Three months ago, when The New Century began performances at the Mitzi Newhouse, Mr. Charles, formerly of Palm Beach, not only made it back to Manhattan but, for the first time, made it uptown.
Peter Bartlett, who plays the impeccably tasteful, impressively bewigged character, describes his peregrinations thus: "Mr. Charles made his first appearance ten years ago, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in midtown. He was beautifully received. His return, under the auspices of the Drama Desk, in 2001 at a West Village theater, was less successful. September 11 had just occurred, and Mr. Charles's public were not in a state of mind to be receptive to his point of view. So he is absolutely thrilled that, almost seven years later, audiences at Lincoln Center Theater have embraced him so warmly."
In spite of the packed houses for the run of the Paul Rudnick comedy, which ends this weekend, Bartlett says that in one sense Mr. Charles still feels himself in exile. And why is that? "Because of course he lives on the Upper East Side, probably in the sixties near Second Avenue, and he would like one day to be able to go to the theater on foot."
Bartlett's own professional wanderings have been much wider than the New York/Florida circuit. He got his start at the Cleveland Playhouse; an early highlight, in the fall of 1965, was working with Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz) in Tartuffe. Alluding to her stint years later as a pitchwoman for Maxwell House, he remarked, "She was real coffee. A terrific person."
Bartlett made his Broadway debut in 1969, in a John Osborne play called A Patriot for Me. It took place in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. "At the opening of the second act," Bartlett said, "there was a ball where everybody was in drag, including Tommy Lee Jones, then billed as Tom Lee Jones. The run was not a long one."
Much more enduring were Bartlett's involvements with other Rudnick plays:Jeffrey, The Naked Truth, and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. But the actor says that those hits, as audience-pleasing as they were, probably did not have the nightly laugh quotient that The New Century has had.
'This past weekend, the houses were absolutely rhapsodic. In these situations, an important task for the actor becomes how you surf the laughs; sometimes they go on so long that you wonder if the audience will ever return to earth."
Speaking of returns, will Mr. Charles ever come back to a New York stage? "Never say 'never,'" Bartlett replied. "I'm not sure he will ever realize his dream of playing a theater on the Upper East Side. He may never know the convenience that I've known these past few months. I have a recurring role on the daytime drama 'One Life to Live,' where I play a British butler named Nigel. We tape at 66th and Columbus, across the street from Lincoln Center. There was one Wednesday where I played Nigel in the morning, and then Mr. Charles in the afternoon and evening. It was a long day, but I couldn't complain."
And Mr. Charles? "Oh, he would have complained."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.