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Broadway this season has been lined with famous faces, but they’ve been outshone

The recent parade of Hollywood stars on Broadway has allowed theater critics to indulge in their two favorite pastimes — grousing and fawning. The hypocrisy is perfectly natural: Standards need to be upheld while luminaries are there to be adored. Yet pity the poor conflicted reviewer — committed to “The Theatuh” on the one hand, swept up in the tidal surge of celebrity charisma on the other.

I’ve always maintained that a good actor is a good actor. But famous novices and returning legends need to choose their theatrical ventures wisely. Julia Roberts received some bum advice when she decided to make her 2006 Broadway debut in Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain,” a play that ignored her strengths and overtaxed her weaknesses. Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig brought beefcake sizzle to “A Steady Rain,” but while they turned this small two-hander into last fall’s Broadway sensation they weren’t able to disguise the play’s unworthiness of such an amped-up production. Jude Law offered a vigorous, crisply delineated Hamlet (and was justly rewarded with a Tony nomination), but storming the Big Apple in a Donmar Warehouse production that wasn’t preapproved by the New York Times was bound to provoke a few Bronx cheers.

The calculus is indeed complicated, and the mercenary streak of producers doesn’t make it easier for Hollywood big shots to choose judiciously. But there’s another less obvious yet equally perilous danger lurking for those castaways from movies and television eager to bask in Broadway limelight — their stage veteran costars have a habit of totally outshining them.

This happened with such frequently this season that I found myself repeatedly attempting to figure out what sets these performers apart onstage. Confidence born of experience is surely a part of it. Broadway newbie Catherine Zeta-Jones seemed pallid and tentative when compared to her “A Little Night Music” costar Angela Lansbury (and even more when contrasted with the sublime Hannah Waddingham, the English actress who lit up the Menier Chocolate Factory production in London).

But the cumulative number of hours an actor has spent treading the boards can’t account for everything, or the oldest would always be the best. Ranging in age and professional background, these four Tony-nominated scene-stealers invite us to break down their gifts with more specificity even as we stand agog at their achievements.

Viola Davis in “Fences”

Starring opposite box-office heavyweight Denzel Washington, Davis more than holds her own in this revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a marriage tested by a husband furious at the way history has cheated him. As Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player who hauls garbage for a living, Washington unleashes an all-out theatrical attack, magnifying his character’s storytelling bravado and intensifying his romantic bluster (to the audible delight of the women in the house).

But if this two-time Oscar winner is drawing the audiences (and the catcalls), Davis is the one who is breaking the theatergoers’ hearts. Her voice — a smoky Mavis Staples-like purr — bathes her words in seductive mystery. She loves this man she’s been married to for 18 years, even though she’s under no illusions about his rocky temperament. This Rose copes with the bitterness of her volatile husband because she knows his sweetness and sympathizes with his wounds. Still, when the shocking revelations come about his infidelity, Davis registers the full meaning of Troy’s betrayal on her character’s soul.

Film work hones the art of reaction, but only a master theater actor like Davis can communicate a genuinely grief-stricken response in three dimensions without appearing to push. The restraint of her early scenes drives home her big dramatic moment, suggesting that, in addition to the astonishing sensitivity of her physical instrument, there’s an interpretive discretion at work. Kenny Leon’s well-calibrated direction maximizes the crescendo of pathos, but Davis’ emotional authenticity is completely her own.

Liev Schreiber in “A View From the Bridge”

Schreiber, deservedly heralded as the best stage actor of his generation, was a marvel of theatrical command even when his character was mired in moral confusion. Playing a Brooklyn longshoreman who develops an all-conquering passion for his niece (played by Scarlett Johansson in a most impressive Broadway debut), he clarified the ethical and psychological stakes of Arthur Miller’s play while wholly embodying the 1950s Red Hook milieu of the play’s combustible protagonist, Eddie Carbone.

Johansson’s distinction here lay in her translucent exposure of her character’s fluctuating thoughts and emotions. Schreiber, under the shrewd direction of Gregory Mosher, gave us something bolder. His insights into the labyrinth of Eddie’s mind actually fueled the drama, lending it crackling momentum as it moved inexorably toward its tragic denouement.

The attention paid to accent and ethnic deportment assured us that we were in good realistic hands. But it was the way Schreiber, an exceptional Shakespearean, deployed his craft in the service of a playwright’s larger vision that lifted him into a higher stratosphere. Comparisons at this level are few, but it should be noted that Alfred Molina, who’s also nominated for best actor for his superb portrayal of artist Mark Rothko in “Red,” possesses this same kind of naturalism stoked with interpretive fire.

Katie Finneran in “Promises, Promises”

The sparks generated by this Rob Ashford-directed revival of “Promises, Promises,” starring Sean Hayes and a sorely miscast Kristin Chenoweth, are pitifully scarce until a blazing comic meteor arrives like a godsend early in the musical’s second half. Finneran, playing broken-down barfly Marge MacDougall, whom Hayes’ Chuck Baxter drunkenly tries to pick up in a moment of romantic despair, hijacks the show from its marquee leads. How does she pull off the feat? With slurred speech that has the crackpot twinkle of a clown orchestra, bolts of daft desperation in both eyes and an “owl” jacket that she wears like a bird bedraggled by a hurricane.

Comedy is reputedly harder than dying, but the secret to Finneran’s success is the trust she instills in the audience. Her expertise allows us to sit back and relish her portrayal of cockeyed waywardness — a cartoon drawn by a stylist who knows just how to blend life with lampoon. Virtuosos don’t need a whole lot of time to announce themselves, and every one of Finneran’s inebriated gesture and vocal pratfalls takes us deeper into a sideshow we dearly wish could be the main act.

Douglas Hodge in “La Cage aux Folles”

Playing Albin opposite Kelsey Grammer’s Georges in this ingenious revival (yet another import from London’s amazingly industrious Menier Chocolate Factory), Hodge displays the special genius of the best drag queens. Rather than contenting himself with the usual lipstick-smeared shtick, he grounds the flamboyance in tattered actuality. Sure, the makeup is still thick, but we can see the aging face underneath. The result, a credit to Terry Johnson’s cunningly unglitzy direction, is a musical performance that touches and tickles in equal measure.

Grammer has the squarer of the two roles, but it’s hard to imagine him letting the idiosyncrasies loose with the same nonchalant daring. When Hodge sings “I Am What I Am” — deliberately and defiantly, yet in a manner that’s too private for an anthem — the “I” becomes so personal that it feels like a victory for anyone who refuses to let scorn keep them from being purely themselves.

Perhaps this is the ultimate lesson that these four thespians can teach their higher profile counterparts: In becoming a character, an actor must first embrace the courageous originality that allows a self to escape the prison of stereotype and slip into a realm of formidable individuality.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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