:New York Sun; :Jan 21, 2004; :Theater; :18


ON THEATER

Raúl Esparza:The Exit Interview

JEREMY MC CARTER



    ‘Some actors really like shows where you stick to the script very closely. I walk a more dangerous line. If something scares me, I want to go there.” Raúl Esparza didn’t look like much of a swashbuckler as he said this, munching fries in a T-shirt, jeans, and gray zip-up sweatshirt. But anyone who has seen him onstage will know he’s not spouting the usual actorly bravado.

    Lately Mr. Esparza’s roles have included the M.C. in “Cabaret” and two leads in last summer’s Sondheim festival in Washington. His current project, the Boy George musical “Taboo,” has given him even more opportunity to show thespian valor. He plays Philip Sallon, “the pied piper of lost souls,” a flamboyant club promoter in early 1980s London. In the show’s book (rewritten for its Broadway run by Charles Busch), Philip narrates the show, tying together the stories of the protagonists, the upstart Boy George and the self-made art installation Leigh Bowery.

    The show had a rocky start, with press accounts of micromanaging by producer Rosie O’Donnell and a ruckus of mostly negative reviews. When it posted a closing notice for February 8, I invited Mr. Esparza to lunch at Angus McIndoe. I wanted to find out what it’s been like to act opposite his gifted co-stars — and that big Broadway crowd.

    Mr. Esparza can exude raw emotion and intelligent calculation, sympathy and malice, on alternating breaths; he doesn’t let you take the next move for granted. “Taboo” plays to this strength; he said director Christopher Renshaw wanted the cast to create an informal atmosphere onstage. Mr. Esparza has used the invitation to try new bits throughout the show, like byplay with the audience during the first song. He interjects different lines depending on the crowd’s response and how he feels each night.

    “Do you like it, dear?” he asked a woman in the front row at a performance last weekend. It might seem banal until you put yourself in the position of the woman, gazing at a Cuban-American actor in a wedding dress, pile of shiny black curls, and blue eyeshadow who’s suddenly sneering down at you.

    Mr. Esparza said he doesn’t know why he’s been cast in several of these audience-interactive roles lately. Beyond abundant acting chops, I’d venture it has something to do with his green eyes: They hold your attention onstage, even when he doesn’t say a word. In rehearsals, the company toyed with having him jump into the audience and chat up spectators in the opening number. “It’s cheap and cheating, I know it is. But I like it because I like the audience to know we can see them. That’s what people come to the theater for.”

    Though “Taboo”

will close having played only 100 performances, that’s enough for Mr. Esparza to have dealt with all kinds of crowds. He has learned he can gauge the audience in the show’s opening moments, when Philip looks over the ruins of the old club. “I see how long I can hold the silence before I start the first song. I sometimes do it a little longer if the audience seems interested and engaged. But if I hear rustling, I say, ‘Okay, let’s get going.’”

    When I went back to see the show again, last Saturday’s matinee, he didn’t have long to wait. This was one of the all-time, dead-of-winter, getme-back-to-the-green-room dud houses. Mr. Esparza said it can be “really difficult” to perform a show like “Taboo” for that kind of house, but he pointed out even the quiet crowds get enthusiastic in the closing minutes and curtain call. “I feel like that’s not fair. The show is like a conversation. They didn’t participate in the conversation for two hours, they shouldn’t get to participate at the end.” (He acknowledges that this is “completely irrational.”)

    Mr. Esparza called the “Taboo” cast “a really wonderful company of people.” He took issue with recent press reports that they’re “depressed” about the closing notice. “It’s absolutely not true,” he said. “We’re disappointed, and sad that the show’s closing. But we still manage to pull together and have fun.” He was particularly excited to describe acting opposite Jeffrey Carlson, likening their scenes to “a volleyball match.”

    Mr. Carlson plays Marilyn, Boy George’s friend and hanger-on, a caustic and self-glorifying drag queen. Mr. Esparza said the two of them have created a kind of nightly game at the moment when Marilyn says, without a hint of self-awareness, that nobody better try to take advantage of his sweet nature. Mr. Esparza looks to the audience in disbelief, then does what he calls “a vaudeville slow burn,” turning extremely slowly to look at Mr. Carlson, trying, as he put it, “to keep the string from breaking.”

    “I see him watching out of the corner of his eye to see if I can sustain the laugh,” said Mr. Esparza. “Last night I didn’t, and he went” — Mr. Esparza made a fist, then spread his fingers wide. “It was the string breaking.”

    There are many such moments in “Taboo,” when Mr. Esparza and his costars dart out on one limb or another. Yet after closing night, the show’s legacy will likely focus on the backstage sturm und drang, some of which involved Mr. Esparza. He offered a few comments on an incident first reported in October by Michael Riedel in the New York Post. Ms. O’Donnell gave Mr. Esparza a note about taking an exit — generally not done by producers — which prompted him to walk out. Mr. Esparza said that before anyone started talking about the flare-up, the day after it happened, the issue had been settled: “It was cool.”

    “I’m very sorry about letting my frayed temper get the best of me,” he said. “We both wanted the same things, but there were too many captains and we couldn’t communicate that. People always argue in tech — this one just became public.”

    For all that “Taboo” asks of Mr. Esparza — imagine Atlas, with power ballads added to the job description — and how well he acquits himself, nothing in the show compares to something I saw Mr. Esparza do one night in Trevor Griffiths’s “Comedians” last year. In one of the tiny Theater Row houses, he played an apprentice stand-up comic, Gethin Price, with a violent, subversive streak.

    “When I saw ‘Comedians,’” I started to say, “a guy in the front row — ”

    “Oh, you saw that performance?” Mr. Esparza said.

    “That performance,” according to my notebook, was the night of January 14, 2003. Midway through the show’s bizarre final act, in which Gethin treats the audience as if we’re the crowd watching his avant-garde stand-up routine, something remarkable transpired across the footlights.

    “I challenged a guy who wasn’t responding to the act the way I wanted him to,” said Mr. Esparaza. “I said, ‘You’re so f—ing bored, why don’t you get up here onstage.’” The stage was only a step up from the audience, so the guy did. Standing nose-to-nose (or what would have been nose-to-nose, had the guy not been substantially taller than Mr. Esparza — broader, too), they jawed for a few seconds, and Mr. Esparza dared him to take the microphone. The guy didn’t move.

    “Get the f— off my stage,” Mr. Esparza said. The guy got the f— off his stage.

    “[Co-star] Allan Corduner was angry when I got backstage. He said it was irresponsible to let somebody onto the stage like that,” said Mr. Esparza. “But I wasn’t thinking like Raúl. I was thinking like Gethin.”

    “I’m a smart person, but I’m not a witty person. I don’t come up with lots of one-liners. But Philip can, and I find that when I’m playing him, I can too. Gethin is an angry person, looking for a fight,” so Mr. Esparza picked one when he had the chance.

    “It’s not conscious, I swear to you,” said Mr. Esparza, laughing. “It’s really sort of crazy.” There are kinder adjectives.


ALMOST HISTORY Boy George and Raúl Esparza in ‘Taboo.’ AP/TINA FINEBERG