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An Actor and a Playwright Find New Stages Beyond the Valley

  • Marisa Smith, of Hanover, N.H., at a rehearsal with cast and director of her play "Mad Love" at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., on Jan. 22, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2018

In case their Upper Valley neighbors are beginning to wonder, Newbury, Vt., resident Dan Butler and Hanover native Marisa Smith aren’t hiding in witness protection or underground bunkers.

Rather, the stage veterans are pursuing theater projects farther afield — Butler in his fourth appearance on Broadway and Smith, in Maine, fine-tuning the script of her latest examination of infidelity and midlife crisis.

Well, Butler is hiding behind a disguise: Best known for his portrayal of Bulldog Briscoe, a testosterone-poisoned sports-talk radio host on the sitcom Frazier, this time he’s wearing the thin mustache and van Dyke beard we associate with Vladimir Lenin, circa 1917, in the Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 Tony-winning play Travesties. After a month of previews, it opened Tuesday night at the American Airlines Theatre to a rave review in The New York Times.

“I grew (the facial hair) myself, but it takes a little bit of magic to make me age-appropriate,” Butler, 63, said during a recent telephone interview from New York City. “Lenin died when he was 53, and he was in his mid-40s when this play is set.”

Butler joined the cast, most of whom came from a long run of sold-out shows in London, for rehearsals in February. He was still catching his breath from portraying Truman Capote last fall in a Cambridge, Mass., production of WarholCapote. He’d jumped into that re-imagined tete-a-tete between the author and the Pop art icon after the original Capote, Leslie Jordan, withdrew for what was described as personal reasons.

“I had a little more warning this time — three weeks before rehearsal,” Butler said.

“With WarholCapote, I was onstage three days after I got the call.”

Every extra rehearsal helped with Travesties, given the intricacies of a play that finds Lenin in Paris debating art and politics with James Joyce and Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara, among others — sometimes while wearing the blond wig under which he sneaked back to Russia to start the Bolshevik Revolution, sometimes playing a lute.

“Most of the times when I see Stoppard, I’m going, I don’t know what’s going on with the ideas he, seemingly effortlessly, bounces back and forth,” Butler said. “But he does it in such an entertaining fashion that you don’t necessarily have to understand it.”

Smith, too, is reveling in the luxury of more preparation time before Tuesday’s opening at Portland Stage, thanks to a $5,000 grant from the New Plays Program of the nonprofit Edgerton Foundation.

“I’ve had four weeks with the team instead of the usual three,” Smith said. “It makes a really big difference.”

Hence, Smith is still tweaking the words that five characters will volley back and forth in her latest examination of infidelity and midlife crisis.

“All for the better, one hopes,” Smith said. “Comedy is all about rhythm and being precise. The story has to be crystal clear.”

At the end of this run, Smith will resume revising Venus Rising, which focuses on the generation gap between a woman in a troubled marriage and her aging mother, in preparation for rehearsals come autumn for its world premiere in January at Northern Stage in White River Junction.

“I do enjoy the process more and more,” Smith said. “I also recognize the potential pitfalls of putting a script in a director’s hands and eventually letting it go. It’s almost painful and pleasurable at the same time.”

Travestiesruns through June 17 at the American Airlines Theatre in Manhattan. For tickets and more information, visit roundabouttheatre.org.

Previews ofSex and Other Disturbancesbegin on Tuesday night at Portland Stage, and the production runs through May 20. To reserve tickets and learn more, visit portlandstage.org.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or 603-727-3304..