The Hidden Treasure of American Acting


OKay, Theater History students, today’s quiz has three questions, but only one correct answer.

(1) Which American actor has played leading roles opposite Orson Welles, Bert Lahr, Diahann Carroll, Linda Lavin, Meryl Streep, Cherry Jones, and Sting? (2) Which director famous for staging Shakespeare and Brecht is celebrated for his acting in plays by that un-Shakespearean, un-Brechtian writer Samuel Beckett? (3) What famous mime has been lauded across America for his singing and won an Obie award
for his performance in an opera? Stumped? Let’s cancel the quiz and face the fact: Alvin Epstein is not a household word.

That, however, may be about to change. At 81, actor-singer-mime-director Epstein is tackling one of the theater’s most strenuous jobs, the title role in Shakespeare’s King Lear. And since the production, which opened at La MaMa Annex on June 19, was originally presented last fall in Boston, by a fledgling company called Actors’ Shakespeare Project, he arrives already surrounded by a nimbus of rave reviews. With only a smattering of television credits and an even sparser list of film appearances, Epstein represents what it means in America to devote your life to the theater. Barely a blip on the mass audience’s radar, he’s one of our culture’s hidden treasures, a leading figure among the working professionals who believe in and live for their art.

Born in the Bronx and now living in Brooklyn, Epstein isn’t a celebrity in part because, in the late 1960s, he moved away from New York. Most of the experience that’s built up his extraordinary stature was achieved far from the glaring eye of its media machine. If his talents weren’t so exceptional, you’d say his career typified the artistry the resident-theater movement was created to foster.

But then, Alvin was an exception long before he became an actor. Son of a cultured, left- leaning Jewish doctor, he enriched his art-loving adolescence with a fascination for the lofty ideas of the great stage designer and theorist Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966), who, while the theater was still in thrall to post-Ibsen naturalism, had preached a heightened, semi-abstract renewal of the classical open stage. The obsession started with an 18th-birthday present from a schoolmate: Craig’s The Theatre Advancing. The book-length manifesto bowled Alvin over, describing, as he puts it, “the theater I’d dreamed of that I didn’t know I was dreaming of.” He started collecting Craig’s works. Even being drafted only fueled his preoccupation: Stationed in England, he scoured London’s used-book shops for Craigiana, hauling his precious finds across Europe in an army duffel. One day in Paris, the owner of a librairie du théâtre asked if he’d like to meet Craig, and held the panicked draftee’s arm with one hand while telephoning with the other. “I didn’t know he was in Paris,” says Alvin. “I didn’t know he was alive. It was like being asked if I wanted to meet God.”

Craig turned out to be a cheerfully beneficent deity. Alvin became a frequent visitor and unofficial assistant. By then, the young soldier was a theater student in earnest, at the university set up for G.I.’s in Biarritz. Shipped home, Alvin enrolled briefly at Fordham, where much of the Biarritz faculty had migrated, but soon migrated himself to study with Martha Graham. After a year, he says, “I realized she was turning me into a dancer.” Which somehow wasn’t the theater beyond theater that filled his Craigian dreams. He had glimpsed that theater, he thought, in a dazzling French film, then the talk of all intelligent cinephiles: Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s Children of Paradise, featuring Paris’s reigning stage star Jean-Louis Barrault as the 19th-century mime Deburau. Returning to France, Alvin told Craig that he wanted to study mime. “Are you serious?” Craig asked. “I’ll introduce you to Etienne Decroux.”

Decroux (1898–1991), the revered “father of modern mime,” who had coached the young Barrault in the art, was just then restarting his war-shuttered École de Mime. Alvin became one of its first pupils. The skills he was learning from Decroux didn’t distract him from noticing the remarkable proficiency of one classmate, a gangly youngster from Strasbourg called Marcel Marceau, whose rocket-like rise to mime stardom would shortly jump-start Alvin’s own career.

Before that could happen, Epstein’s odyssey took a further unexpected turn: Deciding that he didn’t want to spend his life miming anymore than he did dancing, he accepted a job as mime teacher and actor with Habima, the national theater of the newly founded state of Israel. From 1951 to ’54, he acquired enough fluency in Hebrew to appear convincingly in 11 roles—one of them the Fool in Lear, his first onstage brush with Shakespeare’s towering play. But as with Graham and Decroux, he learned at Habima that he also didn’t want to spend his life acting outside his own country and his native language. Coming back to New York, he learned what American actors do most of the time: audition. Then, one day in 1955, he strolled over to the Phoenix Theatre, where his former classmate Marceau was about to make his American debut. Meaning only to buy a ticket, Alvin was astounded when the Phoenix’s co-founder Norris Houghton grabbed him, shouting, “Get inside! They’re waiting for you.” Each piece in Marceau’s solo show was (and is to this day) introduced by two assistants, posed in a tableau vivant, holding a card with the piece’s title. One assistant, carrying the card of a political party the U.S. State Department didn’t like, had been denied a visa. So Alvin made his New York debut as half of this présentation des cartes, sharing in Marceau’s cascade of rave reviews. While posing in Marceau’s tableaux, Alvin read one afternoon for a famous director, expecting nothing, then headed home to the Bronx. His father, opening the apartment door with a look of shocked reverence, said, “Orson Welles just phoned you.” About to direct and play Lear at City Center, Welles wanted Alvin for his Fool.

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.”

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.