5 Questions: Bryce Ryness, Phileas Fogg Go “Around the World in 80 Days”

Bryce Ryness.
Bryce Ryness.
Bryce Ryness

The stage is comparable in size to an overpriced studio apartment — one with a second level, that is, and not one that is euphemistically characterized as “loft-like” when the ceiling is three inches above your knees.

But when you look at Robert Andrew Kovach’s set design for Mark Brown’s whimsy-packed adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, the stage is really the entire venue. For not only has producer Cedric Yau poured untold (and umpteen) dollars into transforming The New Theater at 45th Street into a fine Off-Broadway house (an improvement from the dilapidated mess it was before), Kovach’s concept extends fully into the steampunk-like auditorium, complete with sightings of actual steam as well as murals and projections.

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And now, a word about director Rachel Klein (and by extension, Rachel Klein Productions): Wow.

It’s been a long, long time since we’ve come across a director who can not only pull out some stops and some amusing coups d’theatre, but also has a strong, coherent, easily identifiable visual sense, as Kovach’s pseudo-steampunk surround-sound idea implies. (Yes, we wrote “steampunk” twice in one post.)

Check this out:

Klein’s cast — Shirine Babb, Jimmy Ray Bennett, John Gregorio, Stephen Guarino and Bryce Ryness — takes on all the roles with nuclear energy (no meltdowns) and one hell of a penchant for pluck.

For example, as globetrotting Phileas Fogg, Ryness is dreamily long of face and nightmarishly good at a very proper British deadpan. Guarino, as Detective Fix — a daft man convinced that Fogg is criminally eluding the law — is a manic mashup of Inspector Clouseau, Columbo, and Cagney and Lacey. But Fogg, as Verne wrote him and as Brown preserves him, is very much the soul of integrity, which is why Aouda, the Indian princess rescued from death by Fogg, presents such a feast of comic possibilities for Babb, who looks like the love child of Angela Bassett and a Bollywood superstar, and plays Aouda like the gorgeous Glamazonian glamourpuss she is. Then there is the marvelously rubber-faced Bennett, who should be jailed for the number of scenes he steals as he offers a bewildering gallery of nutty, preposterous and flirty characters. And Gregorio — as Fogg’s ever-trusty Passepartout — is at once ribald, triple-jointed and riotous.

All five actors, needless to say, revel in Klein’s crisp choreography — and we mean choreography, though this is a play. There is shtick, shtick, shtick in this production by the bucketful, making Around the World in 80 Days head-snappingly funny entertainment.

When the CFR asked to interview someone from the production, we received two offers. The first offer was to talk to Ryness, who looks considerably different since his notable work in the Broadway revival of Hair. But, in addition, we were offered the chance to speak with Phileas Fogg himself — for Ryness, it turns out, has the pluckiest pluck-pluck of all on permanent speed-dial.

So we said sure and the result is below.

Around the World in 80 Days is in an open-run at the New Theatre on 45th Street (354 W. 45th St.).

And now, 5 questions that Bryce Ryness and Phileas Fogg have never been asked:

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Shirine Babb and Bryce Ryness. Photo by
Shirine Babb and Bryce Ryness
Photo by Michael Blase

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
When I was doing the non-equity Rent national tour back in 2006, I was playing Roger and having a blast. Well, maybe not a “blast,” but I was having a good time. It was the highest-profile gig I’d ever done and, as such, I got caught in a vicious circle of formatting my work and experience solely around the audience’s impression of my performance: I was going on the chat-boards (and saying I wasn’t). I was milking moments I knew the audience wanted to hear/see. For lack of a better term, it was a very pandering time in my career. I’m not proud of that season.

But we do a lot of silly things when we’re young and self-conscious.

We were doing the show in Las Vegas and a good friend of mine — Kye Brackett, who lives there and did a previous incarnation of the Equity version of Rent — came to a performance. Afterwards, we went to some hole-in-the-wall sushi place and the first question he asked was, “How did it feel up there for you tonight?” He didn’t ask “was it fun?” or start with some generic praise. He changed the perspective in the conversation, the vantage point from which we’d be discussing what just transpired. It was revolutionary! I realized that for the previous six months I never thought of how I felt about what I was doing. It was entirely others-focussed, and worse, Rent-fundamentalist-focussed (read: Rent-heads).

I realized as we talked that night that I was pretty disappointed in how inauthentic my work was. Acting was like a bizarre con-artist job where I only felt satisfaction if I was the “best” or the “most” or the “awesomest” [sic]. But that approach came from a place of dishonesty within my soul. And I suddenly had a picture of what a fuller, richer performance looked like — veritas at every level, internal and external. That opened up a whole new way to look at work. Game changer.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I think it’s kind of silly when people ask “How do you sing so high?” To me, it’s akin to someone asking a runner “How do you run so fast?” I wish I had had some really exciting answer but I didn’t, other than, “It’s the way God made me.”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone’s ever asked you about your work?
Luckily I’ve been spared any monumentally weird questions. It’s always curious to me, however, when people don’t quite understand the separation between Actor and Role and ask very serious questions at the stage door (or in interview settings) like they’re talking to the actual fictitious character that they’ve sat with for the past two hours (or are rehashing for the purpose of the interview). Like: “How do you feel about [insert current event]?” And then the look of disappointment on their face when I start answering, “Well, as a 32-year-old married father of two kids…” People — mainly adults — not being able to distinguish between on-stage and off-stage realities is very bizarre to me.

Except in cases of send-up or for comedy (see next question).

4) Mr. Fogg, it’s so good of you to come back to life and revisit the world some 140 years after your journey. Surely you know that today you can circumnavigate the world by airplane in a day or so. What 80-day adventure and challenge can you see yourself doing in 2013? How would you go about doing it? Who would fund it and why?
We have summited Mount Everest and peered into the very fabric of our physical reality with high-powered microscopes. However, we must continue to push outward in our ever-expanding Universe. Therefore, my next adventure would be to make a journey to Mars and to return with Martian soil.

I suppose that even I do not possess the wealth to make that dream a reality. So I will assemble a crack team of billionaire dreamers: Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and the gentleman who owns Gristedes. His name escapes me at the moment.

5) Bring us up to date on what Passepartout, Fix and Aouda are all up to these days. We heard Passepartout was an Internet entrepreneur and that Fix was a Fox commentator and Aouda is a Bollywood producer, but really that’s just hearsay. The truth, please.
In the interest of time and protecting their anonymity (as +/-170 year olds, they’re quite famous), I shall keep my comments (and their whereabouts) brief and obtuse:

Passepartout — Yes.

Fix — Not specifically. However, he is under investigation concerning his interaction with the White House in the United States of America.

Aouda — Yes. And she is quite fantastic at it, may I say.

Bonus question:

6) After Nellie Bly famously circumnavigated the globe in 72 days in 1889, we hear you two, er, went around the world together. Tell us more about your tempestuous pairing? Are the Bly-Fogg partnership rumors true?
Those are spurious and slanderous rumors produced and propagated solely by contemptuous and sullied (that is, losing) members of the Reform Club! I have remained faithful to Aouda to this day, and she to me. We are happily and joyfully in love.

Ms. Bly is a courageous and vibrant woman. I remain, as ever, her cheerful and stalwart travel companion. She may call on me whenever she likes and I will serve her adventures with passion and grace. But romance? Hardly.