Backstage

Karl Miller's killer instincts in 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' at Round House

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The Bethesda theater opens its 2010-2011 season with the thriller starring Karl Miller.
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Somebody once said that envy is the only sin that's not any fun to commit," notes actor Karl Miller, ruminating about playing the envious -- and murderous -- Tom Ripley in Round House Theatre's just-opened "The Talented Mr. Ripley," running through Sept. 26. The play was adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel, the first of her five Ripley books. The play premiered in England in 1998. Round House's production is the U.S. regional premiere.

Miller's take on the chameleon-like, social-climbing killer hinges on envy and anxiety, says the actor. Ripley, raised in poverty, longs for the finer things. He befriends Richard Greenleaf, a trust-fund slacker living in Italy, kills him and takes on his identity, somehow finessing the law and Greenleaf's suspicious friends.

It's Ripley's envy, argues Miller, that humanizes him in the book and could do so for an audience. "If somebody does something out of envy, we come to it with a layer of pity, but if it comes out of malice or they're just crazy, you don't have that same proximity to the character. . . . I try really, really hard to make him suffer in his own way -- when he's not making other people suffer."

Another element in the book that Miller wants to convey is Ripley's ever-present anxiety. "It's very hard to get that in the play. . . . You have to bring that yourself and find where that can come out," says the actor. He uses Ripley's numerous monologues for that, speaking directly to the audience.

"Certainly the audience is a confidant for Ripley," says Round House Artistic Director Blake Robison, who staged the play. Robison says he left the actor a lot of space to experiment with the role and those monologues. "He's far too smart and skilled an actor to have somebody tell him what to play every moment. . . . When you're working with someone like that, you set them some parameters and then let them go," says Robison.

Miller, 31, won a Helen Hayes Award for outstanding lead actor for his portrayal of AIDS patient Prior Walter in Forum Theatre's 2009 production of "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches." He was nominated for his 2006 Hamlet at Rep Stage and his turn the same year as rampaging teen Eric Harris in "columbinus," a Round House and Perseverance Theatre co-production, and also appeared in the New York Theatre Workshop's staging later that year.

The actor relocated to New York soon after, but admits he's found it tough going. There are just too many young actors and not enough roles. He now works most often in Washington, where he got his start. As an "out-of-town actor," he is provided with housing when he's here and thus can afford to work on his roles full time without holding down a day job.

"That's not why I went to New York, but it's one of the things that keeps me locked in this weird, double-city thing," Miller says. "It suddenly makes theater work very affordable to do, where in the past I needed to do two things at once."

In New York, Miller says, he's either vying for parts against higher-profile film and TV actors, even for what he describes as two-week showcases of "mediocre" plays for a $500 paycheck, or he's up against "300 other guys" for a tertiary speaking role in a Shakespeare play. By auditioning there, he's "letting [producers and directors] see my hairline, my eye color, my jaw, my height and my voice, and that's really what they're looking at . . . like flipping through a rack of clothing."

Robison sympathizes, but urges patience. "If you're as talented as Karl is, and you want to make New York City your base, you will work eventually. It can take more time than you want it to take." Meanwhile, Robison adds, "we're really happy to have him back in D.C. for a while."

As for Miller, he marvels at actors who turn down parts outside New York, hoping lightning will strike in Manhattan: "It still boggles the mind what people sacrifice because they'd rather be unemployed in New York than happily engaged someplace else."

Factory 449 season

Factory 449 (http://www.factory449.com), the collective of area theater artists eager to experiment, begins its new season Thursday at Church Street Theater with "The Saint Plays" by Erik Ehn ("Wolf at the Door"), directed by John Moletress, who founded Factory 449 with actor Rick Hammerly and others. Among the six short plays about the lives of the saints -- re-imagined in a contemporary setting -- is a new piece Ehn wrote for Factory 449 to premiere.

The company will present the world premiere of "Magnificent Waste" by Caridad Svich ("12 Ophelias") April 9-May 8 at Mead Theatre Lab. The piece examines the lives of three dissipated young friends.

1st Stage season

1st Stage in Tysons Corner (http://www.1ststagetysons.org), which received a nod from the Helen Hayes Awards this year as outstanding emerging theater company, has begun its new season with Theresa Rebeck's play about high-stakes stamp collecting, "Mauritius," running through Oct. 3 and staged by Artistic Director Mark Krikstan. The play ran on Broadway in 2007.

The troupe's next production reaches back into the goodie bag of theatrical chestnuts with Philip Barry's 1928 classic "Holiday" (Oct. 22-Nov. 14), about the lives of the genteel rich, staged by Dawn McAndrews.

For the actual holidays, 1st Stage will offer the 1952 Agatha Christie murder mystery "The Mousetrap" (Dec. 10-Jan. 9), directed by Jessica Lefkow.

David Lindsay-Abaire's raucous comedy about a family caring for an amnesiac, "Fuddy Meers," will run Feb. 4-27, directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner.

The company's spring musical (May 20-June 19) is TBA.


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