Everyone knows the superstars. They shoot onto New York stages with a glow that lights up the box office, if not always the plays, and make people feel left out if they don’t have an opinion to share.
This is a column about other stars. By that, I mean actors who make the blood rush when regular theatergoers see their names on cast lists — mostly, but not always, off-Broadway.
In other words, this is my personal, highly selective and, I hope, far from final list of gifted actors whose lives in the theater — predominantly at modest salaries — keep bringing me back, again and again, to help me understand what’s worth cherishing onstage.
A few have made us notice them at first sight — think Tracee Chimo as a mysterious young woman in a hoodie in Pulitzer-winner Annie Baker’s 2009 breakthrough, “Circle Mirror Transformation.” Others, such as Reed Birney, have been so quietly, consistently magnificent over the years in so many contrasting guises that, eventually, it would be hard to imagine serious New York theater without him.
So, with difficulty, I’ve picked just six, mostly because you can see them this season or you should kick yourself for not having seen them recently. And I asked people who have worked with them — producers, playwrights, directors — to share a few thoughts about what makes them so special.
LOIS SMITH, who closed Jan. 24 in a limited run of Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-finalist “Marjorie Prime” at Playwrights Horizons but can be seen in the upcoming movie version.
It was Smith, unbelievably 85, who started me thinking about the real theater stars. As Marjorie, a widow being reminded of her memories by a human-looking robot, Smith was astonishing — cuddly but barbed, confused yet cunning, with a curl in her lip that warned family members not to underestimate her resilience.
It was just last August when Smith played a blind woman with a clearheaded sense of her own madness (co-starring with the terrific Georgia Engel) in Baker’s “John.” In an almost shocking moment as intermission was beginning, Smith’s character came onto the stage and started revealing plot points while the audience was filing out.
Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, says he is “daunted” by the “incredible range” of her work and finds “something biblical in her stature.” He mentions her “sweet, naked, fresh sexuality” as James Dean’s co-star in the 1955 “East of Eden,” her “awkwardly horsy, uncensored” quality in “Five Easy Pieces,” her 1990 Tony-nominated Ma Joad on Broadway in “The Grapes of Wrath,” her celebrated Off-Broadway “Trip to Bountiful” and her work at his theater. He asks “What holds them together?,” then answers “that unparalleled emotional transparency. We seem to see every thought . . .”
REED BIRNEY, opening Feb. 18 at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre in Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” after its success Off-Broadway.
Birney, who coincidentally was also in that “Circle Mirror Transformation,” plays the aging, increasingly anxious father at a family Thanksgiving in Karam’s tragicomedy — which, not incidentally, is rich with such other theater experts as Jayne Houdyshell and the young Sarah Steele.
Also on Broadway, Birney played an activist cross-dresser with glorious imperial confidence in Harvey Fierstein’s 2014 “Casa Valentina.” More often, however, we can find him in a 65-seat theater where, in “Tigers Be Still,” he was both funny and a heartbreak as a school principal whose wife won’t leave her room since she gained weight from medication.
At Soho Rep in 2008, he was unflinchingly courageous in “Blasted,” a nightmare of cruel sex and war atrocity by Sarah Kane, the brilliantly disturbing British playwright who hung herself at 28. Two adults I know came close to literally having panic attacks at that one.
Karam, a 2012 Pulitzer finalist with “Sons of the Prophet,” calls Birney “a writer’s dream. He’s gutsy, unfailingly honest and consistent. Best of all, like all amazing actors, he’s a great listener . . . he’s always in the moment. That’s why he’s so compelling.”
JOHN DOUGLAS THOMPSON, starring in rotating rep in “A Doll’s House” and “The Father” April 30-June 12 at Theatre for a New Audience.
Every time I see Thompson, I wonder — and often ask — why he isn’t a very big star. In 2009, the actor appeared to burst fully formed into a kind of Off-Broadway legend with his “Othello” and his Brutus Jones in Eugene O’Neill’s seldom-seen “The Emperor Jones.” He has had the occasional Broadway role — including the short-lived adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.” But nothing in the mainstream, so far, has recognized the majestic variety of his gifts.
In 2014, he morphed, with amazing seamlessness, into different ages of Louis Armstrong in an Off-Broadway solo, “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” But it has been Theatre for a New Audience where he has had such showcases as “Othello” and “Macbeth.” And now he tackles both Ibsen and Strindberg there in repertory at the TFANA’s beautiful new Brooklyn home.
Jeffrey Horowitz, founding artistic director, says “Like a great musician who is at one with the instruments he plays, John becomes the words he is speaking and communicates a character’s soul. His range is enormous. He can play Shakespeare, Marlowe, O’Neill and August Wilson. He makes us understand that an actor of whatever color can, and should, portray anyone.”
When I began to research this column, Pinkins was supposed to star in Brecht’s “Mother Courage and her Children,” reset in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She resigned from the production Jan. 5., two days before it was scheduled to officially open. The production finally did open weeks later with another actress, Kecia Lewis-Evans, in the lead.
Much has been written about the surprising last-minute move. Pinkins stated that, not for the first time, her “perspective as a black woman was dismissed in favor of portraying the black woman through the filter of the white gaze.” (The director is white.)
None of this changes her central place in this column. She has been best known in the Broadway musicals “Jelly’s Last Jam” (Tony Award), “Play On!” and “Caroline, or Change,” the Tony Kushner-George C. Wolfe-Jeanine Tesori musical in which she exposed, with layers of wariness, the impotent rage of a black maid in New Orleans in the early ’60s.
Coincidentally, Pinkins had a brief cameo as the anguished wife of John Douglas Thompson character in “A Time to Kill.” At that time, I wrote “Where’s the Broadway vehicle for her,” but noted that she gets more wonderful with every nonmusical role. This included playing a grandmother forced to beg officials to move her family to a better place in “Hurt Village,” a dense, rich, audacious 2012 drama by Katori Hall at Signature Theatre Company.
Hall, whose “The Mountaintop” starred Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King on Broadway, says “Tonya Pinkins is a walking master class, not only in acting but in life as well. She taught me how to embrace my authenticity as an artist, as a woman, as a citizen. She truly is a national treasure.”
JEREMY SHAMOS, in “Noises Off” at the American Airlines Theatre
Shamos has played bright, smartly civilized modern everymen so well for so long that I was stunned to see him virtuosically flopping around on slippery sardines in this enjoyably physical revival of Michael Frayn’s classic farce. He also has been such a splendid example of an ensemble player that, forgive me, I may sometimes have just taken his invaluable presence a bit for granted.
One of the most memorable performances came in Richard Greenberg’s “The Assembled Parties,” directed by Manhattan Theatre Club’s Lynne Meadow in 2013. Shamos was gently powerful as the awkward outsider in the Christmas party of a privileged secular-Jewish New York family. And in the 2014 revival of Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer winning “Dinner With Friends,” he was hilarious and painful as a married foodie for whom his obsession with cooking had replaced most other forms of communication.
Jeremy Herrin, the British director of “Noises Off,” describes Shamos as “wise and generous and great fun . . . his performance keeps shifting and changing with some truly inspired choices that he makes in the moment as if he’s in concert with the audience.” (Since Herrin had never worked with Shamos before, I cheated a bit and also asked Meadow about him. She calls him “one of our most treasured New York actors.”)
TRACEE CHIMO, also in “Noises Off”
After her mysterious attention-getting debut in “Circle Mirror Transformation,” Chimo has been transforming ever since. She gloriously portrayed four wildly different women in the revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles” last spring. She was a force of nature — albeit an overbearing and intentionally obnoxious one — as the supposed “good Jew” in Joshua Harmon’s 2013 “Bad Jews,” and, I think intentionally, seemed to be channeling Patti LuPone in the revival of Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart.”
Suddenly, within the grand show-off showcase of “Noises Off,” she is a surprisingly calm, much-abused stage manager roiled under the skin with lovesick turmoil.
Herrin calls her a “wonderfully deep-thinking actor” in a performance that’s also “deeply moving. It’s also hilarious, but I never get the sense that she’s ruled by pursuit of laughter. On a technical level, her timing is perfection, but she pays no overt notice to it. . . . That suggests some serious acting chops to me.”