my colleague, "is he not a star?"
I had to think about that for a while. If the word "star" refers to an actor respected by his peers then Yando certainly qualifies. If it refers to an actor with a national reputation, then Yando, who has worked all over the country, qualifies again. He plays Scrooge almost every year at the Goodman Theatre, so plenty of Chicagoans know his face. But the most common use of the term means national fame, fortune and wide recognition. Yando is not that kind of star. Spend your life as a Chicago actor and that is unlikely to happen. The trade-off is that you get to play Roy Cohn. And live here.
It's certainly true that you can look out at the current work on Chicago's stages and see performers for whom future stardom — if the necessary, mostly random factors align — seems a good bet. I'd put Edgar Blackmon, the remarkable showman of the Second City mainstage, in that category. And when Carrie Coon — whose work can be seen in Frank Galati's Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of "The March" — hits Broadway this fall as Honey in"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" there surely will be a shot of big-time attention. Mary Williamson, a young actress who can be seen in "Hit the Wall" by The Inconvenience, also seems capable of a great deal.
But those chips fall unpredictably and often without regard to what's deserved. And all that talk about Yando and his star wattage — or lack thereof — made me realize that I'd seen three Chicago performances inside a week that were, all things considered, the best you could possibly expect to see in the roles being played. And all three were the work of actors who are not in the first blush of youth and have made their lives and careers in this town. Here, I suspect, they will stay.
One was by Yando. Another was Alene Robertson, who plays Ruth in the Marriott Theatre's enjoyable production of "The Pirates of Penzance." Watching her old-school timing and exquisitely crumpled comic visage last Friday night in Lincolnshire, I kept thinking about how Robertson was every bit the equal, if not the better, of such great comedic women as Jo Anne Worley, Betty White or Carol Burnett.
And yet because she never did much television, Robertson is not well known outside the circle of fans who've seen her for years in Chicago area musicals. Robertson, who works part time in the office at the Drury Lane Theatre, certainly has not reaped the same financial rewards as those other women. And I remember when she toured in "Annie," making a spectacular Miss Hannigan, the producers replaced her for the New York engagement with an actress who was, well, a star. Happily, we got to see Robertson in Chicago, where she is a star in all the ways that matter.
And then there's Mike Nussbaum, currently appearing in the excellent production of "After the Revolution" at the Next Theatre in Evanston. If there is another 88-year-old actor in America who can do what Nussbaum does every night on a Chicago-area stage, I've never seen that actor. In "After the Revolution," he is pitch-perfect and word-perfect in the role of the play's wise old man, its moral compass. You watch his big scene and you think, this could in no way be done better.
Nussbaum is about to take over the huge role of Sigmund Freud in "Freud's Last Session," a casting change that will get me back to the Mercury Theater to see what this man can do. He is not a star. Except in Chicago.
• "Angels in America" runs through June 3 at Court Theatre; 773-753-4472 and courttheatre.org.
• "The Pirates of Penzance" runs through June 10 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire; 847-634-0200 and marriotttheatre.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times