“You have to get to a place where you can just get out of your own way to play this guy.”
“This guy” is the infamous Roy Cohn, who is the real-life antagonist in Tony Kushner’s epic, two-evening Angels in America, on-stage through October 30th in a collaborative production between Montgomery County’s two largest (and oldest) companies, Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center. (The performance happens at the Round House home-base in Bethesda.) I was talking to the actor currently inhabiting Cohn. Mitchell Hébert is one of our busiest and most highly-regarded actors.
Hébert continued his thought: “Otherwise, you just won’t be able to go on-stage and do the things you have to do. You’ll just constantly be fretting about it, worrying about it. Not the likable or unlikable parts of him; you have to get into parts of yourself that you just can’t edit. You just have to go there. You just have to do it. And you know, you finally get to a point in your life where you go, ‘Alright, yeah, now I can do that. I can do it.’”
The reviews have been glowing. “…Cohn, electrified here by Mitchell Hébert in a performance of equal parts venom and bile,” Peter Marks raved in The Washington Post, while on DCTheatreScene.com, Brett Steven Abelman proclaims that Cohn “is ripped wide open in Mitchell Hébert’s definitive performance.”
When I talked with Hébert, Millennium Approaches was up and running, while Perestroika was in technical rehearsals in advance of its opening this past Sunday. I thanked him for taking time to talk to me during what must be a grueling, exhausting process.
Hébert was gracious. “I don’t know if this is true for everybody, but for my character — he’s spaced out enough, that, like, in Perestroika, I don’t come in until Act I, Scene 6, and then I come in again in III,2, so I sit there for awhile. We’ve been working on it since July 12th, so I sort of feel like we’re athletes right now. We’re tired, but we’re also — we’ve been in training to do these plays.”
I likened the off-stage breaks his character experiences to those Shakespeare always provided the actors playing characters like Hamlet, Henry V, and Richard II.
“I don’t know if Kushner was thinking about that or not, but I thank him for it. It’s interesting you mention Shakespeare. These plays, they remind me a lot of the structure of Shakespeare. You take the Roy story, for example. We see a little bit of that, and then we jump over to the story of Louis and Joe, and then we jump over to Prior and the Angel, and then we have a little bit of Harper and Mr. Lies, and then we’re back to Roy again, picking up where we left off. It’s cinematic like that. But that’s how Shakespeare wrote as well. He jumped around in time, but always brought people back: ‘Oh, by the way, let’s not forget about what the hell is going on with these people over here.’
“And, it’s interesting with the time; you mentioned the time. The feedback from people has been that Millennium, anyway, just flew right by. I’ve heard that from several different people. And, it’s interesting: the tickets have been selling really well. I don’t know what that has to do with, press or P.R., but the pre-sale on it was really good to begin with before any review came out. So, it’s interesting. Last year, I directed Cat [on a Hot Tin Roof.] It also did well. Long play, almost three hours.”
Millennium Approaches is directed by Jason Loewith, Olney’s Artistic Director, while Perestroika is directed by Ryan Rillette, who is Producing Artistic Director of Round House.
“I really admire Ryan and Jason for having the gumption to take this on. You know, it’s a scary thing. Will audiences stay away? Will they be intimidated by the length of time? But they seem to have an appetite for it: big ideas, epic scale, big conversation. I mean, I don’t think you can put on any three-hour play and people will sit through it. I think they’ve got to have some big ideas to chew on, and that’s what Kushner gives them. The intellectual depth up there, it’s just really something to be involved in.”
Our conversation occurred soon after the death of Edward Albee and began with Hébert admiring my tribute to Albee on this site. I then compared Kushner to Albee, in the respect that both challenged audiences. This inspired Hébert to compare the two parts of Angels.
“It feels to me like Millennium — I don’t know what his intention was when he was writing them, but it sure seems like Millennium is a very elaborate set-up for Perestroika, because, if you look at it, all the characters, all the relationships are being put in motion, and then you can feel right at the end of Millennium — I can feel it with the last scene I have with Joe — I feel like, Boom! It just shoots forward. We’ve gotten past the point we’re trying to set-up all the different things: exposition. And then Perestroika: everything is just being lived in and acted out.
“And I’m always surprised, too, that people go, ‘Well, you know, Millennium’s the better of the two plays,’ and I’m, like, ‘Really? Have you sat through both of them?’ Because, I’m telling you, Millennium — and Kushner said this — is a well-made play. It builds, crescendos, does everything that a play is supposed to do: a really good play. And Perestroika’s more rambling, is more epic in its scale, more seventy-millimeter. But if you listen to the ideas, the conversations, what’s going on in Perestroika: wow, there’s some amazing things happening in that play. I just really love Perestroika. I mean, I like them both, but I’ve fallen quite deeply in love with Perestroika. Because you sit there every day and listen to it.”
Hébert went into Angels right after playing Dindon, the heavy, in La Cage aux Folles at Signature Theatre. During that run, I noticed a Facebook post (after the Orlando mass shooting) in which Hébert speculated that it will be easier to play Cohn than to play Dindon. I asked him if that had turned out to be his experience.
“In some ways, yeah, because he was a very one-dimensional character. He served one purpose in La Cage, and that was just to show the bigotry that Albin and Georges had to deal with, and the other gay men, and all the sudden, at the end of the play, I had to say really horrible things about gay men. And Cohn is much more complex. There’s a real life there. There’s a history to dig into. There’s things that you can look for which can help you understand — not accept, but understand — why he was the way he was.
“What we have to do, of course, in theatre, is we have to play the characters that are given us. Understand them. De-code them. Not love them, necessarily. I don’t believe in that. I’ve had acting teachers say, ‘Oh, you must love your character.’ No. I can say I love playing him. I love investigating him. I love being a detective and a psychologist and kind of trying to excavate him. But I don’t love him. At all.
“I mean, I’m fascinated as to why, how a person becomes — how did he get like that? What happened to him? And you can find things in his life. You find a small fact and, as an actor, you build on that. And he was the classic smart little kid in school and bullied at lot. A lot lot lot. And I think, what my feeling was, is that he looked at the law as a way to flex his intellectual muscles and become a bully himself.
“So, to answer your question, I felt exposed, kind of, because of the lack of depth in the character of Dindon in La Cage. And It’s not a comment on the play itself, or the production, or anything. It’s just the way it is. But then you look at the scale of what Kushner’s got: you’re playing a character over the span of two plays. And it’s Kushner’s Roy Cohn, it’s not the real one. He based it pretty much on the real guy. So I feel more immersed in Roy’s humanity out there. I don’t feel quite so like I just have to stand there and say this stuff with a very thin character surrounding me.”
Kushner couldn’t have invented a more perfect component for his epic than the real-life Cohn, who straddles the play’s themes. Cohn was a notorious red-baiter who came to prominence during the conformist — and paranoid — Eisenhower era, who was also a closeted gay man who ended up dying of AIDS. I asked Hébert if he had come to regard Cohn as a genuine ideologue, or as a cynical manipulator of fear, or as both, or as something in between.
“That’s a great question, because what I started with is, why? What was the thing that was pushing him? And I read in more than one account that he really hated Communism. He really hated it. And loyalty was something he really valued. And he talks about that in both plays a lot. Loyalty. Principles. He talks, in the second play, about how modern conservatism is abandoning all of the principles from when he came up, which was the anti-Communism, the very hard-line way of approaching life.
“I think what Roy loved was the power, the access, that came with what he did. I mean, he had access to everybody. And, at least the way I’m playing him, I think he found a cause.
“You know, the last line he says in the play, he comes back as a ghost to Joe, and the last thing he says as he’s leaving is,’You’ll find, my friend, that what you love will take you places you never dreamed you’d go.’ And he says to Joe, ‘Learn at least this much: what you are capable of. Let nothing stand in your way.’ And I think that’s what Roy did. I think Roy figured out what he was good at and what he loved doing and I think when he got on that McCarthy Committee, I think he just went after it.
“And it’s like any of us in our lives when we find something we love: success just starts happening. You’re passionate about it and you just do it and stuff happens. And I think that he loved what he did. I think he loved going after those people that he considered hypocrites and liars and traitors. He believed it. He really did. He believed in that stuff. So when you look at some people today: do they really believe this or are they just posing?
“Roy Cohn, anyway, believed in what he did. And a part of him was a hypocrite, of course, because he was gay. A part of him, he never — what am I trying to say? — he never — well, he feared that if he exposed himself as gay, if he revealed that he was a gay man, that he would lose all power, that he would lose all leverage. He says that in the play. ‘I can’t say I’m a gay man because I can’t go to the White House and hang out.’”
I remembered a 60 Minutes piece on Cohn, broadcast shortly before his death, during which he didn’t self-identify as gay, but did allow himself to be filmed poolside sitting with a gorgeous young man. It was almost as if he was hiding his orientation in plain sight.
“We all know that there was a different set of rules of how figures were covered back then. We didn’t have social media, we didn’t have Twitter, and all of the other stuff. So he was at Studio 54 all the time with guys. I found tons of pictures of him hanging out in settings that were clearly a gay club, a gay setting, a party with a lot of men. But the press was — well, I think, one thing, they were intimidated by him. I think that they were really, genuinely scared of him; what he could do. So they left him alone. But I think everybody…like you say, hiding in plain sight…perfect way to put it. I think many, many, many, many people knew: Roy Cohn was gay. Everybody knew, but who was going to be the person who was going to come out and say it out loud?”
What was it like working on the two parts with separate directors?
“It’s been fine, in our situation. Ryan and Jason worked together a lot early on. Then we started working on Millennium pretty much with Jason. Ryan would come in and watch run-throughs. They would sit down together and talk; they were conversing. So they were both helping to shape what we were doing on-stage, the characters and so forth, but in a way that you didn’t have two people sitting down telling you different things. I would get a note, and I would not know whether it came from Ryan or Jason. They worked it out really well. For me, anyway. It was not an issue at all. At all.”
Hébert has lately become known as a director as well as an actor. I asked if he has always been doing both.
Mitchell Hébert on directing
“I teach at the University of Maryland, so part of my job there is to direct a show a year. When I began the job, I hadn’t had much experience at all in directing, and so I learned. I learned by watching other directors. I learned by doing it, making mistakes (some were really bad mistakes) and learning from them. And finding my own way of working. And I started approaching other theaters, and that took a long, long time. And the battle is on-going.
“I just had a film, a short film, made. Rebecca Sheir and Eric Shimelonis, they have their own company now, it’s called Sheir and Shim, and they sent out something on Facebook: ‘Are you trying to promote yourself?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I am, as a director. I can’t get hired.’ [Chuckle.] And so we put together this little film. And I sent that out to Artistic Directors everywhere. Because the interesting thing is, the way I got my foot in the door was, I directed, years ago, a National Players show for Jim Petosa, and then nothing happened after that for a long, long time.
“And then Jim was going to leave Olney. They were going to do Rabbit Hole, and he contacted me out of the blue. I get this email and it said, ‘Hey, I want you to read Rabbit Hole,’ and I wrote back very politely, and I said, ‘I think I’m too old for it, Jim, but thanks.’ [Chuckle.] And he was, ‘No! I’m talking about directing.’ And it floored me. I was, like, just floored. And so, of course, it’s Rabbit Hole, and it’s just this gorgeous, beautiful play. I did it and then, it turned out that Blake Robison [who preceded Ryan Rillette at Round House] went to see Rabbit Hole. And because Blake had seen me direct that, he knew I could do it. And then I went to him and did the thing that you have to do in this town: take an armload of plays under your arm and knock on the door and go, like, ‘Here’s a whole bunch of ideas I’ve got.’ And he liked the Glengarry Glen Ross idea and so he hired me for that. Ryan liked that, so he hired me to do Cat. And I also did The Illusion at Forum.
“But, you know, the interesting thing is, and this is the frustrating thing for me as a director, is that, all those shows did really well. I don’t know how you want to measure that: reviews, Helen Hayes awards, word of mouth, I don’t know. But they did well and yet I still have great difficulty being hired as a director, to the point that I made a short little documentary-ish kind of thing about my process: ‘Here’s how I do it, and here’s people talking about how I do it.’ But it’s really frustrating. Really, really frustrating.”
I wondered if it might have been less frustrating twenty years ago, when the DC theatre scene was smaller.
“It might have been. Part of it is people just know me as an actor. You get this response, like, ‘Oh, that’s right, I forgot, you direct too.’ Because I’ve been acting here for thirty years. I’ve not directed that many shows. And we’ve all done it. I’ve sat in casting sessions and you don’t think of everybody that’s out there. The usual names pop up. And we’re all guilty of it, we’re all guilty of not digging deep enough, of not finding those people, the gems that are out there. So when a theater is putting together its season, they go to that file of directors, and I’m not in that Rolodex.
Angels in America: Perestroika
closes October 30, 2016
Details and tickets
Angels in America Part 1:
closes October 23, 2016
Details and tickets
“And as all of us know: if you do musicals, it’s hard to do non-musicals. If you do non-musicals, it’s hard to do musicals. And once you’re in your lane, you’re in your lane, and if you want to try to move out of that lane — I’ve been really lucky, because I’ve done some musicals at Signature, and I’ve directed. So I’ve had more luck, more fortune than a lot of people do. Because lots of people — I know people at Signature that, it makes them crazy that they don’t even get called in for non-musical plays. Really good actors. Because their names don’t pop up. So maybe twenty years ago it might have been easier.”
The two-part epic is so consuming that I wondered if Hébert was on a sabbatical from teaching. “I’m teaching on top of everything else. I have a lighter load this semester, because I’m directing at Maryland. When you direct over there, it counts toward two classes, so it just worked out. Thank God. I don’t have a massive load in the Fall. But I still teach on Mondays, my quote unquote day off.
“I’m directing The Amish Project, which was done a few years ago here with Nanna [Ingvarsson.]. And last year, I did this play at Ford’s, The Guard. Jessica Dickey wrote that. She also wrote The Amish Project. I asked her, ‘Do you have an ensemble version?’ And she did. I’m doing my own version with her approval. Her ensemble version has seven people, and I asked her if it would be okay if I did it with five Amish girls, and she liked that idea.”
I asked the bucket list question. “You know, I don’t really have a bucket list.”
After giving it further consideration, Hébert mentioned some wish-list directorial projects. “One of them I really, really want to do, and I think it’s just because of the times we live in, but I’m really dying to do The Crucible. Someplace with somebody, badly. Another thing that I’m kind of hot to do is a version of Twelfth Night. Also A Moon for the Misbegotten and The Night of the Iguana. And I’d like to do Marat/Sade.”
Hébert then moved on to acting roles. “I’ve always wanted to play Prospero. I love that role. I’ve always wanted to play Alceste in The Misanthrope. I guess because I am him. [Laughter.] Cranky old man.
More challenges ahead
“The next thing I’m doing after this is Hir at Woolly, the Taylor Mac play. [Opens May 22, 2017.] It’s a great play. Fabulous play. The guy I’m playing, he’s had a stroke, and he can’t communicate, and he’s physically disabled, and he can’t really speak. The challenge of doing it was what made me want to do it. It’s like the challenge of doing Roy Cohn. It’s, like, yeah, it’s a great role and all that, but I mean, to me, it’s all about the detective work. Those are the things that attract me. It’s not so much about roles that I want to play; it’s more about, what’s the particular challenge in this role?
“That’s why I liked doing La Cage quite a bit, because I was in drag. I’ve never done that. I was, like, of course I want to be in drag! I’m an actor. I want to do what I’ve not done. I want to go someplace where I haven’t gone. And it wasn’t just like throwing on a funny costume to me. To me, it was like the character was freed up. Not that he was a closeted gay man; all I know is when he put those clothes on, he felt freer in his life than he ever had. He felt joy that he never felt. He felt love that he never felt. And it radiated from him. And I felt it when I put that on. And all I know is that, as a straight guy, wearing those clothes, it changed something in me, and I loved that, that I had that opportunity. As an actor, I had an experience of something. And that’s what I look for: what haven’t I done. I want to explore stuff I haven’t done before. I want to tap into what’s unique.”