Theater Geniuses, TV Drones? Eric Bogosian, Cherry Jones, Anna Deavere Smith

TVdronestheatergeniusesericbogosianposterEric Bogosian is performing in a show entitled 100 at the Labyrinth Theater through October 25, selecting about a dozen different monologues each night from the 100 he wrote and performed in six solo shows between 1980 and 2000. The night I attended, he played characters as diverse as a guru from India who discovered that the key to happiness was having money, a self-anointed Lothario who believed his success with women was entirely due to his “endowment” and

A “recovering male” who hates his penis.

A doctor describing the many, many side effects of a medicine he’s prescribing.

A drug dealer talking to his customer, who is a banker.

A homeless man on the subway and his “molecules.”

A dad in therapy who is separated from his wife

A paranoid man who hates the world

and readings of “cheese” (a Dunkin Donuts ad) and an argument both for and against smoking cigarettes.

Show most people his photograph, and they’re likely to say “Oh, yeah, he’s that guy who played in Law and Order.” Bogosian played Captain Danny Ross for three seasons in the television series “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

Cherry Jones is currently playing Amanda Wingate in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway, just the latest in a quarter century of performances in the theater that have led to her being considered among the greatest stage actresses of her generation. She is surely best known for playing President Allison Taylor in the television series “24.”

GlassMenagerie8Anna Deavere Smith has created one extraordinary theater piece after another by studying a controversy or an issue, interviewing a massive number of people involved, and then portraying all the characters in a solo show. Using this technique, she created such landmark works as Fire in the Mirror, about the Crown Heights Riots, and Twilight: Los Angeles, about the L.A. riots, and Let Me Down Easy, about our nation’s health care system and our national attitude towards health and death. Her work is profound, her talent is extraordinary, her awards are numerous — the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, honorary degrees from some two dozen universities, the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, and a fellowship from MacArthur Foundation, commonly called the Genius Grant.

Like the other two remarkable theater artists, she has had gigs on television for which she is probably best known, including the National Security Adviser on The West Wing and the hospital administrator on Nurse Jackie.

SmithThere is nothing wrong with the performances on television of Eric Bogosian, Cherry Jones and Anna Deavere Smith, but there is nothing extraordinary about them either – no hint of how wide-ranging and special their talent, how much they move and amaze theater audiences. It’s as if their TV roles are their day job, something they do to earn a living, and their stage work is their art.

What accounts for this disparity?

Is there something about the nature of their talent that doesn’t translate to the screen? Or is it because television as a medium and an industry — literal-minded and focused on looks — doesn’t know what to do with people of such singular gifts, and won’t offer them roles commensurate with their abilities? On stage, Anna Deavere Smith can play Lance Armstrong and a Hasidic mother and the chief of the Los Angeles police department and the mezzo-soprano Jessye Norman and the Rev. Al Sharpton. But on TV, she is a tall black woman, and so can only play characters who fit that visual description – and that the TV audience can accept as appropriate for tall, black women.

I recall a long-ago interview with an actor – was it Kenneth McMillan? – who played a variety of roles on stage, but was cast primarily as villains on screen. In the theater, he said, they hire him for his acting ability; in TV and the movies, they hire him for his face.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

5 thoughts on “Theater Geniuses, TV Drones? Eric Bogosian, Cherry Jones, Anna Deavere Smith

    1. Of course they could handle demanding parts, but you seemed to wonder why they’re underwhelming on TV, not why they aren’t given good roles. I used to think Nathan Lane was in the same boat, with one failed show after another. But he was terrific on The Good Wife so clearly the right TV part finally came to him. Ditto for Kristin Chenoweth, though her Good Wife stint was cut short because of that accident.
      That said, I suspect that the personality and quirks that make for compelling stage presence tend to translate better into supporting TV roles. I hope to be wrong.

      1. “you seemed to wonder why they’re underwhelming on TV, not why they aren’t given good roles.”
        Not at all. I should have been more explicit: I was precisely wondering why they aren’t given roles on TV commensurate with their talent. Thanks for allowing me to clarify. And good point about Nathan Lane.

  1. Don’t forget that Cherry won an Emmy for performance on ’24,’ meaning that the television community did regard that role as one that was challenging enough to warrant the performer an Emmy for how she was able to develop and portray the character. But for those of us who know Ms. Jones’ capabilities, it barely showcased her depth. I guess this shows that television’s expectations and opportunities are of a limited standard.

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