It has been said that actors are born, not made. And though it may be more accurate to say that they are born and then made, there are certain performers whose will to act seems to be singularly touched by destiny.
Consider John Lithgow. The son of an itinerant Shakespearian actor-manager and literally on the boards from the time he could waddle, it seems inconceivable that Lithgow could have been born for anything else. The multiple-Tony winning and twice Oscar-nominated star's 40-plus-year professional career has left a wake of indelible, larger-than-life characterizations that span both sides of the Atlantic and the big and small screens alike.
Onscreen, those roles have included a genteel, transsexual ex-football player (The World According to Garp); a maniacally Burroughsian warlord from the 8th dimension (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai), the screwball leader of an alien scientific expedition (3rd Rock From the Sun), and a chillingly unassuming suburbanite psychopath (the Trinity Killer from Dexter). Onstage he's essayed everything from punch-drunk pugilists (Requiem for a Heavyweight) to power-poisoned columnists (The Sweet Smell of Success, The Columnist) to comic con men (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to tragically corrupt patriarchs (All My Sons).
It's a rogues gallery of grotesques to rival that of the actor's friend and contemporary, Christopher Walken. Perhaps its most prized addition is the title role in the National Theatre's current revival of Arthur Wing Pinero's madcap Victorian farce, The Magistrate, which is being broadcast as part of National Theatre Live at the Downtown Independent, with a final showing Feb. 10, along with another at UCLA's James Bridges Theater on Feb. 9.
L.A. Weekly recently phoned Lithgow in London, where the actor spoke about the NT Live broadcast and the challenge for an American tackling one of the great comic roles of the English language at ground zero of the British stage, the Olivier at the National.
The Magistrate, Lithgow, explains, came about when Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theatre, and the director Timothy Sheader were scrambling after abruptly pulling the plug on the National's planned holiday production of The Count of Monte Christo in a new adaptation by playwright Richard Bean.
“[Hytner] directed me in Sweet Smell of Success in 2002 on Broadway,” Lithgow recalls, “and that was the very year he became the head of the National. And he and I have talked about different things to do at the National ever since. In fact, I have done my one-man show [John Lithgow: Stories by Heart] there on two successive Monday nights back in 2009. But suddenly in the middle of the summer I got an email from him saying, 'Do you know The Magistrate and are you free during this time period?' And I knew The Magistrate extremely well.”
Lithgow plays Aeneas Posket, a dignified, small court magistrate who has recently married Agatha (played by Nancy Carroll), a somewhat vain widow with a 19-year-old son, Cis (Joshua McGuire) from her first marriage. The play's comic complications arise from the five years Agatha has shaved from her true age, which leaves Cis believing he's a 14-year-old but who smokes and drinks and chases music hall showgirls in a fashion far more consistent with his biology. It's the kind of lunatic twist on petty hypocrisy that has fuelled British comedy from Shakespeare to Fawlty Towers to Ricky Gervais.
It is, says Lithgow, “like an English version of a [Georges] Feydeau farce, but in Feydeau farces [the plots pivot on] marriage-threatening adultery; in English farce it's little tiny sins like lying about your age and staying too late at a gentleman's club in the West End of London.”
In a sense, it's a role for which Lithgow has been preparing ever since he first encountered the play as a student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where he was a Fulbright Scholar in the late '60s. That's when he chanced to see one of the play's definitive revivals, the 1969 Chichester Festival production directed by John Clements. That show, which was also witnessed by the then-teenaged Hytner, featured the great Scottish character actor Alastair Sim as Posket.
Following in the footsteps of Sim was, Lithgow admits, a somewhat intimidating proposition. “It wouldn't be so bad if I hadn't actually seen him do the part. But he did haunt me slightly in the rehearsal period — I remember his performance extremely vividly. I mean, talk about a wonderful, eccentric character actor. Alastair Sim was completely inimitable in the part. So my big challenge was to do everything I could to forget that I had seen him.”
That actorly amnesia apparently paid off. Lithgow and the show opened to generally favorable reviews in November before settling into a nearly three-month run.
Which is not to say that an L.A. broadcast will pack quite the same punch as a ten-hour flight to London, a suite at Claridge's and two on the aisle at the Olivier. “I compare it to sort of eavesdropping on a theater experience,” Lithgow says. “You're not exactly in the audience. You're sort of hovering above the audience, watching both the audience and the performance at the same time. It's not the full-theater experience, but at least you get the experience of seeing the play without ever having been there. We don't change our performance at all. I would think some people may find it's a little bit over the top, but that's because they are definitely seeing a piece of theater, not a piece of television.”
But the best reason to see it, Lithgow says, is for Pinero's farce, which is virtually unknown in the U.S. “It opened the same year as The Mikado,” he explains, “and it has a lot of the giddy silliness of Gilbert & Sullivan in it. So it just takes you on a completely different trip. I suppose it occupies the place in the British canon that Kaufman and Hart does in American comedy — You Can't Take it With You, Once in a Lifetime — those great plays. They're all big-cast ensemble plays full of wonderful characters and vivid complications. You don't get a chance to see plays like this anymore. And certainly not played at this wonderfully high level.”