The theater world is a small one, where every practitioner's relationship to every other practitioner seems immediately apparent. Sometimes, however, the connections aren't immediately clear. For example, it wasn't until "In The Next Room" at LCT was well underway that Thomas Jay Ryan, who plays Mr. Daldry, learned how directly a play he'd done had inspired the show's assistant director, Sarah Rasmussen.
"In 1994, I was in a production of 'As You Like It,' at the Guthrie in Minneapolis," said Ryan backstage this week after a matinee. "I played Touchstone. The director was Garland Wright. The production was so good that I've never done Shakespeare since." (In 1997, Ryan did give an acclaimed performance in a modern-day movie whose title has Shakespearean overtones: "Henry Fool.")
Ryan, who was born in Pittsburgh and did his theater training there, at Carnegie-Mellon, went on: "It turns out that Sarah saw that production of 'As You Like It.' She was 9 years old, and she says that it made her want to go into theater."
Ryan and I drift into talk of the audiences for "Next Room" and the impact the play may be having on them. "What's fascinating about the show so far is that I'm not sure exactly what people are expecting when they walk in the door," the actor comments. "They may have a vague sense that the play is about sexuality, or maybe that it's not set in the present day. But I sense that a lot of them aren't sure at first whether the play's a flat-out comedy, a drama with comedy, or what." He adds: "All this is good, I think. It means that the sense of delight washes over them gradually."
A sense of delight of a slightly more serious kind affected audiences at Ryan's previous assignment, as the pioneering gay-rights activist Harry Hay in John Marans' off-Broadway hit of last summer, "The Temperamentals." (Which looks to be moving to a bigger off-Broadway house in February; there's even talk of a movie version.) "It was pretty extraordinary the way that piece affected its audience, especially some of the older gay men who showed up, and who had lived through those times." He goes on: "Not every gay senior was thrilled, however. When we did talkbacks sometimes one of them would stand up and say, 'I was there and it wasn't like that at all.'"
Not all of Ryan's summer-play fans were AARP-certified. "One day, I was walking out of the movie theater in Union Square," he says, "and this 18-year-old kid stopped me and told me how much my performance and the play had moved him. He started crying. It was something."
There's also plenty of humanity in Ryan's current character, Mr. Daldry. "I think there?s room for him to come across as quite compassionate," Ryan says. "In the play, his wife says he's compassionate. But like all the characters he's figuring out what that compassion means. And like all the characters, he has a moment of lurching forward for something he wants. It's awkward, but human."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.