Inside David Garrison, a Well-Defended Mr. Mister

How to play an avaricious, amoral capitalist in an age of avaricious, amoral capitalists.

Mr. Mister
Hey, Soul Sister, ain't that Mr. Mister? Photo: Joan Marcus.

What I noticed initially is that actor David Garrison spends little time very involved in, or pivotal to, the scenes. His role does eventually prove crucial to The Cradle Will Rock, the 1937 “play in music” by Marc Blitzstein now in revival, Off-Broadway, through May 19 at Classic Stage Company, but the wait is significant. True, you do see Garrison here and there — mostly there, just out of sight, or else moving a set piece with the rest of the ensemble at the behest of director John Doyle. Yet for much of the first half of the 90-minute, intermissionless show, this four-decade-plus veteran of NYC theater — still recognized by TV viewers for his role on Married with Children — seems askance from the action. Glimpse him standing, nearly motionless, behind a barrel, watching some of other scenes play out. Is this Garrison or the brooding cauldron of his character, Mr. Mister, the quintessentially evil, mustache-twirling, Snidely Whiplash capitalist in Blitzstein’s agitprop? Bore in, if you can, on Garrison’s eyes from behind that barrel. This is the kind of man who knows he can shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue without any recriminations.

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Set in “Steeltown, USA,” The Cradle Will Rock is an allegory of end-stage capitalism. At its center is a blue-collar, pro-union rabble-rouser, Larry Foreman, played by Tony Yazbeck. As the second half of The Cradle Will Rock begin to unfold, however, we realize this is just as much Mr. Mister’s show. For in Steeltown, there is nothing, and no one, not controlled or owned by him, from industry and commerce to education, religion and civic life. Garrison’s character has no morals, no decency, no civility, barely a human touch, all while wielding unimaginable power and wealth. Imagine that.

Garrison told me that playing up Mr. Mister’s archetype doesn’t motivate his performance. Also, working with director Doyle “tends to beat any actor pretensions out of you, which is a very good thing.” At the same time, the script is the script: There’s no great moment of redemption awaiting Mr. Mister, no great breakthrough in which the many other characters that Mr. Mister oppresses find their freedom and dignity restored. When Garrison dances a gentle soft-shoe, you wonder who he just rubbed out.

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The actor is aware that 2019 audiences may look at Mr. Mister and see in him, packed as tight as a sausage casing, all the Kochs and Sacklers and Bezoses of our raging age. “But I decided that I didn’t want my version of Mr. Mister to be a cartoon-like Mr. Monopoly,” he explains. “He’s usually played that way. Big notes, big images, big symbols: I think he’s more insidious and sinister than that. I believe that John D. Rockefeller once said that being President would be a step down for him. Every evening, I try to take half a cup of Dick Cheney and half a cup of the Kochs and pour them into my mental Cuisinart.”

Even amid characters with such names as Editor Daily, President Prexy, Dr. Specialist and Reverend Salvation, Mr. Mister is a category unto himself. Garrison notes how this work of Blitzstein’s, his best known, is right out of Bertolt Brecht: a blunt-force-trauma theater, an enemy of subtlety. Thus, he says, “One of our challenges is how to invite contemporary audiences into the 1930s vernacular.” And here he quotes directly from the script:

He is so much the archetype of all the Mr. Misters in the world that he resembles the type not at all; is, in fact, rather eccentric, a distinct individual.

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At the same time, Garrison suggests that Blitzstein’s script offers him “a window into the tension between playing an archetype and being a real person-slash-actor. If it gets too cartoony, the audience will tune out. You don’t want to push them away to a point where they’re not comfortable. Or to exaggerate to the point of cliche.”

He adds, by way of example: “I have a number with Editor Daily about the press. Tracking Mr. Mister’s course through the plot, nominal as it is, he probably thinks that controlling the church and controlling the press is enough. It’s only when things get out of hand that he’s got to step in — creating a militia, and finally confronting Larry Foreman.”

Garrison is also unafraid to draw the inevitable parallels between Mr. Mister and certain amoral, avaricious politicians that we might think about during the show. “Mr. Mister is mortal — that’s important to remember,” he explains. “Like Donald Trump, he’s just a sad excuse of a man. He’s able to exercise power by corrupting those around him, those who want to believe his fantasy. The same route into the prostitution that enables Trumpworld.”

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There’s another scene, set in Dr. Specialists’ office, that Garrison likes because it’s the rare instance in which the script itself allows Mr. Mister to be merely a man. On the surface, it’s all about him bribing the doctor. But he’s also “something of a hypochondriac,” and that’s why Doyle, in rehearsal, came up with the idea of money literally emanating from his body. “His whole being has become fetid with this stuff — it’s like an unconscious attempt to free himself,” Garrison says. “Mr. Mister is sick: the wads of bills, the stacks of money — it’s all a plague.”

He adds, “It’s fun to play villains, but I’m not sure that’s the same as liking Mr. Mister. I certainly enjoy doing the show because I like everybody in it and what it’s trying to say, imperfect a piece as it is. When you play a villain, you have to find a way to self-justify. I don’t know that Mr. Mister is an amoral man. It would certainly seem so. But he’s also, certainly, a fearful man.”

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The Cradle Will Rock was first performed more than 80 years ago, and the score certainly presents some jarring challenges for audience and actors alike. The through-line, and what audiences respond to, Garrison says, is the “dollars that still corrupt our politics. I don’t think you can be on any side of the political divide and not see these things continuing to exist. We’re raising questions — trying to make the audience uncomfortable.”

For this reason, Garrison is especially fond of one more scene — that he’s not in. It involves two artists, and the tradition of artists needing, even begging, for patronage in order to do their work. The song is called “Art For Art’s Sake”:

And we love Art for Art’s sake
It’s smart, for Art’s sake
To part, for Art’s sake
With your heart, for Art’s sake
And your mind, for Art’s sake
Be blind, for Art’s sake
And deaf, for Art’s sake
And dumb, for Art’s sake
Until, for Art’s sake
They kill, for Art’s sake
All the Art for Art’s sake

And when this happens, the cradle will rock.