Since making his debut on Broadway in 1980, actor Stephen Bogardus has appeared in 13 productions on the Main Stem, most recently the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical Bright Star, and too many Off-Broadway shows to count. Count, though, someone ought to, as he’s one of the most gifted, versatile and well-liked figures in the NYC theater scene. In his current gig, he plays Dr. Mark Bruckner in Irish Repertory Theatre’s spirited Off-Broadway revival of the 1965 musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. His character, a psychiatrist who uses hypnotism, is also kind of a jerk.
Now hold on, don’t shoot the messenger. While the score (music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner) has numerous captivating moments, from the oft-repeated title song to the standards “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have” and “Come Back to Me,” it’s Lerner’s book (trimmed by director Charlotte Moore) that represents a thorny challenge for the audience and, in the #MeToo era, for the actor playing the doctor. It’s a tribute to the authenticity that Bogardus projects on stage that we can enjoy his performance while perceiving the flaws of his character.
Loosely based on a 1929 play, Berkeley Square (itself based on a Henry James novel), On a Clear Day… is a trip in Lerner’s hands — in the literal and figurative sense. A woman regularly described as “simple,” Daisy Gamble, not only has a smoking issue that she needs Bruckner to help her conquer, she has ESP and, it turns out, is the reincarnation of an 18th-century Englishwoman named Melinda Welles. Melinda was madly in love with a portrait-painting cad, and she died tragically, in circumstances beyond her control.
Bruckner, though, initially knows none of this — he merely thinks that Daisy wants to stop smoking. Yet as Daisy’s loopy backstory comes more clearly into view with each hypnotism session, something about Melinda bewitches Bruckner. He falls in love with Melinda, hard, and all is fine until Daisy discovers this. For she, Daisy, has fallen for Bruckner.
How anyone can watch this tuner and not have a #MeToo moment with it is hard to imagine. Bruckner doesn’t physically violate Daisy/Melinda — the two characters barely touch until the show’s final seconds — but there’s no way not to see the male-female power-play going on; if some people will surely find it romantic, benign and quaint, many others may find it queasy and questionable. Watching Bogardus play opposite the always-incandescent Melissa Errico as Daisy/Melinda, I kept asking myself how best to engage with this half-century-old tuner and its half-century-old sensibilities around gender. As in Lerner’s (and Loewe’s) earlier My Fair Lady, Lerner regards women as the immutably weaker sex, needing men to fix them, to solve them, to cure them. Lerner, of course, married eight times. Maybe it’s unfair to tie a person’s personal life to their art and aesthetic, but wouldn’t this make you wonder?
Yet, for all of this, what choice have actors but to play on stage what’s placed on the page? It’s their job — and our responsibility, as audience members, to remember and acknowledge this. This is why I took such pleasure in Bogardus’ performance, for he walks this fine line so finely. It’s a performance that doesn’t capitulate to artifice, or play coy with what’s so plainly problematic. Bravo to Moore and the ensemble for embracing the material and leaving it to us to bristle if we’re savvy, and if we wish to. From what I could tell, much of the audience ate it up. From what I could tell, much of the audience was made to think, too.
And now, 5 questions that Stephen Bogardus has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“How do you choose a role?” Most of us in the entertainment business never have that option. But in those instances when we do, this is a good question for an actor to ponder.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“How do you remember all those words and lyrics?” Ouch! To be honest, it’s not a completely idiotic question. A better query might be: “What’s your process for memorizing all those words and lyrics?”
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“If you were an animal on stage, what animal would you be?” (WTF?)
Tell us more about Dr. Mark Bruckner. Sane, insane? Ethical, unethical? Off-beat quack, insightful genius?
I see Dr. Mark Bruckner as a rather idiosyncratic, single guy devoted to his work, but not a “company guy” — definitely sane, definitely ethical — but someone who gets turned inside out once he meets Daisy Gamble and gets a glimpse of her past-life persona, Melinda Welles. He becomes mesmerized by the cultured, 18th-century life of Melinda and definitely drifts into what today would be considered unethical behavior by repeatedly hypnotizing Daisy in order to interact with Melinda. Fortunately, by story’s end, he avoids professional censure by falling in love with “simple” Daisy Gamble.
Name three attributes of Daisy/Melinda that makes your character fall in love with her. What is the moment in the show when you’re finally 100% head over heels? Is that a tough feeling to access night after night?
My character throws in the towel for Melinda during a song I sing late in Act I:
You’re no mere dream, Melinda
Gone when the dawn glimmers through.
You and I know, that long ago,
before the dream there was you.
There once was you.
I don’t acknowledge that I’m starting to fall in love with Daisy until Act II. Daisy inadvertently hears the taped session between me and Melinda and realizes I’ve been hypnotizing her to spend time with Melinda and she confronts me with the information. When she banishes me from her life, I’m suddenly forced to admit: “I can’t let you free. I can’t do without you! You, Daisy. Not, Melinda!” Which is a revelation to myself in that moment. When am I 100% in love with Daisy/Melinda? At the end of my number “Come Back to Me,” when Daisy appears in my office and both of us are splayed on the stage floor, absolutely exhausted by my nonstop telepathic attempts to get her to “come back to me.” It’s not tough to access these feelings night after night. I have tremendous lyrics to draw upon, my own life experience and the beguiling Melissa Errico to gaze upon.
If your character was a real, living person, and you walked into your dressing room after a performance one night and discovered him waiting for you, what question do you hope he’d ask you? What’s the first question that you’d ask him (after “Who the heck are you?”)?
Mark Bruckner: How do you remember all those words and lyrics?
Stephen Bogardus: Go fuck yourself. How’d I do?