Michael Simpson's bio in the program for The City of Conversation states that the play marks his "LCT and NYC debut." That this drama is his first time at Lincoln Center Theater is unassailable. My training as a New Yorker magazine fact checker, however, makes me raise an eyebrow at "NYC debut." His local professional bow, yes, but Simpson, who plays both Colin Ferris and Ethan Ferris in City, appeared in several plays just across the street from LCT during his four years at Juilliard in the class of 2004, known in the school's lingo as Group 33. "I joke that it took me 10 years to travel 100 yards," Simpson said.
Simpson made the remark as we sat together in the front row of the Newhouse, on a Wednesday between matinee and evening shows. We were praising the beauties of John Lee Beatty's set, especially the neutral carpet on the floor. "It's very cozy to act on it," Simpson said, continuing, ironically, "My career has not been rich in carpeting. I tend to do these classic plays that have multiple settings and wood-floor sets." Just a few titles from that classy resume: The Guardsman, Electra, Macbeth.
That last one is highly appropriate, given that Simpson was born in Scotland, to an oil-industry father from Oklahoma and a Norwegian mother. But the actor has done plenty of other Shakespeare. "I knew the first time I heard his words that there was something magical about them. When you say those speeches you feel as if you are casting a spell."
Highly verbal texts are part of what Simpson enjoys about working in the theater, and why he is happy to be squarely back in New York after five years in Los Angeles after Juilliard. "It's a pleasure to be onstage every night, being part of the back-and-forth of a well-thought-out argument."
Part of what Simpson appreciates about City of Conversation is not only the interplay of playwright Anthony Giardina's dialogue but the way in which the audience nightly becomes a part of it. "The feedback loop from them is continuous," Simpson said. He mentioned one exchange as especially telling of where his character stands with the audience. I'm not going to give it away - I will only say that it involves a phrase that his mother, Hester, played by Jan Maxwell, calls his elder character, Colin, at a dramatic moment. "The way that the audience reacts there," Simpson said, "gives me a clue as to how I should play the rest of the scene."
As to his assignment in City in general, Simpson said that it's his first time playing both a father and his son. "I didn't even do that at Juilliard," he remarked, "though my training there prepared me for just about everything possible onstage."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com