BWW Interview: Robert LuPone Is the Moral Center of THE VIOLIN
THE VIOLN, based loosely on a true story of 2008, is a comeback of sorts for Robert LuPone.
"I had been toying with the idea of getting back on the boards since 2003," said LuPone, the co-artistic director of MCC Theater. "I just had that instinct, and when the producer of this play called me about it, it was such a big challenge it scared me," he said before a performance. "So I decided to challenge myself and go for it."
LuPone plays Gio, an elderly tailor beset by hearing loss and vision problems, but carving out a living in the East Village. His quiet, plodding life is upended when a 1710 Stradivarius violin appears before him unexpectedly.
Surrogate son Terry (Kevin Isola), a cognitively deficient adult with the heart of a child, found the instrument forgotten in his cab. Terry ditched the cab and brought the violin to Gio's shop in hopes of becoming a nuanced musician. Maybe even play in the subways. Or Carnegie Hall.
Those plans are derailed when Terry's brother Bobby (a menacing Peter Bradbury) hatches a plan to ransom the $4 million instrument. All does not go well.
LuPone, whose moral compass ultimately directs the brothers to ... (well, that would be giving away too much) is conflicted for mysterious reasons.
The drama hinges on a significant twist, the result of which results in deserved guilty repercussions. "I think there's a moment in everyone's life when you make an awful mistake. That's a mark you carry the rest of your life," LuPone said.
"It's not too much of a stretch for me to play this age because I am this old," LuPone, 71, said with a laugh. "I am who I am. The big major push was to get the script under my belt in the three weeks we had for rehearsal," he said. "That and getting the blocking down were the real challenges. It was nerve-wracking for sure but I'm so glad I did it for my emergence as an actor. And the guys I work with are just amazing.
"There's a real chemistry on stage with these actors and it's kudos to the casting directors"-James Calleri, Paul Davis and Erica Jensen. "I feel like I really know these people. I'm having a great time. The director"-Joseph Discher-"got me in the right moment at the right time," LuPone said. "The play kind of sang to me. There's a certain accessibility to this character."
The original work by Dan McCormick takes place in contemporary time, but LuPone senses a different period. "It feels like it's more in the '80s with the phones and clothes. But it really could be any time."
Gio's relationship with the brothers is a complex one that involves murder and redemption. "I think Bob's a tremendous disappointment; he's constantly looking for easier pastures and is obviously smart," said LuPone. "And he's sensitive. He has this parental thing over Terry and is tremendously loyal. I just wish he would get it together and manifest his potential," he added.
"Terry is the heart of the three of us: within him is a simple human being. He garners respect, care and love," LuPone said. "Bobby is the brain and I am the soul."
The set meticulously replicates a throw-back tailor shop, complete with seemingly disordered stacks of cloth and strips of ribbons among the thimbles and thread. "There's a system to his sense of order," LuPone said. "He's got all these clothes and fabric all over the place-this is not Bloomingdale's."
He said Discher put the cast through an exercise in which they took time out to really examine the set, by Harry Feiner, and see where everything was. "We got to saunter around the space," LuPone said. "It was very informative."
Gio lives a life but isn't really living a life. "The only relationships he has are the ones with his customers," LuPone said. "What inspires him to get up every day? He has standards, hollow though they may be. There are pretenses of a higher, ideal morality. As inflation hits his business he would not raise his prices. He does absolutely exquisite work, he would absorb the loss.
"He's an idiot savant, alone," he said. "What his papa did before him with the shop was so effortless."
LuPone shares certain traits with Gio. "I think I have a lot in common with him," he said. "I have a sense of loss. Like everyone."
Talent runs in the LuPone family, as evidenced by his sister Patti. The Long Island native fell in love with the theater as a youth and he remembers one particular movie that inspired him. "THE WILD ONE, with Marlon Brando, was terrific and there were so many scenes that impressed both of us.
"WEST SIDE STORY rocked my world," he said. "A Martha Graham performance rocked my world. I saw Burton on the stage; he rocked my world. I'm interested in the arts, the potential for the imagination and the dream. It's not a business to me."
When he's not performing, LuPone spends a lot of time reading scripts for MCC. "We're in the middle of a capital campaign because we're going to move into our first real home," LuPone said of the organization, whose roots were formed in his apartment in 1981. "Every Thursday we'd meet. I thought I was going to be a dancer then," he said with a laugh. "Then an actor, then assistant director."
When MCC's new home is established, the production space will be enlarged.
"We'll be moving from producing four shows a year to six," LuPone said. "But for now, I'm concentrating on this project. People will laugh. They'll cry. And hopefully, they'll reflect on the choices they make in their lives."
The Violin is playing at 59 E 59th St. between Park/Madison. Costume Design is by Michael McDonald, Lighting by Matthew E. Adelson, Sound Design by Hao Bai, Properties Design by Andrew Diaz, Fight Director is Rick Sordelet, Artistic Director (The Directors Company) is Michael Parva and Producing Director is Leah Michalos.
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg