"Herringbone" is one of those shows you may have to see to believe. It is, after all, a vaudevillian musical about demonic possession in which the narrator portrays nearly a dozen characters, including an 8-year-old boy, a floozy and a homicidal dwarf.
This tangled tale -- and the sleights-of-hand required to pull it off -- have long fascinated B.D. Wong. The Tony-winning actor has spent two decades pursuing opportunities to perform the Tom Cone play, drawn by its challenging role(s) and bizarre twists. ("I kind of respond to things that are a little bent," he admits.)
In recent years, Wong has been joined in his quest by another Tony-winning actor, Roger Rees, who directed Wong's three most recent versions of the piece, the latest of which will open at the La Jolla Playhouse on Friday.
"It's rare to come across someone who could achieve this kind of performance," says Rees during a break in rehearsals. Wong must act, sing and dance for two hours, he notes, constantly shifting from the comic to the poignant to the macabre and from man to woman to child.
"It's also rare," Rees says, "for someone to get the chance to keep coming back to a work like this, but B.D. has been tireless."
Some actors exhume old roles in hopes of preserving past glories. Wong, however, has reconsidered -- and reenergized -- each of his "Herringbones." "As I've gone through different stages of life, my appreciation for the material has grown more sophisticated," says Wong, 48, who wowed Broadway in "M. Butterfly" in the 1980s and is now a regular on NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
Even so, he adds, "when I look back, it's a little frightening to see how long it can take to find true comfort, true understanding and the ability to execute something like this."
Indeed, the more time they spend with "Herringbone," the more Wong and Rees have realized how tough a nut it is to crack.
The Depression-era saga follows the misfortunes of little George Nookin, who is pushed into a showbiz career by his parents, then forced into a variety of ugly acts by the spirit of a vengeful song-and-dance man. The narrator (a grown-up George, now named Herringbone after his first good suit), wants to tell a few other stories as well -- about lost innocence, greed and other harsher sides of the American Dream.
The script can be hard to follow. The gothic elements can overwhelm the humor and humanity. In short, says Rees, "the play is eccentric, but it's angry and poetic too. In Tom Cone's work nothing is easy. I like working with authors who are a bit pesky. Mostly, theater becomes blander and blander as everyone wants the same thing they saw before. The good plays are the ones that don't allow you to do that."
"Herringbone" premiered as a one-act in 1975 and eventually was expanded into a full-length musical with a score by composer Skip Kennon and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh.
Wong saw the piece at Playwrights Horizons in New York in 1982, soon after moving to town from his native San Francisco. He thought the star, David Rounds, "was incandescent." He also felt an immediate connection to Mr. Herringbone himself. In high school forensics, he had become adept at portraying a variety of characters -- and he could sing and dance. Why not do the show himself?
Nothing much happened until the late '80s, when Wong was playing the gender-blending lover in David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly." He went on a date with an aspiring producer named Richie Jackson, who asked what projects were on his wish list. The next day, a copy of the "Herringbone" script was in Wong's dressing room. (He and Jackson, now a manager-producer, began a relationship that lasted 15 years.)
Wong began to seek out "Herringbone" productions. He finally performed in his first one, a small-scale show in Philadelphia in 1992, and did some readings in New York. In 2007, he approached Rees, who was running the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. They had never worked together but, Wong says, "we always had a kind of actor's bond."
They put on what Wong calls "a bare-bones" but warmly received version in Williamstown. "What most amazes us in 'Herringbone' is not the dazzling trickery of its surface," said the Boston Globe, "but the poignant tenderness and full humanity of its unexpected depths."
Last year, a fully staged production opened at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., to even stronger reviews.
"Beyond the physical look of the show," Wong says, "there was a real difference between Williamstown and Princeton in that I could understand the deeper values of the play simply from having the luxury of time and the ability to step away and come back."
Another boon was having Rees as a partner. The 65-year-old Welsh-born actor knew about art and stamina, having won a 1982 Tony for the epic "Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby." He was a big believer in moderation. "Exercising choice is a good thing," he says, whether it's resisting the temptation to overplay "Herringbone's" vaudevillian themes or remembering that "this is such a complex tale it needs a calm center."
Rees also proved to be a great match for Wong, who had wondered how it would feel to bring an outsider into his very personal project. "Roger and I understand each other," he says. "We're synchronized. Plus, he sees things from the actor's point of view."
"B.D. is the violin," Rees says. "He is the voice. The nice thing about him is that he trusts me a lot."
Both men also praise choreographer Darren Lee, whom Rees has called the third member of "our triumvirate."
Learning to play 11 parts is not that different from learning to play one, Wong says. "You start with those characters comfortable in your heart and mind, putting them on their feet." Once he "assembled" his cast, he and Rees spent hours studying each gesture and vocal nuance -- seeking the essential combination of clarity and craft.
In La Jolla, they have spent even more time reexamining everything they had done. "Roger calls it recalibrating," Wong explains, adding that he welcomes the scrutiny. "By nature, this show is all me all the time. The psychology and wiring of the whole thing needs to be very clear in my mind or else I'm faking and fudging it."
During a recent rehearsal, Wong -- clad in faded black T-shirt, shorts and sneakers -- lounges in a free-standing doorway, one of the show's few set pieces. He is waiting to make an entrance he has made countless times.
Music director Dan Lipton, who plays the only other onstage performer (Herringbone's pianist Thumbs DuBois), begins the intro. Wong, as the narrator, sings sardonically about the evening ahead.
Mid-note, he stops and says he wants to start over.
After a few more runs through the first scene, Wong sighs. He's worried about the pacing.
Rees, who is sitting in a chair facing the rehearsal space, nods. It's important to set the right tone from the start, he says. And it's difficult to find that tone when you're out there alone.
For two hours, Wong works through the first act, performing and stopping and performing. He and Rees eagerly analyze each moment as if it were new.
Such attention to little things has led to bigger revelations. For instance, between Princeton and La Jolla they shifted the emphasis from a story "about a boy" to a story "about a man telling a story about a boy" -- a change that colors the story and the storytelling.
Even after all this time, says Wong during a break, "Roger and I are making discoveries in the rehearsal room we never thought we could be making." He smiles. "It feels great."
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Villa Drive, La Jolla
When: Opens Friday. 7:30 Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 30.
Price: $30 to $65
Contact: (858) 550-1010