Watching a performance by Mitchell Jarvis, you’re struck by the thought that if he showed up at your door, you’d rush to lock away the silverware, the hard liquor and your daughter.
In a series of TV commercials for Coors’s Keystone Light, he played Keith Stone, a sleazy outdoorsman with a rifle and a six-pack and a smooth come-on line for the ladies. In Broadway’s “Rock of Ages,” he was the original Lonny, a manager of the musical’s scuzzy club on the Sunset Strip, the Bourbon Room. And in the tickling Web series “It Could Be Worse,” which he and actor-friend Wesley Taylor shot and recently posted online, he portrays Sam Atkinson, an actors’ agent far more skilled at scoring coke than roles for his clients.
So it seems perfectly in keeping with his outre résuméthat this 35-year-old New York actor of intense demeanor and piercing gaze would turn up as Dr. Frank ’N’ Furter, the cheap-thrill-seeking, gender-bending girly-man of “The Rocky Horror Show.” But in the rollicking revival of the 1973 musical — which just announced a second extension at Studio Theatre, to Aug. 17 — Jarvis is not of a mind to create a carbon copy of what fans have seen before.
His Frank ’N’ Furter is no receptacle of kitsch, the sort of stylishly cartoon-like figure Tim Curry embodied in the 1975 movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which has inspired generations of devotees to turn up costumed like him at midnight art-house showings. Jarvis had a notion for this “Rocky Horror,” directed by Alan Paul and Keith Alan Baker, of a darker portrait of a man taking too big a bite out of life, a nonconformist who lives on the edge and pays the ultimate price for it.
“He’s an ugly guy in drag,” Jarvis says, sitting one afternoon last month in a coffee emporium a block from the theater on 14th Street NW. “I view him as equal parts male and female — a mad scientist and a cult figure. Some superfans will say, ‘Oh, it’s just about being a freak.’ No. He’s Dionysus. He’s living to excess, so much so that he must die.”
Despite the character’s glam-punk getup, Jarvis makes no effort to turn Frank ’N’ Furter into the glamorpuss king of the musical’s decadent castle, where in the lab he invents the boy toy of his dreams (William Hayes) and in the bedroom ravishes the clean-cut B-movie couple (Tim Rogan and Jessica Thorne) who chance upon his doorstep one stormy night. It is indeed a nervy portrayal, stripped of many of the campy mannerisms for which Frank ’N’ Furter is known. In fact, Jarvis says, he tussled with his directors over his wish that audiences not shout out lyrics, a tradition that started with the movie and has been adopted by many stage productions since.
Getting to do it his way was partly why he decided to leave New York for the summer and accept the job in Studio’s 2ndStage program, which often uses actors who are not yet members of Equity, the actors’ union.
“I don’t know if I would have taken the part,” says Taylor, who met Jarvis in “Rock of Ages” and most recently had a recurring role as one of the singer-dancers on NBC’s “Smash.” “But Mitch will always choose to do something that excites him. He wanted to play this part, and this was his opportunity to do it.”
Born in California and raised in Minnesota, Jarvis had a taste of performing from an early age, singing in a church choir and performing with his parents and sisters as the Jarvis Family, which toured churches singing contemporary Christian music.
A break with his religious upbringing and an interest in musical theater brought him to the acting program at Carnegie Mellon University. He moved to New York following graduation, and after years of the usual actor’s struggle —“I even came to D.C for six weeks to wrap Christmas lights around trees” — he landed the part in the off-Broadway mounting of “Rock of Ages,” which moved to Broadway in 2009.
That job led to the friendship with Taylor and their collaboration on one of the most intriguing projects in which Jarvis has been involved: the development of the 15 webisodes of “It Could Be Worse.” Produced on a shoestring budget and reliant on the unpaid contributions of a gallery of Broadway actors — from well-known players such as Audra McDonald to emerging stars such as Adam Chanler-Berat (“Next to Normal”) — “It Could Be Worse” tells in seven-to-10-minute installments the story of Taylor’s Jacob Gordon. He’s a struggling stage actor, clung to by whiny boyfriend Phillip Klein (the pitch-perfect Gideon Glick) and cast in a musical with the unpredictable, hyper-dramatic Veronica Bailey (a priceless Alison Fraser).
The satirical show is what “Smash,” the disappointing backstage-on-Broadway series, might have been, had it found a looser and sharper-witted footing. Written by the two creators and directed by Jarvis, the series developed a cult following of its own, and Taylor says fans lobby them for a second season all the time. (There might be one, if they can find someone to pay for it.)
“Ever since college, I’ve had this fantasy of making movies with my friends,” Jarvis says, adding that Taylor proved a whiz at, among other things, the art of persuasion: “He is so gifted at getting people to do things for him for free.”
Clearly, the series is not out of either of their systems — especially not Jarvis’s. “Because he’s like a little kid at a candy shop, he can be artistically fulfilled on that other side of the camera,” Taylor says of Jarvis. “ ‘It Could Be Worse’ totally consumed me, and after we wrapped, I was able to reconnect with my boyfriend. But Mitch called a week later — with all of these ideas for Season 2.”
The opportunities, at last, are multiplying for Jarvis: He had to take a few days’ leave from “Rocky Horror” to shoot a movie comedy, “Opening Night,” in Los Angeles with Anthony Rapp and Cheyenne Jackson. If the world is small, the world of showbiz is microscopic: “Opening Night’s” director happens to be Jack Henry Robbins. His mother is Susan Sarandon, and, yes, she played the pure-as-snow Janet way back when in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Book, music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien. Through Aug. 17 at Studio Theatre,
1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.