Backstage the other day, Bobby Steggert wasn't about to escape my favorite question to members of The Grand Manner cast: What do you know about Katharine Cornell and when did you know it? He replied: "Nothing. I knew absolutely nothing about her. And that was a benefit. I have to be able to believably play this innocent kid who's showing up backstage to meet her. So it was better if I didn't start out as an expert."
Steggert, who grew up in Frederick Maryland, where he was the valedictorian of his high-school class, and studied theater at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, has been making a sub-specialty lately of innocents who get wised-up fast. There's Stu, the Midwestern kid in the musical Yank!, which recently had a well-received off-Broadway run and is heading to Broadway in the fall, after an August tune-up-the-book workshop.
And there's Mother's Younger Brother, the role in Ragtime for which Steggert has received a Best Featured Actor in a Musical nomination at this Sunday's Tony Awards and for whose ceremony the actor will be wearing a formal Tommy Hilfiger suit. (I should insert here that Steggert's dream role right now is the antithesis of innocence, or, at least, is innocence spoiled: Edmund in A Long Day's Journey Into Night.)
As for Pete, his character in The Grand Manner, Steggert has been concentrating in part on conveying how much less worldly an 18-year-old would be in 1948 compared with today. "For Pete," said Steggert, "taking a trip from Boston to New York was an enormous journey. And taking a taxi from Penn Station once he got here was a big deal, too."
Although as an actor Steggert uses his professional experience (which includes a Broadway stint in 110 in the Shade) to tailor his performance as Pete, he is not so far out of his own high-school life that he can't remember what youthful enthusiasm feels like.
Some of that wide-eyed quality, Steggert confessed, was on display when he was 12 years old, and his parents took him to see a production of Grease in Washington, D.C., the city where his formative theater-going was conducted. "I really didn't want to go. I thought: why do we have to get in the car and drive an hour down the freeway to see some play?"
So what happened once he and his parents got to the theater? "My mom said that I was so involved with the show that my back didn't touch the seat once during the entire performance."
And how will he repay his mother for opening him up to the pleasures of live theater? By taking her as his date to the Tonys. "After all she's done for me," Steggert said, "asking her was a no-brainer."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.