Once the lines are learned, and the costumes are secure, and the scenery is sufficiently rigged not to pose an imminent threat of bodily harm, the actors in a play must go about acquiring something much less tangible: confidence. During the first preview of A Free Man of Color this past weekend, that quality grew steadily during the performance, and by the time the cast and crew arrived at P.J. Clarke's, across the street from Lincoln Center, for a post-show supper, the confidence had evolved into hunger: the actors dug in.
At the bar before the food was served, I asked John McMartin, who plays Thomas Jefferson in the production, if he'd ever played a President before. McMartin took a moment, mentally surveying a distinguished career -- a career that now includes quite an encomium from Stephen Sondheim, who, in his new book, Finishing the Hat, writes that McMartin's performance inFollies "was as thrilling as any I've ever seen in the musical theater."
"No, I've never played a President," McMartin allowed. "I've played Senators and plenty of lawyers, but never someone in the top job."
After observing how many of the creatives in this production opted for aFollies-like "pretzels and beer" at the bar (although vodka remains the drink of choice for those who imbibe), I also noticed how close the actors all seemed to have become. Visual proof: a dozen or more of the cast were crowded around a circular table - a table that, when the basement room of P.J. Clarke's is open to regular customers, probably holds, at most, eight.
I have made note of similar, subway-at-rush-hour closeness at other cast parties, and it generally puts me in mind of something Marlon Brando once said in an interview: "No matter how crucial the crew and the director and the designers are in a movie or play, the actors never quite forget that THEY are the ones before the public, and they naturally gravitate toward each other's company when they are not on stage or set - though, for reasons of relaxation, not always in life."
When it comes to the actors in A Free Man of Color, I have my own theory to explain the huddling, which may or may not be true. The Saharan scope of John Guare's engrossing play, and the spacious expanse of the Vivian Beaumont stage, sometimes require the actors to be yards apart from each other during the evening. Their performance is a kind of lighting out for the territory, and when that territory involves the Louisiana purchase, the voyage is vast. At the first-preview party, the cast, mentally, were fortifying themselves before further exploration: around that tight table, they were creating their own cozy, secure, food-filled enclave: a kind of New Orleans.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.