Lincoln Center Theater doesn't have an official repertory company, but if it did David Manis, who plays Arthur Narracott in "War Horse," would be a member. Consider: Since making his debut here in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," in 1993, in the ensemble, Manis has been part of "Arcadia," "Morning's At Seven," "Henry IV," "The Rivals," "The Coast of Utopia," and "A Free Man of Color."
"It's always such a pleasure to be back," Manis told me the other day, as we sat outside the theater enjoying the alarmingly early spring weather. He clutched a copy of The New Yorker. (Every LCT production seems to have a faithful reader of that magazine; in "War Horse"'s initial New York cast, it was Stephen Plunkett.) "This place gives you opportunities you usually wouldn't have elsewhere," Manis said. Such as "Those of us in the new cast of 'War Horse' had five weeks of rehearsal, in December, before we went on. Commercial producers tend to tell you just to get up there and do it."
Even with the weeks of preparation, however, Manis and the rest of the "WH" cast never stop working on their characters. "Arthur is a challenge. He's never going to be one of the people about whom people go 'Aww' at the curtain call. But I like him." He added: "With some characters, you have to resist the urge to make them too lovable. Arthur's relationship with his family is too prickly to have that temptation."
As for his professional family, the current "War Horse" actors, Manis remarked: "It's an enjoyable group. I may be the oldest person in the cast, but I hope I'm not the least athletic." Manis has long enjoyed a pickup game of basketball at the Y, though he admits that he's not a gym rat. He has long lavished his time instead on acting.
"I wanted to be an actor for a long time. I did plays in high school, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, if you were a guy and you could dance a little and weren't embarrassed to be on stage, you were cast." Among Manis's inspirations: seeing Kevin Kline with The Acting Company and Brian Bedford at Stratford in Canada.
When Manis and I back round to talking about his current assignment, he mentioned something that another of his inspirations - Jack O'Brien, who directed him in LCT's "The Coast of Utopia" and "Henry IV" - once said. When O'Brien speaks about doing a project, Manis remarked, in which the actor has no time to warm up to a strong emotion, he describes the experience as "playing a scene on the front foot."
"There's a lot of that in 'War Horse,'" Manis said.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.