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Critic’s Notebook: Tony nominees’ traditional, Method motivations

The old notion that British actors work from the outside-in while American actors work from the inside-out has been rendered obsolete by the movies (which have encouraged even plummy English veterans to sweat and stammer like Actors Studio die-hards) and actor training (which has come to recognize that emotional revelation without reliable technique is, well, kind of embarrassing).

But this year’s Tony nominees for lead actor in a play suggest that there may still be some truth to the clichés about the Anglo-American theatrical divide. The category, which includes two internationally renowned Brits (Brian Bedford in “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem”) and three Americans (Bobby Cannavale in “The Mother… With the Hat,” Joe Mantello in “The Normal Heart” and Al Pacino in “The Merchant of Venice”), is one of the most competitive, with no clear frontrunner and any one of them a deserved winner.

Virtuosity comes in many varieties. Bedford’s Lady Bracknell (a drag performance that refuses to indulge in gender-bending shtick) and Rylance’s Johnny “Rooster” Byron (a relentless, no-holds-barred impersonation of a modern-day drug-dealing Falstaff) are ingenious feats of presentational acting. These are monumental, externally carved portrayals that conjure the souls of their characters through enormous physical effort — restraint in the case of Bedford’s grande dame hauteur, fiendish explosiveness in the case of Rylance’s libertine color.

Psychological realism is more of a priority for the Yanks. This isn’t simply a matter of genre. The urban comedy of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Mother…,” with its arias of metaphorically vivid invective, the noble, furious agitprop of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” and the off-kilter romantic tragicomedy of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” are as dissimilar to one another as they are to Oscar Wilde’s paradox-firing farce “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Jez Butterworth’s roughhouse pastoral “Jerusalem.” But naturalism and theatricality seem to be more evenly balanced for the Americans. Which isn’t to say that the portrayals by Cannavale, Mantello and Pacino are more modestly conceived. But the focus for them, no matter how heightened the moment, is always on the inner stakes of the character.

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It’s a matter of orientation rather than authenticity. Neither Bedford, who directed this “Earnest,” nor Rylance could be accused of engaging in empty flourishes. Lady Bracknell is an artificial composite but Bedford, with his droll, unhurried timing, never allows her to become a cartoon. Every drop of perspiration Rylance expends — and what a flood it is — is earned. But a protective layer of technique separates the emotion of these British actors from the emotion of their characters. These gentlemen prefer expertly performing their parts; they see no point in trying to live them. Not that it would be possible to “live” Lady Bracknell, but there’s a difference between cogent make-believe and blood-and-guts transformation. Men of the theater who enjoy dressing up, they’re not seeking glory in a self-extinguishing blaze of naturalism but over the course of a consistently brilliant career.

These thoughts began percolating during a New York theatergoing tear earlier this month that included a sprint to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, where I saw Derek Jacobi’s acclaimed Lear in the Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, directed by Michael Grandage. Jacobi’s performance, which was broadcast earlier this year as part of the NT Live series, was remarkable in its lucidity, its technical panache and its calculated emotional effects. But I was somehow always aware of the British veteran’s modulation — of voice, of movement, of feeling. This didn’t undermine my respect, but it did invite more critical detachment.

When Lear descends into madness, Jacobi speaks in the high-pitched squeal of a baffled child. (This puerile streak is tantalizingly indicated in the opening act, in which the King throws a tantrum after Cordelia refuses to play his flattering game.) Jacobi’s line readings are all deftly worked out, leaving little room for spontaneity but ensuring that the story — served up as a domestic catastrophe rather than as a universal apocalypse — is meticulously delivered. Lear is an all-consuming theatrical challenge, one that requires an actor to pace himself as any mountaineer must do when scaling formidable heights. The two best Lears I’ve seen — Paul Scofield and Laurence Olivier — represent summits of acting prowess. I caught Scofield on video and Olivier on TV, but it was possible for me to imagine them performing the part multiple times a week onstage. When I fantasize about what Marlon Brando’s Lear would have been like had he not retreated from his destiny, I can conjure up scattered dream-like images, but I cannot conceive of a performance that could be repeated again and again. A long run of Lear would have hastened his death even if he had been a better custodian of his talent.

The Method — that vague term signifying the multiple ways Stanislavski has been adapted in America — is unmatched for generating emotional truth, but only the most patriotic fool would deny that it comes at an exorbitant price. Stark Young once observed about Eugene O’Neill’s playwriting that “what moved us was the cost to the dramatist of what he handled.” Facility is fine, but greatness must be paid for in blood. I confess that I find nothing in the theater as compelling as the sight of an actor making such a sacrifice, even though I’m aware that this type of acting precludes the continuous activity and longevity that British thespians take for granted.

Loss made real

Pacino’s Shylock wasn’t the comic villain who elicited taunts and jeers from the Elizabethan groundlings, but a man oppressed, ghettoized and derided. He wore Shylock’s Jewish suffering as naturally as the character’s spat-upon gabardine. Vengeance took the form of an outcry against the moneylender’s ostracized life experience. Seeking the exact penalty for his bond, Pacino’s Shylock shambled into the courtroom like a weary vigilante with history on his side. The actor’s hunched, unyielding realism may have had an unbalancing effect on the rest of Daniel Sullivan’s production (the titular merchant of Venice, after all, isn’t Shylock but Antonio, and the real star, Portia, insists that she’s in a comedy). But this was a Shylock so alienated from the Venetian mainstream and so pained by his multiple losses that the image of his degradation at the end of the trial scene cast a pall over the play’s honeymooning conclusion in Belmont.

A similar raw intensity can be found in Cannavale’s portrait of Jackie, a recovering addict who discovers that his AA sponsor (Chris Rock, in his Broadway debut) has been messing around with his long-term (and still drug-using) girlfriend, Veronica (played by a fiery Elizabeth Rodriguez). Guirgis, author of “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” has written a streetwise comedy about down-and-out characters who lack fancy vocabularies but are nonetheless quite fluent at communicating their hostilities. Cannavale is the comic engine of the piece, a volatile guy hot on the trail of his own cuckolding, but he never loses sight of the precariousness of Jackie’s sobriety or the self-destructive nature of his connection to a woman he’s going to have to leave behind if he is to have half a chance of climbing out of his hole.

Mantello certainly doesn’t take any emotional shortcuts in his hectoring, crusading and, in the end, extremely moving depiction of Ned Weeks, Larry Kramer’s surrogate in “The Normal Heart,” a play that has aged much more gracefully than I would have expected, thanks in large part to a note-perfect production directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe. The conflicted inner life of the protagonist is laid bare by Mantello, who understands that even a public crisis as overwhelming as the early days of the AIDS epidemic is experienced personally through the filter of one’s past, present and imagined future. Better known as a Tony-winning director than as one of the original Broadway cast members of “Angels in America,” Mantello fastens not only to Ned’s political indignation and grief but also to his insecurities, doubts, dashed dreams and implacable hopes. Overcome by loss, Ned responds in this production with a sorrow that is at once communally shared and utterly unique. Kramer’s work, often assumed to be an op-ed masquerading as a play, is revealed by Mantello’s radical honesty to be first and foremost a character-centered drama.

Bedford (who would have been a shoo-in for the Tony had his performance been logically placed in the featured actor category) and Rylance bestow pleasures of another sort — that of watching great athletes masterfully executing their game plans. Bedford’s Lady Bracknell enters a drawing room like a cruise ship docking in a familiar port of call. Every glacial head-turn shores up the English class system. When an epigram is uttered, it’s with the same nonchalance with which this redoubtable matriarch condescends to take a sip of tea. Rylance approaches his character, a Pied Piper of hard partying strays, like an Olympian commencing a deranged triathlon. (Not for nothing does he acknowledge his trainer and chiropractor in his playbill bio.) When he launches into one of Rooster’s tall tales, it’s with the enthusiasm of a contemporary Homer inaugurating a new set of myths. His morning ablutions, aimed at counteracting a colossal hangover, are performed with the manic, calorie-burning zeal of Sutton Foster’s ecstatic numbers in the current Broadway revival of “Anything Goes.”

Classical all-stars

Behind the giddy aplomb of Bedford and Rylance lies a wealth of classical theater experience. Both were trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and both have the kind of gold-plated stage résumés one could be forgiven for assuming died out with Laurence Olivier. (Bedford, long an expat living in North America, was brought to New York by his mentor John Gielgud in 1959 and has been a mainstay of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada for 27 years; Rylance, an equally accomplished Shakespearean who spent a good portion of his youth in the U.S., was the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London). Tony winners both, they are extolled for their intelligence, comic flair, flexibility and, yes, vulnerability. Though they can masterfully affect a stiff upper lip, their success in the New World is a credit to the way they combine sublime craftsmanship with humanity.

You want both of them on your all-star repertory team. They have a versatility that is exceedingly difficult to acquire in the States, where theater is rarely the primary focus of our most prominent acting talents. Pacino collects Golden Globes, Mantello is still raking in the dough for having directed “Wicked” and Cannavale is a tall, dark and handsome presence with an Emmy for his work on “Will & Grace.” When these men return to the stage to act, they invariably seek a role that will fire them up emotionally or grant them the opportunity to reveal hidden aspects of the life they’re playing.

Of course there are plenty of counterexamples to prove that nationality isn’t theatrical destiny. Dakin Matthews demonstrates that an American can indeed enjoy a British-style career without giving up his passport, while an English stage star such as Simon Russell Beale can be described as many things (exceptionally literate and witty), but cold and calculating are not among them.

Tradition matters, but whether you prefer internal luminosity to external dazzle is ultimately a matter of taste, not citizenship. I’m partial to acting that ruthlessly mines the self for illumination. But this year’s unusually tight Tony race for best dramatic actor allows us to celebrate performers who are separated by more than a common language yet united in their ability to get the job done.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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