Robert LuPone Pulls Heart and Strings to Play “The Violin”

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Robert LuPone in Dan McCormick's The Violin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

You have just one week left to watch history. Not that history might never repeat — to hear actor Robert LuPone discuss it, he might very well accept more roles in more plays if they’re offered to him. But the fact remains that his appearance in Dan McCormick’s play The Violin, running through Sun., Oct. 14 at 59E59 Theaters, is his first stage role in 14 years. LuPone began as a dancer, then an actor — his Tony-nominated performance as Zach in the original production of A Chorus Line in 1975 was in fact at least his fifth Broadway credit, following ensemble and replacement work in The Rothschilds, Minnie’s Boys and The Magic Show. Also a familiar face from TV (his Law and Order credits challenge mathematical computation), LuPone also co-founded, with Bernie Telsey and William Cantler, Off-Broadway’s MCC Theater; he additionally served as the director of NYC’s New School MFA Drama Program from 2005 to 2011. All of which hasn’t left much time in recent years for stepping on stage and creating a role.

And what a role this is. In The Violin, LuPone plays Gio, a lonely tailor of a certain age and, one may infer, running one of the last of the mom-and-pop, modest businesses now largely gone from Manhattan these days. Gio’s main company are Bobby and Terry (Peter Bradbury and Kevin Isola, respectfully), a pair of hapless, hopeless, helpless brothers. In the grand tradition of the ridiculous caper that becomes a morality tale, the brothers find themselves enmeshed in get-rich-quick scheme involving a 300-year-old violin — naturally a Stradivarius. It’s not just the crudeness of greed that motivates the brothers; there is a very real reason why a foolish, clumsy plan to extract value from the violin makes sense, a reason that that ultimately situates the honest, straight-and-narrow Gio at the center of the play.

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As LuPone breezily answers my questions during a phone call on his day off, he immediately launches into why this role has him so excited. It’s the play, of course — he is appropriately laudatory and offers a keen sense of dramaturgical insight into McCormick’s script. But something about his words suggests a more dramatic thing going on in his head. “I took the role because of the script and because I knew the playwright,” he explained. “But I also took it for a different reason. It was because I had to ask myself, ‘Can I on-board all this material in two weeks?’ Could I do this?” Clearly, as he points out to me, he is a Juilliard-trained dancer and actor and not, well, a tailor. The play opens with the bespectacled, slowing-down Gio busy on his sewing machine — a living prop to which his character returns and returns, all the while bantering with Bobby and Terry. There’s an early scene in which Gio (who formerly possessed a dexterity, we are told, that was second only to his father, a master tailor) mishandles that needle over and over. Sitting in the audience, you’d think that LuPone was delighting in an actorly slight of hand.

But no: his on-stage yelps are all too real. “One casualty of this play is my thumb,” he says. “I’m trying to do a half-stitch and the cues come fast and furious. I had to learn not just lines and cues but how to make the sewing look real. I grab two sides of fabric so the audience can’t see what I’m doing, and go through, half-stitch, half-stitch, half-stitch, half-stitch. I’ll be in a moment in the play and goddamnit, my thumb! And there I go.”

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Another moment of prestidigitation comes at the end of the play when Gio, having evolved into the play’s emotional center, picks up the titular violin and lovingly plays it as chaos rages outside his tailor shop (no spoilers here!) and the lights slowly fade. “I’m in the first preview and sort of faked it as I was learning to play the melody,” LuPone confesses. “What’s so interesting is how I got the storyline down, how I learned to process script changes and now — now — I’m starting to actually enjoy the play.” He likens the arc of The Violin to a piece of music — “grace notes absorbed with violence” — and says the next hardest task is to “remember vagaries of the language of the play.”

He agrees that the period in which The Violin is set is open to some debate. A program note places it in “a small, rundown tailor shop on Avenue A in the East Village of Manhattan around 10 in the morning on a cold winter’s night in present-day February.” And, yes, it certainly could be that. But sizing up the set by Harry Feiner, The Violin feels equally rooted in a time before NYC’s accelerated gentrification; there’s even something about what Gio wears (courtesy of costumer designer Michael McDonald) that connotes, for the actor, the early 1970s and a “50s and ’60s sensibility.” And then, at a pivotal moment in the plot, a piece of familiar technology appears, and the effect is as jolting as it is galvanizing: Gio, as memorialized by LuPone’s sad, hangdog, mood-strained face, is an anachronism — a man for us to both know and to feel. Instead of merely being a tragicomic romp about a Strad on the run, Bobby and Terry’s doofus plan to monetize it is merely the vehicle by which we can uncover Gio, the melancholy tailor with an unforgiving past. “We have three people on stage most of the time, and the question for the playwright, but also for us actors, is to keep that ball in the air,” Lupone says. There’s drama and tension in that, and he admits that he uses it. For him it’s a source of pride, of delight, of energy.

And LuPone needs it — well, energy, anyway — in more ways than one. His 31-year relationship tie to MCC Theater still consumes many of his working hours. In partnership with NYC, the company is in the home stretch of a $35 million capital campaign to build its first-ever full-on performance space, to be located on the far west side of Midtown Manhattan. Last March, the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust awarded MCC’s campaign a whopping $2.5 million challenge grant, a tremendous salute to its longstanding commitment to developing and producing new plays and musicals. Even more recently, MCC announced a partnership with the Gracie Mansion Conservancy that is designed to provide greater access to arts and culture for at-risk youth.

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So LuPone isn’t putting on some kind of act of modesty when he talks about playing Gio or co-running a theater company or overseeing and growing a Master’s program. He’s reached a stage of life, he freely acknowledges, in which his natural need for artistic satisfaction can finally now from an external source but from within himself. It’s as if a tremendous burden, he says, has been lifted. “I don’t have aspirations now, in the sense of feeling pressure to work,” LuPone elaborates. “I’m 71 and I’m free-wheeling now. I have several pensions, I have Social Security. What I want, why I wanted to do The Violin, is simply because I wanted to do something that scares the heck out of me and interests me. I want to live for the first time in my life. Back on opening night, if I got bad reviews, you know what? I could care less. I’m interested now, for the first time in my life, in working for all of the right reasons.

“You learn as you go,” LuPone concludes. “That’s all you can do. And all the while you’re asking yourself, Is it ever just about the paint on the canvas?” Then, suddenly, a bombshell: “I wasn’t ever comfortable as an actor. By that, I mean underneath. I’ve waited for that moment to get comfortable. You know what? I can fail now. I can fail. It doesn’t matter. You know what? This means I’m free.”