Young Potomac Actor Noah Robbins Lands Broadway Lead

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

NEW YORK -- For Noah Robbins, the shift in the universe happened on the escalator at the Tenleytown Metro station. He and his mom were on their way to Georgetown Day School for a rehearsal of "The Producers," in which he was playing a lead role.

As the stairs rose, his mother saw she had a cellphone message. When she returned the call moments later, the news took their breath away: Noah was going to Broadway.

And not just going, like on a charter bus to "Phantom." About a month shy of graduating from high school, the slight, talented kid from Potomac was being offered the lead in a Broadway play. The sort of thing that only happens to actors who've toiled for years and years, to movie stars seeking a new career challenge or to Ruby Keeler in "42nd Street."

Just like that, Robbins left the cozy support network of school theatricals for the cutthroat hubbub of the commercial stage. The part itself -- that of Eugene Jerome, teenage narrator of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" -- was storied, featured in the first major revival of Neil Simon's autobiographical family comedy since its 1983 debut. That production, which ran for years, happened to do quite a bit of good for the actor who originated the part, Matthew Broderick.

"At that moment, it felt like, 'How did this happen?' " says Robbins, who just turned 19 but could pass for 15 -- the age of the character he plays. He's sitting in the living room of the Upper West Side apartment his parents, Larry and Leslie, have rented for what they hope will be an extended run of Noah's excellent Broadway adventure. The play, now in preview performances, officially opens Oct. 25. That's when the New York critics will weigh in, helping decide whether the revival thrives or heads to an early grave.

It's still hard for Robbins to take in the magnitude of this opportunity. He's a star-struck young man receiving his baptism in the theater world's biggest pond. One day during rehearsals in a Times Square building filled with Broadway shows-in-progress, he got into an elevator and found himself face to face with one of his idols, Nathan Lane, who is starring in a musical version of "The Addams Family" later this season.

It was a little too much for Robbins, whose knees all but buckled. "I get in the elevator, I'm sweating," he recalls. "And I press the wrong floor because I'm so nervous."

Onstage, however, an ability to project a wise-beyond-his-years sense of authority helped him beat out hundreds of other would-be Eugenes whom the producers and director David Cromer considered during an arduous, months-long search. Robbins had to audition half a dozen times between January and April, round-tripping on Amtrak again and again, believing at times that he was out of the running only to receive another callback.

On two occasions, he was placed on the stages of Broadway theaters to confirm that he could project enough personality to fill a space with more than 1,000 seats.

Because it is, after all, a gamble to go with a talent who hasn't been road-tested. Other shows have successfully spotlighted young unknowns: The Tony-winning "Billy Elliot: The Musical," for example, hinges on the rotating actors in the bravura dancing role of young Billy. Still, a lead role brings outsize scrutiny. Sure, Robbins has been to theater camp and starred in school dramatics; he's even appeared in children's shows at the Kennedy Center under the directorial command of Debbie Allen. The job this time, however, requires him to be one of the pillars of a multimillion-dollar enterprise.

"There's so much pressure about casting that kid -- it's the first part of any conversation about the play. It's like casting Stanley Kowalski," says Cromer, a Chicago director who is making his own Broadway debut, having been recruited on the strength of the critical and popular success of an off-Broadway revival of "Our Town." And it's not only Robbins who's under the gun: Some involved in the production say Cromer's search for a more authentic realization of "Brighton Beach's" family and money issues results in a work that at times plays less effervescently than past productions. How keenly audiences will embrace the approach remains to be seen.

It's understood that in the play, set in the Jerome household in Depression-era Brooklyn, budding writer Eugene speaks for Simon himself, and the playwright remains deeply involved in determining who portrays Eugene. Naturally, Robbins read for Simon.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company