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Soloing, but not in song

Times Staff Writer

After one particularly arduous but rewarding rehearsal for last year’s new Broadway musical “Sweet Smell of Success,” the show’s second-billed actor, Brian d’Arcy James, remarked to a small group of his colleagues: “Revivals are for cowards.”

“That became our rallying cry,” recalled the show’s star, John Lithgow. And the morale behind the scenes of that show apparently needed rallying, because “Sweet Smell” was ultimately saddled with the bitter smell of failure -- after generally disapproving reviews, it lost millions of dollars and closed.

James played a grimy press agent who fed items to Lithgow’s gossip columnist, winning mostly favorable reviews and a Tony Award nomination. Lithgow won a Tony, but James’ role “was much more difficult than mine,” Lithgow said. “He was the engine of the show. He never flagged.”

That same quality will be even more essential for James’ next assignment, for he will be the only actor on stage in Conor McPherson’s “The Good Thief,” opening Saturday at the Court Theatre in Los Angeles.

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James plays a brutal Irish thug who tells the story of the most botched job of his underworld career and relates some of the terrible consequences. It’s a 1994 play by the same man who later wrote the acclaimed “The Weir.” James won an Obie Award for “The Good Thief” in New York in 2001, with the New York Times review referring to his performance as “exquisitely calibrated.” The L.A. production is the West Coast premiere.

It will serve as a Hollywood calling card for James. Despite a couple of appearances on the TV series “The City” and “The Education of Max Bickford,” James is probably best known here for playing the Stoker in “Titanic” in the opening of that musical’s national tour at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1999.

The differences between a big Broadway musical and a nonmusical monologue in a 99-seat theater are many. Perhaps most obviously, the absence of song in “The Good Thief” means “I have to find my own ways of expressing the emotion,” James said.

But James said the most important difference is “the relationship with the audience.” In “The Good Thief,” the audience “is involved in a way unlike anything else I’ve done.”

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This is perhaps clearest when an audience member makes noise. During a New York performance of “The Good Thief,” an audience member’s beeper intruded on the play, and a man left his seat in the front row. When the man returned to the theater a few minutes later, James stopped the show and invited the man to come back in but then felt temporarily thrown about where he was in the script. He later learned that the man was a doctor who had taken an urgent call.

On another occasion, James asked a theatergoer who had been crinkling a candy wrapper for about 15 minutes to please open it up and consume the candy. The rest of the audience applauded. This is something that would be unlikely to interrupt a show on the scale of “Sweet Smell of Success” or “Titanic.”

The idea of being all alone on stage means “that if I get in trouble, I can’t turn around and ask the policeman or any other cast member to help me out. I can’t pass them the ball.”

However, he noted that he has performed big solos even in musicals, so “I never balked at the idea of being alone.”

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James had seen “The Good Thief” in Edinburgh in 2000 and liked it. Three months later, when he was playing the Baker in a Minneapolis production of “Into the Woods,” he read of a proposed New York staging of “The Good Thief” by a producer he knew. “I was sure they had already cast someone else,” but they hadn’t. He got the job.

Irish plays weren’t completely foreign to him. His family heritage is seven-eighths Irish and one-eighth Welsh. He acted in Kenneth Branagh’s “Public Enemy,” another play with allusions to Irish organized crime, in Dublin, New York and, in 1995, at the same L.A. theater, the Court, where “The Good Thief” will play.

After the New York run of “The Good Thief,” James did the play in Dublin itself, where he was told that theatergoers thought he was from some other part of Ireland, doing a Dublin accent. He had consulted briefly with a dialect coach, but in mastering the accent, “most of my instincts were to parrot the Dubs who were in the cast of ‘Public Enemy.’ ”

When people think of an Irish accent, “a lot of people have the Lucky Charms guy in their minds. There is such a difference between the stereotype and the real sound. I love to try to make it sound right.”

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The psychological authenticity of the character would seem to be a greater stretch for James. He’s not exactly a tough guy.

Pressed to recall any firsthand memories of violence, the actor reached back to the fifth grade in Saginaw, Mich., when he was “fighting with this same kid every day for about a week.”

As an adult, he witnessed a mugging on a New York street -- but “I didn’t wait to watch what happened. I ran to find a policeman. I was all worked up about it, but to the policeman it was just another night on the job.”

However, James’ maternal grandfather, Harry F. Kelly, was a celebrated prosecutor who took on Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang and rode his crime-fighting credentials to four years as the Republican governor of Michigan in the ‘40s. James is helping develop a movie script about Kelly.

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Where to draw the line

James acknowledged that the character in “The Good Thief” is “so different from me. His oxygen is different.” Perhaps because of that, however, “every chance to be in that skin is interesting.” Noting that the narrative of the play refers to some characters who are even more vicious than the storyteller himself, James said he wants to know how people decide where to draw the moral line over which they won’t cross.

His character does have his regrets, “so there is hope for redemption. You see his conscience being born in front of you.” Playwright McPherson said the character is “kind of a thief, but with a certain sense of morality” -- hence the title. The play is based on a dream that the playwright had, not on a real criminal case.

Since the last time he did the play, James has become a father. The birth of his daughter will inform the parts of his performance in which the character talks about a young kidnapped girl, James said. “But it’s my job not to allow it to affect it in a way that it becomes unbalanced. The character I play isn’t a father, so he wouldn’t have that perspective. If I thought about it too much, I’d be weeping.”

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Enough to make him weep

David Alexanian, who is producing “The Good Thief” in Los Angeles, also has a story about weeping. He was James’ roommate during their freshman year at Northwestern University. A couple of months after they met, he saw his roomie perform the role of Eugene Jerome in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

“I had no idea how talented he was. I was so moved, I left the theater sobbing,” said Alexanian, who now produces movies as co-founder of Elixir Productions in Santa Monica.

Lithgow, who will co-host the opening night party for “The Good Thief,” said, “It’s ingenious for [James] to bring this as his entree to L.A. He has almost been a victim of his tremendous musical talent.” A nonmusical showcase will display talents that might be considered more marketable in Hollywood.

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James wants to move to L.A. “New York needs so much energy to get through the day,” especially with a baby in the family, he said.

“The Good Thief” is opening just a few months before an unrelated film of the same title, starring Nick Nolte. McPherson said he is thanked in the movie’s closing credits, presumably because of the title and because he knows the movie’s director, Neil Jordan. He doesn’t plan to raise a stink. “In a way, it’s common property,” he said -- ever since the New Testament told of “the good thief” who was crucified alongside Jesus.

Nor does the title likeness faze James. “I did ‘Titanic,’ ” he pointed out, “and the little movie by the same name didn’t hurt us. In this town, it might help.”


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