The Hidden Treasure of American Acting

At 81, Alvin Epstein's trying something classic and new

Despite its strokes of genius, which Epstein still recalls lovingly, Welles's production turned into disaster; he broke both his ankles in onstage accidents, playing the rest of the run in a wheelchair. Alvin barely had time to ponder Welles's epic self- destructiveness. He was caught up in an even more extraordinary adventure: playing Lucky in the New York premiere of Waiting for Godot, with Bert Lahr and E.G. Marshall as Gogo and Didi. Alvin remembers the eerie night Lahr summoned him to the star dressing room. Terrified that he'd done something wrong onstage, Epstein was floored when the beloved clown told him, "You're a good actor, Epstein. Change your name." He said he'd think about it.

His unchanged name didn't keep him from what seemed an endless succession of challenging, though rarely high-paying, adventures. He followed Godot with another Beckett first, playing Clov in the American premiere of Endgame. He romped Off-Broadway in a French farce with Tammy Grimes, and on it with Dia-hann Carroll in Richard Rodgers's innovative No Strings. For seven Christmases, he turned up at various ecclesiastical venues, reciting W.H. Auden's narration for the New York Pro Musica's staging of the medieval Play of Daniel. He played Trotsky to Peter Falk's Stalin in Paddy Chayefsky's Passion of Josef D. Where something exceptional was afoot theatrically, you could usually find Alvin Epstein.

But the American theater was shifting its ground, and Epstein's quest for adventure shifted with it. In 1966, he gave a fero cious performance at the Berkshire Theatre Festival as Shylock, in a scarifying production, by George Tabori, that imagined Shakespeare's play being staged by concentration camp inmates for an audience of Nazi officers. Taking on the title role of Pirandello's Enrico IV, he helped launch Chicago's off-Loop theater movement. In 1967, the folksinger Martha Schlamme called him, needing a partner for her two-person Kurt Weill cabaret. For the next 17 years, between other engagements, they sang Weill together in every imaginable venue, from basement dives to huge concert halls. At the show's farewell, in 1984, the Times' Stephen Holden saluted it as "one of the finest cabaret shows of all time."

Actor-singer-mime-director Epstein as Lear
photo: Carolle Photography
Actor-singer-mime-director Epstein as Lear

An even more quixotic project was Arnold Weinstein and William Bolcom's "opera for actors," Dynamite Tonite, which Alvin workshopped at the Actors Studio. Moved Off-Broadway when the Studio tried to flex a commercial producing arm, it got lethal reviews and shuttered on opening night. Robert Brustein, then the tigerish young critic of The New Republic, was so incensed that he made Dynamite Tonite's revival an early priority of his newly founded Yale Repertory Theatre. Moved back Off-Broadway, the Yale production got more respectful reviews—and garnered Alvin a Distinguished Performance Obie.

The commercial chaos around Dynamite was a deciding factor. Responding to an offer from Brustein, he pulled up stakes in New York to devote himself to an ongoing institution. Between 1968 and 2004, albeit with innumerable interruptions, he was a working member of a repertory company: Yale Rep., and its offshoot, the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard (ART). In between, for two extremely rocky seasons, he was the first American to become artistic director of Minneapolis's giant Guthrie Theater. It would take a book to list all the classic roles he's played memorably, the new plays he's premiered, or the eminent directors whose challenges his fine-honed skills, optimal physicality, and deeply grounded sensibility have enabled him to meet.

Stored in my memory is a coffee-table book's worth of mental photographs of un- forgettable Epstein moments: Here he is as Kirilov in Andrzej Wajda's production of The Possessed, sitting motionless, dead eyes locked on the audience, waiting for the time selected for his suicide. Here he is, in contrast, as the meddler Kotchkaryov in Gogol's Marriage, a bundle of flying limbs and manic energy. Here he is as Sir Peter Teazle, in Jonathan Miller's staging of The School for Scandal, quivering with bulldog fury. Here he is as Ivanov, as Prospero, as Henry IV. Whatever else Epstein's story may be, it's the story of what every American actor his age must wish he had done. Only Alvin did it.

I could go on—I haven't even mentioned his achievements as a director—but I have no space. And Alvin, frankly, has no interest in chronicling his past. His passion has always been for going on to the next adventure. This month, it's the madness of Lear. And next? "If I knew," he says, smiling, "I would tell you." For the actor who's making his La MaMa debut at age 81, the theater is still advancing.

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