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Bowie, Bogosian and Bobby Moreno

BobbyMoreno1

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.

Bobby Moreno in Lazarus (far right) with Michael C. Hall and Milioti

Bobby Moreno in Lazarus (far right) with Michael C. Hall and Cristin Milioti

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.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

BOGOSIAN

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.”

100MonologueswebsiteMoreno 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.”

ericbogosianposter

poster for 2013 performance by Eric Bogosian himself

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.”

BOWIE

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.

DavidBowie3After 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.”

Flowers and other items honoring David Bowie outside the New York Theatre Workshop

Flowers and other items honoring David Bowie outside the New York Theatre Workshop

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Favorite New York Stage Performances of 2014

“As an actor, you’re often the most visible part of a project while having the least amount of say over its final form,” James Franco said recently.  Although at the time he was making both his Broadway acting debut and his Off-Broadway directorial debut, he was talking about movie actors.  Stage actors have it better, artistically that is — not in monetary compensation or recognition.

So here are some of the New York stage performances in 2014 that deserve more recognition.

The individual performers are listed alphabetically, but let’s begin with some noteworthy ensembles.

Jose Joaquin Perez, Jason Bowen, Brian Quijada and Reza Salazar as busboys in "My Manana Comes"

Jose Joaquin Perez, Jason Bowen, Brian Quijada and Reza Salazar as busboys in “My Manana Comes”

The four actors who portrayed busboys at an Upper East Side restaurant in Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes – Jason Bowen, Jose Joaquin Perez, Brian Quijada, Reza Salazar – achieved a level of synchronicity that was a pleasure to watch, while at the same time each performer communicated both his character’s particular struggles and the tensions among the group.

Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk and Lisa Ramirez working in the poultry plant

Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk and Lisa Ramirez working in the poultry plant

Similarly, the performers in Lisa Ramirez’s To The Bone, play characters who have attained a machine-line efficiency both in their jobs in an upstate chicken factory and in the house they share unhappily together, but they never let us lose sight of their individual humanity. As one character observes, there is an order “that is much like a heart- an artificial heart – borne out of necessity- but functioning nonetheless.” So kudos to Dan Domingues, Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk, Paola Lazaro-Munoz, Lisa Ramirez, Gerardo Rodriguez, Xochitl Romero, Haynes Thigpen

Zach Braff and Nick Cordero perform from Bullets Over Broadway in Bryant Park shortly before the show closes on Broadway

Zach Braff and Nick Cordero perform from Bullets Over Broadway in Bryant Park shortly before the show closes on Broadway

Nick Cordero, the best thing by far in Bullets Over Broadway, played Cheech, a 1920s thug who turns out to be a brilliant playwright. Cordero turned out to be a terrific song-and-dance man

Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow photo2 by Carol Rosegg

Appearing on a Broadway stage after an absence of 35 years, Mia Farrow felt ideally cast as Brian Dennehy’s half-century love interest in Love Letters. With her translucent beauty and educated diction, she seemed believably rooted in the upper crust enclave in which the character is raised, but which never serves her well. Farrow ranges from flighty to flirty to fragile, with a suggestion of great feeling – much of it all the more communicated, paradoxically, because it is not expressed on the surface.

James Iglehart in Aladdin

Whatever the billing, the star of “Aladdin” is its genie, James Monroe Iglehart, a worthy heir to a role originated on film by Robin Williams. A winner of a 2014 Tony Award for his performance, Iglehart morphs from showbiz master of ceremonies to carnival barker to infomercial huckster to game show host to Cab Calloway-like zoot-suiter to disco dj to hip-hopper in a Hawaiian shirt, to yes, a sparkling-suited magical genie who emerges amid smoke from a little lamp.

When he appeared in “Memphis,” he had a relatively small part as an oversized janitor who becomes a sexy singing sensation (nods to Chubby Checkers.) Shaking and rocking it to the roof in a song called “Big Love,” he delivered a showstopper. It is too much to say he is the show in “Aladdin,” but he certainly gives – and deserves – some big love.

Red Velvet4AdrianLesterbyTristram_KentonIn honoring Adrian Lester‘s mesmerizing turn in “Red Velvet,” a play written by his wife Lolita Chakrabarti, we also pay homage to the real-life character he is portraying, Ira Aldridge, a native New Yorker who left the United States as a teenager in order to pursue a career on stage, becoming a successful actor throughout Europe, specializing in Shakespearean roles. To put this in perspective: When Aldridge played Othello in London, they were still debating whether it was a good thing to end slavery in the British colonies.
LadyDay4

Praising a stage performance by Audra McDonald – who won a record-breaking sixth competitive Tony Award for portraying Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill – is a bit like praising bread, or Meryl Streep. Still, she transformed what could have been another tiresome play about a self-destructive star into a precise study of character, and sang in a style totally unlike her own.Year of the Rooster 6  Delphi Harrington, Bobby Moreno, Thomas Lyons Credit Russ Kuhner

Bobby Moreno began the year 2014 portraying a touching love scene between poultry in The Year of the Rooster.  He was Odysseus Rex, a young rooster permanently crouched, an angry punk with a knife, who is charmed by genetically over-engineered top-heavy hen. At the end of the year, Moreno stood tall in Grand Concourse as Oscar, the maintenance man and security guard in a soup kitchen in the Bronx, who is an adorable lug. Streetwise, charming, good-hearted, well-meaning, he is also slightly awkward, especially in scenes with Emma, who teases, taunts and seduces him.

Over the past few years, Moreno has stood out in charismatic roles from the dog-like military veteran in Ethan Lipton’s “Luther” to an evil teenager in Robert Askins’s “Hand to God.” Will 2015 be the Year of the Bobby Moreno?

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre
As Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Alexander Sharp, a recent graduate of Juilliard, literally climbs a wall, and plays with a rat, and is thrown in the air and carried about by the other cast members.
His is a physically demanding role – all that getting lifted through the air. But it requires balancing of a different sort as well, offering a convincing portrait without condescension. Sharp nails the gestures, the lack of eye contact, the matter-of-fact tone.

It’s impossible to cap an appreciation of stage performances at only ten. So nods to Annaleigh Ashford in You Can’t Take It With You, Kieran Culkin in This Is Our Youth, Patricia Clark in The Elephant Man, the ensemble cast of Dinner With FriendsHeather Burns , Marin Hinkle, Darren Pettie and Jeremy Shamos; the ensemble cast of Casa ValentinaReed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, Mare Winningham. Ok, I’ll stop.

Grand Concourse Review

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Bobby Moreno Ismenia Mendes Lee Wilkof in Grand Concourse

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Bobby Moreno
Ismenia Mendes
Lee Wilkof

Heidi Schreck, the playwright of “Grand Concourse,” is also an actress who performed in Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” and has served as actress and writer for the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie,” and the influence of both shows is evident in her play about four people in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx – a nun, a maintenance man, a homeless client, and a mysterious teenager who shows up one day to volunteer.

Like Annie Baker’s play, “Grand Concourse” unfolds slowly, obliquely, an apparent attempt to reproduce the rhythms of real life rather than hew to dramatic convention. Like “Nurse Jackie,” its characters struggle, grapple, behave at times ignobly or inexplicably — and, still, are easy to fall in love with.

That these flawed characters are so appealing in this production helmed by Kip Fagan, which has now opened at Playwrights Horizons, has much to do with the wonderful cast.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Ruined, Far From Heaven, Mr. Burns) portrays Shelley, whom we first see apparently praying to a microwave oven. She actually is just using the oven’s timer.

“I’ve been forcing myself to pray for one minute. I’m trying to work up to two, and eventually five.” She is a nun, but does not wear a habit, and does not fit the stereotype. We learn she is the daughter of a cold-hearted lawyer and a famous feminist atheist, and that her decision to become a nun was in part an act of adolescent rebellion. Shelley becomes something of a mentor to the teenage volunteer Emma, portrayed by Ismenia Mendes (Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra, The Wayside Motor Inn),

The only client we see is Frog (Lee Wilkof, a veteran of eight Broadway productions), scruffy and fast-talking who carries around a book of his jokes to sell so that he can buy a drink. He is smart and amiable, but Shelley warns Emma that he is liable to snap at any moment; he broke a man’s collarbone in a fight once.

Finally, there is Oscar, played by Bobby Moreno, who was so magnificent as the brooding rooster in The Year of the Rooster. Here, as a long-ago immigrant from the Dominican Republican, he gets to stand tall (he’s very tall), as an adorable lug – streetwise, charming, good-hearted, well-meaning but also slightly awkward. Watch what he does with his hands when his character doesn’t quite know how to react.

And Emma gives Oscar plenty of opportunities for awkwardness, teasing, taunting and seducing him, despite his having a girlfriend (unseen) whom he plans to marry.

Things do happen in “Grand Concourse.” There are surprises and betrayals, as well as life-changing decisions that at times can feel attached by the author rather than organically inevitable. But the strength of this play is in the small moments that occur between the characters.

“Grand Concourse” takes place in the same neighborhood as Clifford Odets’ first hit play “Awake and Sing.” That play was about a Jewish family. This one, 80 years later, has a mix of black and white and Latino characters, technically unrelated, but it, too, is, in its own way, about a family.

Grand Concourse

At Playwrights Horizons
By Heidi Schreck
Directed by Kip Fagan; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Matt Frey; sound by Leah Gelpe.
Cast: Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Shelley), Ismenia Mendes (Emma), Bobby Moreno (Oscar) and Lee Wilkof (Frog).
Running time: 105 minutes with no intermission.
Grand Concourse is scheduled to run though November 30, 2014