In 'Sycamore Trees' at Signature Theatre, Marc Kudisch stays true to his roots

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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 23, 2010

When last glimpsed on a Washington area stage, Broadway veteran Marc Kudisch was stuffing apples and cucumbers into his tights -- a running gag in his comic portrait of vain, hunky 19th-century opera singer Antonio Tamburini, in the Kennedy Center production of Terrence McNally's "Golden Age."

The 43-year-old performer has shifted gears considerably for his new engagement, in "Sycamore Trees," composer Ricky Ian Gordon's decade-spanning family portrait, now in its world premiere at Signature Theatre. A recent rehearsal of the musical found Kudisch growling slang like "dough" and "pinko" and thumping his fist on a dining room table in an explosion of seeming fury. Under the watchful eye of director Tina Landau, he was fine-tuning the not-so-comic role of Sidney, a Bronx-born Jewish working stiff who struggles to accept his children's lifestyles in the half-century after World War II.

Sidney is "a non-changing mentality in an ever-changing environment," Kudisch explained during a pre-rehearsal interview. The sturdy, blue-eyed, six-foot-tall actor had shown up armed with a peanut-butter cookie and a smoothie. But he didn't seem in need of an energy boost as he waxed loquacious and passionate on a series of subjects, from motorcycles (he rides a Kawasaki) to Hillary Clinton (he's a big fan) to phallic imagery in commedia dell'arte to the state of the contemporary American theater.

Of his character Sidney, he proclaimed: "I'm not going to apologize for what he says and does. I won't do that! It's true. It's honest. You'll enjoy it. You'll like him. You won't like him! He's a tough egg."

The tough-egg character has found an experienced interpreter in Kudisch, an unusually busy performer who's something of a critic's darling. In addition to roles in musical comedy crowd-pleasers (he scored Tony nominations for his turns in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and, recently, "9 to 5," in which he portrayed the sexist boss), he has helped create edgy new musical theater works: He was the anguished Vincent van Gogh in Michael John LaChiusa's "The Highest Yellow," seen at Signature in 2004, for instance. He has sung with New York City Opera and done his time on "Sex and the City."

He has twice played incarnations of Satan, depicting the Snake in the 2006 Broadway revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's "The Apple Tree," and letting fly as the demonic Darryl Van Horne in Signature's 2007 "Witches of Eastwick," a production that earned him a Helen Hayes Award.

"I have made a career of being the foil, the jilted one, the man who doesn't get the girl, whether it be villain or hero," Kudisch says, pointing out that the Devil might be considered the cosmos's "first foil." They're figures who are "a little larger than life," without necessarily being cartoons.

"I like playing those characters that walk that very, very fine line of being really funny and not funny at all, at the same moment," he says. For example, "The fun for me in doing 'Golden Age' was to play the preening man, and yet [show that] his insecurity was always on the surface."

His ability to project that kind of ambiguity is part of what makes Kudisch a strong stage presence, past collaborators say.

"He can be frightening and make you laugh at the same time," remarks Walter Bobbie, director of "Golden Age." He adds, "It's very rare for a leading man of his handsomeness and physical stature to have that whimsy and sense of physical comedy."

"There is that shadow to him that I just love," says composer-lyricist LaChiusa, who worked with Kudisch on the world premieres of "The Wild Party" and "See What I Wanna See," as well as "The Highest Yellow." "A little dark side; a little edginess. And also this comedic side to him that's just delightful. It hearkens back to the leading men you might see in some of Preston Sturges's movies."

That kind of overlap might be what you'd expect from a guy who recalls adoring his college political-theory class "because it was funny."

Growing up in Florida, he was fascinated by the work of his father, a lobbyist. So, after enrolling at Florida Atlantic University, he decided to major in political science -- until that theory class convinced him that, as he puts it, "all politics is based on failure." He switched his major to theater.

After graduating, he drove a U-Haul to New York City, where he soon landed the role of teen idol Conrad Birdie in a national tour of "Bye Bye Birdie" that co-starred Tommy Tune. A part in the Broadway musical "Beauty and the Beast" followed. At this point, as he tells it, he was hardly a virtuoso vocalist. Then a tip from his "Beauty and the Beast" dresser, an ex-opera performer, prompted him to start studying opera technique with a coach.

That training has come in handy, not only in "Golden Age" -- which called upon him to burst into snippets of Bellini -- but when he has interpreted the works of musically challenging composers like Stephen Sondheim (Kudisch appeared in Broadway's "Assassins" and New York City Opera's 2003 "A Little Night Music") and LaChiusa.

During the creation of "The Highest Yellow," LaChiusa remembers, "I said, 'Okay: I've got this huge aria that I've written for you, in which you will be singing naked, in ice cold water. And you'll sing a high C.' "

Kudisch, a baritone, didn't bat an eye over the scene, which placed him in a bathtub. "He did it every night perfectly," LaChiusa marvels.

Eric Schaeffer, Signature's artistic director, says Kudisch is "fearless" and "game for anything." When Schaeffer was staging the supernaturally themed "Witches of Eastwick," he told the actor that Darryl Van Horne would have an airborne sequence. "He was, like, 'Do you want me to do a somersault?' " the director recalls.

"Sycamore Trees," running through June 13 as part of Signature's American Musical Voices Project, is a more grounded enterprise for Kudisch. The role of Sidney is "not like anything that I've done before," he says, "and yet, perhaps, he's the most organically close to me." The actor, who is Jewish, thinks his family in some ways resembles the one the musical explores. "No research necessary," he says. "I grew up with it."

Working at Signature means being away from his motorcycle and from the life he shares with his fiancee, Broadway actress Shannon Lewis, and their dogs Zoey, a German shepherd-Doberman mix, and Ruby, a Chihuahua. Still, Kudisch says he's glad to have had back-to-back D.C. area gigs this spring.

New York theater, he explains, working up a head of conversational steam, has "gotten lost in the dollar. We've gotten lost in the production value of things. We've gotten away from the story value."

He talks about theater as a marketplace of ideas. He makes passing references to Green Day, "The Addams Family," "American Idol" and our era's oft-cited Wall Street-vs.-Main Street conflict.

Audiences in the nation's capital, he asserts, "don't need pandering" and have eclectic tastes. "That's why I'm in D.C.," he says. "Because we can experiment down here. We can go back to story."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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