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.
"It was pressure, but on some level I knew I had it in me," Robbins says of the tryout for the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning dramatist.
What does such a life-changing bolt out of the blue consist of? Being the right person in the right place at the right time. And in the moment, striking the right note; the creative team settled on the idea of a very young-looking Eugene, who is in his early teens at the time of the play. Emanuel Azenberg, who has been producing Simon's plays for decades and is one of the architects of the new Broadway stagings of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and its upcoming companion revival, "Broadway Bound," says the achievement goes beyond the look. Robbins secured the job the old-fashioned way: "He earned it," Azenberg says.
"I was grading papers in the back of the auditioning hall when he came in and started to read," he recalls. At the time, Azenberg had been distracting himself from the tedium of the casting process by getting some work done for a college class he teaches. "I'd heard 400 of them, and unless they catch your attention, you keep grading. He opened his mouth, and my head went up and I laughed. You laughed at the lines you'd heard 399 times before."
Robbins, the youngest of the three artistic sons of Larry Robbins, a lawyer, and Leslie Danoff, a painter and film documentarian, initially wanted to dance. The theater bug snared him in fifth grade, when he began winning parts in Allen's Kennedy Center productions, sassy updatings of such classics as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Alice in Wonderland." Allen took him with her to Los Angeles for the West Coast runs of her shows, which led to his being signed by an agent, even if nothing much else professionally materialized.
"I never thought of it as a career," Robbins says. "I was just sort of a jubilant child."
The elation intensified after he transferred from another private school to Georgetown Day, with its ambitious drama offerings: not only classes in acting but also voice and directing. "The other element that's different is that we run a serious technical theater and design program," says Laura Rosberg, performing arts chairman for the high school division. "We build all our own shows, right here in the building."
Robbins caught her eye, and not only because he had that ineffable "it."
"Teen divas come and go," Rosberg says, "but this lad has always been the nicest child on the planet. The other kids love him."
He does not come across as jaded or self-impressed. Talking about his new Broadway comrades, Robbins stops himself, embarrassed: "I'm speaking like I'm experienced!" he declares. A self-described pessimist, he was nonetheless equipped with enough optimistic zeal to have memorized all of Eugene's lines before the first rehearsal. "He comes in ready to work, completely prepared," Cromer says. "If he's terrified, he doesn't bother anybody with it. He is absolutely, completely wide open."
But not so self-effacing as to miss a chance to show what he can do: A visitor to the apartment leaves with a DVD of select scenes from his Georgetown Day turn as Max Bialystock, the lead in "The Producers." The recording reveals a Max all his own. Robbins's polished movements hint at his ambitions as a dancer, and his delivery of the Mel Brooks jokes make him sound as if he might have been to the Borscht Belt born.
"He's a vaudevillian," Rosberg says.
Nowadays, Robbins's life revolves around a 50-block stretch of Manhattan, and the C train subway ride from a flat on the edge of Central Park to the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street, erstwhile home of "Rent." He goes to the occasional movie and keeps in touch with the rest of his life via Facebook. College is on the back burner for the time being. The substitute for dorm life is backstage life, where his studies are focused on the story of Broadway, of which his own experiences will now be part.
"I'm in the dressing room," he exclaims excitedly, "of who knows who?"
And now, thanks to an eight-times-a-week Broadway schedule, he's getting ever more accustomed to playing to a big crowd. Not that it seems all that different to him. After his first preview performance, he e-mailed to say that he had observed something unexpected: He was no more anxiety-ridden than he had been going on as Max.
"I guess nervousness is nervousness, whether you're in high school or on Broadway," he wrote.
He also noted that when he stepped onstage for the first time, he was surprised to be the recipient of entrance applause. "The more I think about it," he added, "the more I think it was just my parents, and a few other people deciding to give a newcomer some confidence."
His folks came back to see him afterward, and he could tell they had been crying. "But," Robbins confided, with all the wisdom acquired on a first night as a Broadway actor, "I didn't say anything."