There's something appropriate about Matt Caplan being cast in the ocean-adjacent precincts of South Pacific: he's was born on an island (Manhattan), grew up on the coast in southeast Virginia (Norfolk), and currently lives at the north edge of the Jersey Shore (Keyport). The sea, in other words, seems to run in his veins. Professionally, however, the voyage out passed through that most urban, nature-abhorring of musicals, Rent.
"I moved to New York at 18, straight out of the Governor's School for the Arts, in Norfolk, Virginia," said Caplan, who plays SP's Professor, the other evening in the dressing room he shares with Eric Anderson (Stewpot). "I waited tables. I survived. After a year-and-a-half, in 1999, I got cast in the national tour of Rent, as a swing." "Swing" is the apposite word here, because as he was swinging in the door of the show, out was swinging someone who would later become his wife: Karen Olivo, who is currently wowing Broadway as Anita in West Side Story. Caplan chooses another metaphor: "We were ships that passed in the night."
They were both dating other people at the time, and it took four years before they got together, in one of those classic reconnections on the order of: "Are you still with?" "No. Are you still with?" In the interim, Caplan did both the ensemble and a leading role, Mark, in Rent, on tour and on Broadway. "Rent was my main job until early 2008," he says, "when South Pacific began." (Before taking on the Professor, in early January 2009, he was a member of the SP ensemble.)
Unusually for a Seabee, the Professor attended college. Caplan, who invests the role with a fine sense of comic finesse, observes: "Though he's known to be literary -- there's a scene, cut from our production, where he spouts Latin -- I always imagine that he minored in something valuable: something not too callous-inducing. Electronics maybe. He's probably from New York or New Jersey."
Caplan says that Lincoln Center Theater is "the best place, hands down, that I've ever worked as an artist." That's especially important to him since he and Olivo moved to New Jersey and got married, in the summer of 2006. "Coming in to the city for an evening show, we have to allow an hour-and-a-half for the commute. If you've just survived the stresses of heavy traffic, the last thing you want is to arrive somewhere that is also stressful. Luckily, at this theater it's exactly the opposite."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.