The last time I did an interview backstage at the Booth Theater it was with Elizabeth Marvel. Our conversation happened to take place on opening night of "Death of a Salesman," on Broadway, in which Marvel's husband, Bill Camp, is giving a wonderful performance. As I left the Booth this week, after having interviewed Matthew Risch, I thought again of "Death." In it, Willy Loman's younger child, Happy, is always trying to remind his parents that he - and not just his elder sibling, Biff - deserves praise for his efforts.
Trip Wyeth, the character Risch plays in "Other Desert Cities," also asks that attention be paid. "Trip is constantly having to remind people what he does," Risch said. "He's the producer of this wildly successful TV reality show, 'Jury of Your Peers,' but his parents don't respect his professional choice as much as they do that of his sister Brooke." Risch added: "They think the fact that Brooke is a writer confers more prestige on her. Our mother respects that success, because she was also a writer, even if only of schlocky 'Gidget'-type movies."
Like all the actors associated with "Other Desert Cities," Risch, who grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, has great respect for the drama's playwright, Jon Robin Baitz. "It's not all that often that a contemporary play gives the actors everything they need, right there in the text. You don't have to compensate for what's lacking with a lot of 'acting.'" Risch's thoughts on "ODC" are especially valuable, I think, because he's been with the play throughout its history: he understudied for the role of Trip when the production was at the Mitzi E. Newhouse last year, and played Trip for three weeks this past December at the Booth, as well as continuing to stand by during other parts of the current run.
Though young, Risch comes by his acting perspectives through a bounty of experience. While a teenager, he attended the highly respected Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in Natick, Massachusetts. "I got a chance to do great plays there." Risch was, for instance, Trigorin in "The Seagull" when he was 17. "That really made an impact," he said. "But I knew I wanted to be an actor a long time before that."
At the Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, Risch said he got a first-rate training in voice, which held him in fine stead when he appeared on Broadway in "Chicago" and "Legally Blonde" and starred, with "ODC" costar Stockard Channing, in "Pal Joey." (A production that, like "ODC," was directed by Joe Mantello.)
Risch said he has always wanted to do non-musical dramas as well as musicals. "But on Broadway there's more of a need for dancers than for actors." Risch hastens to point out that the categories are not mutually exclusive. "The brilliance of Fosse is that it's really acting based on movement."
As Risch and I wound down our conversation, I expressed my admiration for him and the "Other Desert Cities" company and their ability to put themselves out there eight times a week. "First of all," he replied, "it's exhilarating to be out there on this stage doing something this good. No performance is ever the same for me, and that keeps the work interesting." He added: "As for how you do it night after night: we're taught to leave our lives at the stage door, but you can't just shut everything out. You bring your life with you every night out there. That's part of what acting is."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.