IT LOOKS as if Actors Equity, the New York-based actors' union, will have a chance to reverse itself tomorrow on last week's ludicrous decision to prevent the Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce from playing the Eurasian lead character in the musical "Miss Saigon." The decision, which brought a prompt flood of ridicule, seems to have startled everyone involved; it demonstrated the silliness of taking an initially well-intentioned sentiment to absurd and legalistic extremes. The long-ago original motive of the union's policy is clear enough: ethnic minority actors have long suffered from the widespread refusal of directors to cast them in any but specifically minority roles. When specifically minority starring roles are written into musicals -- such as the "Miss Saigon" character or, for that matter, his Asian female co-star -- pressure mounts to give them to Asian actors. Casting more minority actors is a laudable purpose. But held rigidly, Equity's position would prohibit casting nonwhite actors in white roles, the very solution to the problem it addresses.
That solution, to which more and more directors are now turning, is the so-called "nontraditional casting": ignore the race of actors, cast the best ones and rely on their talent at creating illusion. Washingtonians have seen great successes in this vein at the Arena Stage, the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger and elsewhere; and Shakespeare in general has been a fruitful field for such efforts. (This is only fitting for plays whose female roles were written to be played by male Elizabethan actors and whose minorities, such as Othello, almost certainly were played by white ones.) The acclaimed British musical "Miss Saigon" is not in this league, but it fell afoul of the "protective" policies of the union, which also, for example, opposes any actors' appearing in blackface for any reason. The union, which admitted to "long and emotional debate" on the matter of Mr. Pryce, said in a statement last Thursday that it could not "appear to condone the casting of a Caucasian actor in the role of a Eurasian." Rather than back down, the British director, Cameron Mackintosh, canceled the show, turning an instance of mere silly thinking into one that would cost 50 actors jobs (including 34 minorities), forfeit $25 million in advance ticket sales and bite into the always precarious New York theater industry.
Mr. Mackintosh and Equity in fact have a history of friction, the director having threatened before to close shows when the union tried to keep him from importing his London stars rather than replace them with Americans. The union has also complained about his general record on casting minorities, especially in the large ensembles of his "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera"; but in the case of "Miss Saigon," with an Asian co-star and largely Asian ensemble, the showdown would seem misplaced even if it were not so wrongheaded. The union, to top it off, had also certified Mr. Pryce a "star" when he wished to recreate an Italian role in 1984. Equity's "long and emotional debates" evidently didn't cover much ground. Maybe it will straighten things out in this second run-through.