With the young actor playing Gabriel Law in Rain, the first thing you have to bring up is his name: Will Rogers. It is, for those of you unacquainted with early cinematic history, the name of the entertainer who was, in the mid-1930s, the highest-paid star in Hollywood. Wasn't his latter-day namesake, who like his predecessor was born in middle America (Omaha for the younger, Oklahoma for the elder), worried about the comparisons?
"Not really," said Rain's Will the other evening before curtain. "I was more concerned about Actor's Equity." To avoid confusion and duplication, Equity - which is best-known for representing stage actors - likes to have only one actor per name. "The first time I checked with Equity, they said there was a living actor with the name Will Rogers. So I expected to have to add a middle name or initial." But the second time the Rain performer checked, suddenly "Will Rogers" was available. "So I snapped it up," he joked.
So far, the actor, who first got the acting bug in high school, in San Antonio, Texas, and continued his career at the North Carolina School of the Arts, is living up to his moniker. He's been working steadily since moving to New York, first in regional theater and then off-Broadway, most memorably perhaps in columbinus and 100 Saints You Should Know.
Rogers said he was right with Rain from the first. "Immediately, I loved the mystery of it. You can't grab on to the plot for a while, so you have to grab on to the characters, and wait for the story to start connecting."
Rogers, who has worked on all three versions of "Law and Order" (or, as he calls it, "the trifecta"), puts paid to my theory that to really respond to Rain you have to have some serious life experience. "Oh, no," he said, "friends and family around my age, in their 20s, have responded to it in a big way." He continued: "One of my friends said that, even though the play contains devastation after devastation, she felt the characters were really tough. She liked that."
"I do, too," Rogers added. "These people are not wallowing in pain. This is not a beautiful sad play. It's a beautiful unsentimental play."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.