Early Monday morning, January 11th, on the day that the cast of “Lazarus” was due to record David Bowie’s songs for an album, Bobby Moreno, who performs in the show, got a text on his smart phone from a friend: “I saw the show last night. Condolences to the cast and crew.”
“He must mean congratulations,” Moreno said to himself. But then he heard the news: just a few hours earlier, David Bowie had died.
The recording session that day was “full of feeling,” Bobby Moreno says. “The recording was powerful. It was special for all of us to be together that day.”
Moreno didn’t actually have to be there. “I’m the lone non-singer in the cast.” As Zach, the husband of the obsessed Elly (Cristin Miloti), “my character is sort of the one normal person in that crazy world.”
There are layers of satisfying irony in this. The roles for which the 32-year-old actor is best known are angry and odd. Bobby Moreno was Odysseus Rex in The Year of the Rooster, a young rooster permanently crouched, an angry punk with a knife, calm only when charmed by a genetically over-engineered top-heavy hen. He was a dog-like military veteran in Ethan Lipton’s “Luther”; he was even the angry teenager Timmy in the original production of Robert Askins’s “Hand to God.”
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And now he is the angry unnamed character in “Blow Me,” one of Eric Bogosian’s 100 Monologues, the one that says thing like “I hate the taste of fresh-squeezed orange juice, I hate the smell of fresh-ground coffee, I hate the sound of Matt Lauer’s voice. I hate driving to work, I hate standing up, I hate breathing, I hate waiting to die.”
Moreno says this on an eight-minute video that is one of about 50 videos posted so far on the 100 Monologues website, a project in progress to tape all 100 Eric Bogosian’s monologues. Other performers include such well-known names as Sam Rockwell, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup, Michael Shannon, and Jessica Hecht.
“I have been performing that monologue since I was in college,” says Moreno. He had decided to become an actor way back in junior high school, when a move with his mother from Long Island to Austin, Texas abruptly changed his extracurricular activities. “I never quite fit in with the sports teams there.” So he looked for something else to do, and found it on the stage. “If I had stayed in New York, I don’t know how it would have worked out.”
He was performing Bogosian’s “Blow Me” as part of an acting class being held on a beautiful day outside on the campus of his school, Austin Community College, “and campus security came because somebody reported there was a crazy man ranting and raving.” For years he dined out on that: “I thought I was such a bad-ass: I performed so hard they had to call the cops on me.”
When some dozen years later, he heard about the 100 Monologues project, he got himself invited to a benefit event where he knew Bogosian would be, and nervously approached him. “I didn’t want to bother him so I spoke quickly, I told him ‘I’m a huge fan. That monologue was an important part of my life. I don’t know how this would work. But I would love to be considered.”
Bogosian turned to him. “Yeah, I saw you in the Year of the Rooster; you’re in.”
His rehearsal with Bogosian a few months later was something of a repeat of his experience in Austin. “Calm down,” Bogosian told him, “somebody is going to get nervous about what’s going on in this apartment.”
When the monologue was finally taped – with a crew of 10, three cameras, and seven takes in a row — “I was working on raw instinct, and I went back to that place where I was before I had a grasp of craft.”
When Bobby Moreno was first cast in “Lazarus,” he says. “I was just like any theatergoer, feeling awash in a sea of sensation – song, visuals, language, characters. That took me the better part of two months to parse” — the full run of the show. Not that this disturbed him: “Any great art should have an air of mystery to it.”
He met David Bowie at their first run-through of the musical about two weeks into the three week-long rehearsal period. “It was a thrill just to watch him experiencing the show. He was leaning forward — it looked like he wanted to jump up and be in it.
“He came up to the guy’s dressing room after the first preview. He said ‘Guys, that was….’ And then he wiggled his glasses like they do in the old cartoons. He was just brimming with enthusiasm. I remember that face.”
To prepare for his role, Moreno talked not to Bowie but to Bowie’s co-writer Enda Walsh (the book writer for Once), discussing “the idea of the emasculated man. Physically I tried to embody that – somebody who doesn’t assert himself.”
It helped that “I was an outsider in this world of musicals.” Yes, he’s been a rapper since the age of 17, and yes he’s currently in a rock band called the U.S. Open (and no he’s not a tennis player), but he’s the guitarist. “I would love to be a great singer, but that’s not in my wheel-house.”
He used that outsider feeling to his advantage. “Zach is an outsider because he sees Elly sliding into this world. He doesn’t know how to process her attachment to that world.
“I thought the play as a whole was elusive when I first read it. But my part was a pretty straightforward through-line for Zach.” His most memorable exchange with his reaction to her having dyed her hair blue:
Zach: You look like a lady Smurf.
Elly: No I don’t.
Zach: A Smurfette! You look like a friggin’ Smurfette!
Bobby Moreno and the rest of the cast will be performing “Lazarus” one last time. This is the final day for the musical at the New York Theatre Workshop, where every night, the flowers and other items in tribute pile up underneath the poster for the show.
After performing in it every night, “I came to understand “Lazarus” as a story of redemption – your hopes, your happiness only come from within, no matter how hard you try to find it through the outside world. That’s why at the end Michael C. Hall sings on the empty stage after all the chaos.” Bowie’s death nine days ago has made the experience of performing in his show “alive in a more powerful way.”
As a result of his death after an 18-month battle with cancer that the cast knew nothing about, Bobby Moreno suddenly saw “Lazarus” – the name of the Biblical character who rises from the dead – as Bowie’s “gift to the world. He was saying that his legacy will still be with us. He knew how much that meant to people. I was overwhelmed by his courage and his generosity. He was saying nothing is too scary to stay away from. Here was a man dying, and he shared his last battle.”