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Classic Journeyman

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Classic Journeyman

On the third floor of Angus McIndoe, the tony eatery hard by Times Square, veteran actor Richard Easton eyes a glass of cabernet, sipping it with perceptible glee. He turns 73 on March 22 and is finishing his first week of rehearsals for Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane. First produced in London in 1964 and set to run Off-Broadway at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, March 16-May 21 (previews begin Feb. 17), the play, Orton's first full-length work, is a dark comedy about male and female siblings besotted with a strapping, cunning lad. Easton plays Kemp, their father, a man veering into senility yet sentient enough to wonder who the lad really is and what is really going on.

As Kemp is not the central role, this is not necessarily what one would expect from the winner of the 2001 Tony Award for best actor in a play, which he won for Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. Easton is viewed by many as one of the stage's finest, most versatile actors, certainly one of the most experienced in classical work. Broadway lately cherishes him as a classicist: His two most recent appearances, out of 16 in all, were in Lincoln Center Theater revivals of Henry IV, playing the title role in 2003, and Sheridan's The Rivals, playing Sir Anthony Absolute in 2004.

Yet no actor measures success by Broadway alone, not even one whose Broadway work began with a 1957 debut in a revival of Wycherley's The Country Wife (copping a Theatre World Award), followed by, among other works, Shaw's Back to Methuselah (1958, with Tyrone Power Jr.), Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1963, with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, who also directed), and Hamlet (1969, as Claudius to Ellis Rabb's prince).

If time is the measure, then Easton has logged it. He spent a full decade acting before Broadway, beginning as a teen in his native Montreal--doing radio plays, appearing with a children's theatre troupe, and performing in weekly rep from age 17. Plus there were 30 years between Murderous Angels, a 1971 Broadway play felled by critical brickbats, and his Tony-winning return in the Stoppard play. If Easton calls himself "the classic journeyman actor," it's because he possesses the history, outlook, and sensibilities of one.

In the 1950s, Easton belonged to the first company of the Stratford Festival in Ontario, under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie; in the '60s he acted in New York with the famed APA-Phoenix Repertory Company; in the '70s he lived in England, playing Fagin in an Oliver! tour and appearing on the BBC series The Brothers; and in the '80s and '90s he spent four years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, more years with Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company (and landing roles in Branagh's films Henry V and Dead Again), and 10 years teaching at the University of San Diego and acting at the Old Globe. Few actors have under their belts 11 different productions of Hamlet, all in different roles, or have done (by his count) nearly every Shakespeare play, or have played Ben Franklin in a PBS documentary. The journeyman has had quite a journey.

Shotover and Overseas

"When I was 18, it was my first year as a professional actor, and I was Captain Shotover in Shaw's Heartbreak House," Easton recalls. "It was a play a week for 35 weeks. You know--The Butter and Egg Man, Three Men and a Horse. And you did your Shaw, and you did your Shakespeare." He recalls, too, his first Shakespeare production--at 16 in Coriolanus--featuring 19-year-old Christopher Plummer, with William Shatner as Titus Lartius. Shatner was dubbed "luscious Titus" owing to his thick hair and delicate looks.

Born in Montreal to an English mother and western Canadian father, Easton was always interested in being an actor. "There was a semi-amateur repertory theatre in Montreal, with a professional set designer and set builder, and we did lots of plays," he says. "I have no recollection of whether it was any good, but I think that's because it was good. We weren't trying to sell tickets. We were just doing it and having a wonderful time. There was no competition. I started in 1948 as Bob Acres in The Rivals; Plummer played Faulkland. It was absurd, but it was fine and very successful."

That is, "successful in that we didn't worry," Easton explains. "There was never anguish at dress rehearsal--'What will it do? Will it be good? Will it be all right?' I knew I was never going to be a star. I knew I wasn't going to be a leading man. I knew I'd be a leading man in the sense of carrying a play, but I knew I'd never be a star the way Chris was a star from the beginning. That's how I wanted it. I didn't want star things: the cocktail hours, schmoozing. I was there to do the work. What I wanted to be was very good. One of the results was a situation without a hierarchical thing based on age." A 15-year-old Bob Acres isn't perfect casting--but it is perfect training.

Later, Easton received a scholarship to study in London, and, still later, he and the English stage took to each other: "I'm playing Edgar in King Lear and Claudio in Much Ado for Gielgud, my idol, and here again it's the same atmosphere: I'm treated the same as Peggy Ashcroft, as was the stage manager, as was the lighting designer. Everyone was very good. The atmosphere was 'It's good to be good'--there was no hierarchical difference between a very good leading star and a very good supporting juvenile. It was that very goodness that mattered."

Yet he learned any number of valuable lessons. "My first meaningful note was from Peter Brook," Easton says. "I was playing a juvenile in a boulevard comedy in London, and he said, 'Mr. Easton, are you aware that it would be possible to play "God Save the Queen" so slowly that you wouldn't recognize the tune?' And I said, 'Yes, Peter.' He said, 'That's how slowly you act.' " Later, as Claudio, he remembers "Peggy Ashcroft sitting midway downstage, and I was coming in with news, so I headed down to talk to her. Gielgud said, 'No, no, no! Stay up there!' so I stayed up there. Then as it came time for her to talk, I came down. Again: 'What are you doing, Mr. Easton? I told you to stay up there.' Someone whispered something, because Gielgud said, 'What? Oh, don't be silly! You couldn't possibly upstage Miss Ashcroft if you wanted to.' It's a very important lesson: You cannot upstage an actor--a good actor cannot be upstaged."

Jazz, Canvas, and Paint

Now comedy is on cue for Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Easton's first modern comic work in New York theatre since the Broadway revival of Noises Off in 2002. Orton's script is well-removed from Shakespeare, but just ask and Easton's meticulous knowledge of the Bard tumbles forth; you sense the effortlessness with which he taps into a reservoir of work 60 years in the making. There's something refreshing about how he demythologizes the idea that actors must fear the classics. He recalls reading Hamlet as a teen: "I remember thinking, 'Why are there so many books about how difficult this is?' The story made sense: My father's dead, my mother's married my uncle--this is awful. The verse is a heartbeat. It's jazz under the text. The tension between the melody and the iambs is where the drama is."

Some of the basic rules of acting also could benefit from Easton's demystification. "Never begin your line on the same note as your cue," he says. "Don't deliver your line in the same tempo as your cue." What about Pinter plays? "Simple: If someone is being languid--taking the Pinter pause--you don't do that; you want to be fast or faster. If Juliet is young and excited, your Romeo is going to be more laid-back.

"You know," Easton concludes--his eyebrows arching, puckishly grinning, summoning the charm that makes a chat with him a treat--"I'm of the generation that says art is in the eye of the beholder and the ear of the listener. The magic of the theatre is not what you're feeling; what matters is what third row center is doing and thinking and feeling. If [Shakespeare] is difficult, that's because he's very good. It's also easy because he's very good. Remember, the actor is not an artist but a craftsman. It is the playwright who is the first artist of the theatre. The actor fulfills the playwright's vision. The actor is canvas. The actor is paint."

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