The Multiple Personalities of Stephen Lang
One of the theater-going pleasures in the summer of 2007 is to be found at the Laura Pels Theater on West 46th Street. It is there that Stephen Lang is starring in his own play entitled BEYOND GLORY. It's a performance that Roma Torre of New York One proclaimed was "Engrossing and fascinating! A first-rate character study. In each of his tour de force portraits, Stephen Lang takes us beyond the glory to the human face of a true hero."
So mesmerizing is Lang's performance that the audience sits galvanized for its eighty minute duration and stands for an ovation at its conclusion. Upon leaving the theater, many of the playgoers could be overheard uttering their admiration for both the play and the actor. One comment which stood out, came from a woman in a tastefully tailored outfit who remarked, "A guy like that has got to have a multiple personality disorder."
What prompted the lady to make such a statement was the fact that in the course of the evening, Lang had assumed the personalities of eight fully disparate men; sometimes switching personalities faster than he could change shirts. It's an absolute marvel to observe, but is it any indication that the actor has any remote form of multiple personality disorder? If so, then wouldn't this apply to such respected performers as Jonathan Winters, Lily Tomlin, Jefferson Mays, Whoopie Goldberg, Tovah Feldshuh, and Martin Short—all of whom have assumed numerous and sundry personalities in the context of single theatrical presentations. Such a topic could easily serve as fodder for discussion in Psychology 101 classes.
Visiting Stephen Lang in his dressing room a few days later, found him to be the very model of relaxed normalcy. Comfortably attired and sitting in a cozy looking recliner, the actor was playing the Djembe, an African drum, when he was interrupted. Extending a warm handshake, the married father of four quickly settled down into an hour's chat about his background, his career and his writing.
A New York City native, Lang is the offspring of an Irish-American mother and a Hungarian-American father. He credits television with getting him interested in acting. "I loved Laurel and Hardy and TV shows like "Robin Hood" and 'Rama of the Jungle'. In the movies, I loved Errol Flynn whether he was playing a soldier or a pirate. I dug pirates. In fact, my first exposure to live performances was when my paternal grandfather took me to a D'Oyly Carte performance of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE which impresario Sol Hurok imported from London. I loved every minute of it."
When Lang was taken to see the original production of OLIVER!, he was completely smitten. "You may recall that the show had a huge revolving set and when I saw all those kids jumping around and singing, I remember thinking, 'Why am I not doing that?' "
Lang admits to being quite a musical person, as the interrupted drum playing illustrated. "I've played the clarinet since I was a kid. I love to sing but I'm not much of a singer. Let's say that when it comes to vocalizing, I have the soul of Billy Bigelow but the voice of Jigger Cragan." A while back he turned down a tour of THE KING AND I, but admits he would love to do Lerner and Lowe's PAINT YOUR WAGON. "Heck if Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin could sing those songs in the movie, I could certainly handle them on stage. I think James Barton is fantastic on the cast album and "I Still See Elisa" is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. You can talk-sing your way through that, something like "September Song" in KNICKERBOKER HOLIDAY." The thought of Stephen Lang in PAINT YOUR WAGON is really quite appealing. Perhaps it should be considered for Encore's summer production in the future.
After being graduated from Swarthmore College Lang appeared at the Folger Theater in Washington, D C playing numerous Shakespearean roles. From there he did his share of regional productions before becoming a part of Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and playing a variety of roles with that group. However, his big break came in 1984 when he was cast as Hap in Dustin Hoffman's production of A DEATH OF A SALESMAN. What's it like for a struggling actor to finally learn he's been cast in a production os such magnitude?
"I'll tell you what it's like," Lang said with a chuckle, "I lost my lunch over it, that's what it's like! I'd auditioned several times and deep down inside I knew I had the part after the last reading. However that was a Friday and I had the whole weekend to spend waiting for their decision. When the call came with the good news after lunch on Monday, I hung up the phone and headed to the bathroom where I heaved everything. I remember kneeling in front of the toilet and asking myself, 'So this is how you deal with success?'"
The whole experience of A DEATH OF A SALESMAN stands out favorably in the actor's memory. In addition to Hoffmann and Lang, the cast included Kate Reid, John Malkovich, Charles Durning and Louis Zorich. and they proved to be highly professional actors. "Hoffman was a real taskmaster. He was extremely driven and was constantly getting us to explore the characters, as he drove himself hard, and John and I as well. The exploration continued throughout the run of the show." The cast of this production repeated their roles when Volker Schlondorrf filmed the play for television in 1985. "This wasn't merely a filmed presentation of the play, but a wonderful movie; some sort of hybrid between thatre and film, with interesting camera angles and dramatic lighting." Lang is very proud of his contribution to the finished product. The actor has gone on to appear in many other films, among them: LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, TOMBSTONE, GETTYSBURG and GODS AND GENERALS, as well as appearing in the mini-series THE BRONX IS BURNING. Awaiting release are the films SAVE ME and FROM MEXICO WITH LOVE.
The 1985-86 theatre season found Stephen Lang creating one of his most memorable characters in the Broadway production of Aaron Sorkin's A FEW GOOD MEN which also starred Tom Hulce. The role of Col. Nathan Jessup was definitely "the heavy" and Lang brought an enormous amount of maliciousness to the role. However, when Hollywood bought the rights to the property, Lang was no asked to reprise his role on the screen. What's it like to be passed over when you've created the role from scratch on stage? "How does it feel? Call Mary Martin. Call Ethel Merman. Call Gwen Verdon or John Raitt or Carol Channing or Julie Andrews or Richard Kiley. All of them created roles on Broadway that went to other actors in the movie versions. It's pretty much a fact of life that when Hollywood does a screen version of a Broadway hit, they're going to cast it with their own actors who they feel will have some sort of clout at the box office. It's just part of the game. In my case though, I feel that I had to lose a role to another actor, I'm glad it was Jack Nicholson."
Lang recently played David Sarnoff in a page-to-stage workshop of Aaron Sorkin's newest play, THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION at the La Jolla Playhouse. It is a production that is aimed for Broadway this fall but Lang will not be part of it due to a previous commitment.
In 1992, the Roundabout Theater Company was located in the old Criterion Center. They mounted a production of Shakespeare's HAMLET with Stephen Lang in the title role. The cast included such respected actors as Kathleen Widdoes, Michael Cristofer, Elizabeth McGovern and a young actor named Bill Campbell as Laertes. Directed by Paul Weidner, the play was greatly anticipated, but the critical reaction was mixed and it became fodder for the tabloid gossip columns because Elizabeth McGovern would frequently bare her breasts during Ophelia's mad scene. Looking back on the experience, would Lang do anything differently?
In response to that question, Lang exhales heavily and nods his head. "Well, my Hamlet was about as alientated as you can get. Mine was a bitter and lonely prince. Valid, I think, but maybe tough to root for. I think that romance was missing."
When it was remarked that the end result seemed to be a cast of actors who were all doing fine work but seemed to be in different production, Lang was quick to agree. "They were a great cast and excellent work was being done there. I'll never forget how much compassion Michael Cristofer brought to the role of Claudius. He was terrific. The problem is when you have such a compassionate Claudius and a Hamlet who is bitter and alienated, then you begin to wonder if the kingdom might have been better off with Claudius in charge."
There's no doubt who's in charge onstage with BEYOND GLORY which is adapted from the book of the same name by Larry Smith. As director Robert Falls writes in the Playbill for this production, "BEYOND GLORY reveals the humanity of eight men who, when faced with almost unimaginable circumstances in battle, rose to remarkable acts of heroism and courage. They were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest accolade that our country can bestow on such heroes—and then they resumed their lives." It's a staggering piece and Lang creates vivid portraits of the men he is playing. Each has a different accent, speech pattern and body language and comes vividly to life through the actor. What's truly impressive is that two of the characters that Lang portrays are black and he fully embodies them without the benefit of makeup or special lighting. He assumes an appropriate dialect and proceeds to give a straightforward interpretation of the character he's portraying. The audience accepts this and the actor says, "I like what I'm doing with the audience. I love their response at that point. They're really sharing what theater is all about. I mean you ain't gonna get a more willing suspension of disbelief than that."
Any parent will tell you that they love all their children equally, still, it's not uncommon for one child to become "the favorite". Could this same concept be applied to an actor/playwright and the characters he's created? "It changes a little bit from time to time, but right now Nicky Daniel Bacon seems to be the one I enjoy most. It's almost a dance I do with him because he works on his toes." Perhaps because of the actor's fondness for this role, it's the one that the director is often asking him to reign in periodically.
The play has been performed several times before its current incarnation. The very first time was in a small theater just outside of Arlington, Virginia. Has the play changed much since its very first performance? The most significant changes were in the play's ending. "Perhaps I was trying to do too much," Lang mused. "I had written lines that I was in love with. I'm not trying to compare myself with Richard Rodgers, but he often wrote songs and then found out there was no place for them in the show. He'd have to write a whole new show for the song he had to cut from the score. So I've got a couple of good lines that I was in love with but had to cut and I have them saved up for another show." As it stands now, the ending is extremely effective and extraordinarily moving in its simplicity. However, Lang relishes his role as a writer and finds it quite satisfying.
Getting back to that immaculately tailored lady's comment, it's hard to think of Stephen Lang as having any multiple personality disorder. Technically speaking, what we commonly refer to as a "multiple personality disorder" is actually "dissociative identity disorder". According to Amy Fackler and Patrice Burgess, MD, this is "a rare condition in which a person has two or more separate personalities. The person doesn't know that the other personalities exist and cannot recall events that occur when the other personalities are active" Quite obviously, an actor of Stephen Lang's skill is keenly aware of what is going on as he switches from one character to another as the play progresses. It's called ACTING and those who appreciate it in its most exemplary form are urged to call the Laura Pels box office to inquire about ticket availability for the remaining performances of BEYOND GLORY. The limited engagement is scheduled to end on August 19th.
BEYOND GLORY is playing at the Laura Pels Theater in the Harold and Mirian Steinberg Center For Theater at 111 West 46th Street. It is a Roundabout Theater production. Visit www.roundabouttheater.org for more information.
BEYOND GLORY production photos by Joan Marcus; photo of Stephen Lang and BEYOND GLORY director Robert Falls by Ben Strothmann