From Groucho to Mark Rothko . Baltimore’s giving Bruce Nelson some juicy roles

How’s this for an actor demonstrating stunning range:

Bruce Randolph Nelson’s next project is playing the driven, intense (eventually suicidal) artist Mark Rothko in John Logan’s Tony-winning play Red. He jumps into that shortly after finishing up his current gig, playing Capt. Jeffrey Spalding, the Groucho character, in the Marx Brothers’ comedy Animal Crackers.

Bruce Randolph Nelson

Bruce Randolph Nelson

I’m sure there have been other actors who have made equally impressive leaps from wildly different parts in strikingly dissimilar plays, but I can’t think of them at the moment.

I met Bruce in 1998 when he played Harlequin in The Triumph of Love at Washington Shakespeare Company while I was Artistic Director. For that role, he received a Helen Hayes Award nomination, the first of many. Over the next several years, he became a member of the acting company at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and a face familiar to DC audiences, eventually taking home a couple Helens for work at Rep Stage in Columbia.

But you might not have seen him much recently, that is, unless your theatre-going takes you up to Baltimore. Animal Crackers is running at Center Stage in Charm City, while Red will play at its Everyman Theatre. You see, Bruce is sticking closer to home these days, and home for Bruce is Baltimore. We talked about his reasons for that, about how Baltimore’s theatre scene compares to DC’s, but also about the Brothers Marx.

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Bruce tells me that he learned about the legendary, influential, and enduring comedy quartet (later trio) “by proxy.” His brother, four years his senior, was solidly into them, as well as other contemporaneous acts, such as Abbot and Costello and the Three Stooges.  Bruce’s awareness was more indirect. It began with homages to Groucho by Bugs Bunny in the cartoons and Alan Alda in M*A*S*H (which he referred to as Groucho-lite).

Before they were film stars, of course, the Marx Brothers were stage stars. The earliest of their films feel almost like archival records (done with very primitive sound technology) of their stage shows. Film historians point to their later, original films (particularly Duck Soup, seen as their masterpiece) as superior to the adaptations from the stage.

Sean Montgomery and Bruce Randolph Nelson (Photo: Richard Anderson)

Sean Montgomery and Bruce Randolph Nelson (Photo: Richard Anderson)

Bruce’s studying began, though, not with the films. He’s playing a particular brother, and so he began his research with the Groucho-hosted TV game show You Bet Your Life. He was, therefore, first impressed not with the zaniness of the movies, but with the “relaxed, clever wordplay” Groucho would demonstrate while riffing with his guests. [Watch an episode of You Bet Your Life following the article.]

That quick wit was, of course, part of the appeal of the stage shows. What made those shows memorable, Bruce relates, is that, play script notwithstanding, you “never knew what Groucho would say.” The Algonquin wit George S. Kaufman, one of the writers of Animal Crackers (along with Morrie Ryskind), making the point of how disinclined the brothers were to stick to the written material, was reported to have said during one performance, “Wait! I think I heard one of my lines!” As Bruce puts it, the show would keep trying to be a proper play, but the Brothers would keep knocking it off course.

Bruce is one of the Marx Brothers virgins among the Center Stage cast. His Harpo (Brad Aldous) played the role at Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires; the Chico (Jonathan Brody) did that Williamstown production and a previous one at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. (This production is directed by BJ Jones.)

You try to capture the essence of Groucho, but not to limit yourself by locking into an imitation, Bruce tells me. Groucho is a remarkably graceful physical comedian, despite his familiar, defining crouch. He’s “rubbery, bouncy, fast; he darts around instantly.” Bruce tells me that he latched onto that kinetic, feral energy and tapped into it. Draping himself onto furniture and people, that’s when Bruce feels synched with Groucho, while also putting his own mark on Spalding.

Is this sort of anarchic clowning exhausting? Bruce says, yes — just before you are doing it. But, as it’s happening, “you float along, it carries you, you ride the wave.” Afterwards, he’s exhausted and asking himself, “Did I just do that?”

Bruce had a place on Capitol Hill from about 1998 until 2001, during the years he was becoming well-known to DC theatre-goers. After that, he was commuting to DC from Baltimore. About seven years ago, he decided to settle down in Baltimore and not do the commute anymore. He “loves being a homebody” and doesn’t like being taken away for so long from his domestic life and his partner Richard, as the trek up and down 95 requires. He’s found an artistic home at Everyman Theatre, where he is a company member.

Additionally, Center Stage is now a “different place” since Kwame Kwei-Armah arrived recently as newly-appointed Artistic Director. “He’s more about making local talent appear on the stage.” In Baltimore these days, for local actors, Bruce says, “we are lucky.”

So, how is Baltimore different than the nation’s capital? His answers may conform to each city’s stereotype. In DC, you don’t see as much wild hair or as many piercings, for instance. It tends to be more buttoned up and sleek. You can find a rough edge, but you might have to search for it.

Baltimore? It’s John Waters territory, he says, followed by a torrent of descriptive terms: edgy, dirty, messy, scrappy, inappropriate, raw, energetic, primal. DC is justly proud of the range of funkier options we can now avail ourselves of at our Capital Fringe Festival. In Baltimore, Bruce notes, companies seem to be able to do Fringe-like work all season. God knows, in DC, we can point to companies that could be described by all of the above-listed adjectives. But, as a scene and as a zeitgeist, this accomplished actor, who knows both cities well, reports that theatre in Baltimore feels more a DIY affair and less institutional. He talks about the scene being affordable and inviting to “hipster-types” and doing well attracting 20-something audiences.

DC also is justly proud of our cohesiveness and supportiveness as a community. It was striking to hear Bruce talk about how the “stakes” in DC seem higher in a way that can engender in him an anxiousness and an anxiety that he doesn’t miss. The importance of career success seems to him at a higher level in DC. He’s at a point in life where he wants to feel safe, and he feels safest around his Everyman family; he is now happy to include Center Stage as another branch of his theatrical family. He says this new home base feels less intimidating than DC has gotten to feel for him. Part of this, he says, is a function of getting older, becoming set in his ways, and, perhaps too, his having become a “more worrying type these days.” Anyway, all of this was very interesting to hear and is, maybe, something we in DC should think a bit about.

Oh, by the way, where did that “Randolph” in his name come from, when we knew him as Bruce, or maybe Bruce R.? It’s due to that Equity rule about no two members using the same name, and he allows as how he probably should have been using the middle name since joining the union.

So, will we ever see Mr. Bruce Randolph Nelson again on a DC stage? “You never know, if something comes along that I can’t resist…”

Take heed, DC artistic and casting directors.

Meanwhile, Animal Crackers runs at Center Stage until Oct. 13. Details and tickets

Surprisingly soon thereafter, Red opens on Nov. 6 at Everyman Theatre. Details and tickets.

Bruce Randolph Nelson and the cast of Animal Crackers

Groucho Marx improvises with contestants on You Bet Your Life

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