Actor Michael Cumpsty shows ‘slap-sticky’ side at Two River Theater

Image, from left, Michael Cumpsty (Ronald), Mary Birdsong (Marion), Scott Drummond  (Geoffrey) and Liz Wisan (Eva) in Absurd Person Singular at Two River Theater.
From left, Michael Cumpsty (Ronald), Mary Birdsong (Marion), Scott Drummond (Geoffrey) and Liz Wisan (Eva) in Absurd Person Singular at Two River Theater. (T Charles Erickson Photography)

“English” actor Michael Cumpsty has only appeared once in a professional theater production in the country where he was born. The rest of his career in major movies, major TV series and major Broadway plays and musicals has been on this side of the Atlantic.

The Tony-nominated actor currently is appearing at Red Bank’s Two River Theater in the six-character ensemble comedy “Absurd Person Singular” through Feb. 1.

Try to catch it. It’s a great alternative to all the Super Bowl hype, especially come Sunday (Feb. 1, 2015) when the blitz begins in earnest at noon on NBC and continues until just before kick off when Broadway fave Idina Menzel sings the national anthem at 6:30 p.m.

At the “Absurd Person” performance I attended everyone around me was laughing often and loud during Alan Ayckbourn’s farcical 1972, three-act play about three married couples who meet over three successive Christmas Eves. As they rotate from house to house we see each of their fortunes change until one man, a newly minted capitalist, has them all dancing to his tune. There are plenty of slamming doors, physical comedy, and absurd situations.

It is directed by Jessica Stone who has worked as an actress on and off-Broadway. Cumpsty, a veteran actor who also has directed, said that is his favorite combination in a director.

“I really appreciate the fact she has an actor’s perspective. It make a considerable difference when someone understands and appreciates the actor’s process. You get an amazing perspective when excavating your character.”

Directors without acting experience can be impatient, lack skills or are stupid, or just childish.

The early years

Born in Yorkshire, England, Cumpsty moved with his family to South Africa when he was 9 years old. He graduated high school when he was 16 during that country’s apartheid era when all white men were conscripted into the Army. He got a deferment to take his A levels (school leaving qualification exams) in England and was to return two years later to study medicine and become a doctor.

Instead he applied for a Morehead Scholarship at the University of North Carolina (and modeled after the Rhodes Scholarship) and moved to Chapel Hill.

“I was only suppose to stay for one year in the drama school,” Cumpsty explained. “But I wasn’t fooling anyone, certainly not my father. I did work/study to pay the bills, then I got my green card.”

The grass is always greener

Like many beginning American stage actors, Cumpsty thought he, too, should continue his studies in England where great actors are minted in droves.

He had a friend who was a voice teacher with the Royal Shakespeare Company at its then London home at the Barbican Centre.

“I was sitting in the Green Room chatting with these RSC actors and they all told me to go back to the United States. They all wanted to work here because of the  fantastic opportunities, Cumpsty explained.

“The classical language plays are more deeply rooted in Britain than here. But life as an actor in Britain is harder than here. Jobs are sparse. The country is small, relatively speaking. Everybody wants to be part of the American film and TV entertainment industry, where the pay is also better.”

The pay on Broadway is much better than it is at regional theaters across America. So why is this his fourth show (three as an actor, one as director) working at a regional theater an hour’s train ride south of NYC?

Two River Theater is a gem

Cumpsty likens the venue to a “small, glittering bauble” among regional theaters.

It’s close to the home he shares in Middletown, NJ, with Two River’s artistic director John Dias, his partner for about 20 years. They also have a place in NYC.

“It’s similar to off-Broadway, but at a much nicer theater. And it’s different from Broadway because it’s not commercial so there’s less pressure. It’s exhilarating, too. The run is short (three or four weeks) then it’s gone. It’s kind of special,  like those drawings in the sand that are so complex then disappear the same day with the tide. It’s so ephemeral.”

Two River theatergoers have been treated to Cumpsty as Benedict in “Much Ado About Nothing,” the Noel Coward part in “Present Laughter,” and a successful banker in “Absurd  Person Singular.” Last season he directed Wendy Wasserstein’s “Third.”

Also, he said, in regional theaters the whole process from the first day of rehearsal to closing night, can be over in six or seven weeks. A commercial run is more complicated, he said, citing the 2012 Judy Garland play with music, “End of the Rainbow” (2012).

“We had three or four weeks of rehearsals, played four weeks out of town and two weeks of previews in New York before opening night,” he explained. The show closed just under four months later.

It did, however, result in a Tony nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play. He played Garland’s pianist who wants to save the singer from her complicated life.

“I was incredibly fortunate for many years to work in New York theater for Joe Papp doing a lot of Shakespeare in the late ‘80s and ‘90s didn’t go out of town for years. I and find it so much more satisfying, especially rehearsing. In a TV show you may, literally, never rehearse.

Image of Still of Michael Cumpsty and Kelly Macdonald in Boardwalk Empire (2010)
Still of Michael Cumpsty and Kelly Macdonald in Boardwalk Empire (2010).

TV and  film vs. stage work

“I did a season on “LA Law.” after that I didn’t visit LA again to look for work. I am thrilled to do film and TV when I get it in New York because I really enjoy the process.

“But it’s an entirely different (acting) process. You have no control over the editing. The final product seen by an audience is not controlled by you. Structurally speaking, the moments you see me performing are my responsibility, but cutting into pieces and splicing together are not. Others may make me look good, but it’s not my work.

“Actors on stage are responsible for telling the story in real time. You and your fellow actors control the relationship with your audience. You are telling a story to a group of people in the same room and that’s more stimulating and satisfying.”

Although he says he is not a good singer, he enjoys musicals and his Broadway credits include playing John Dickinson in “1776” (1997),  Julian Marsh in “42nd Street” (2001), Jules in “Sunday in the Park With George” in 2008.

It’s all about the words

What he loves most, he says, is language oriented work.

“Copenhagen,” the Michael Frayn play in which he played Werner Heisenberg on Broadway in 2000, was one of his most satisfying stage experiences.

“ ‘Copenhagen,’ in regard to language, is not that far away from Shakespeare,” he said. “(Tom) Stoppard’s plays or even Sophie Treadwell’s ‘Machinal’ are exercises focused on structure, on language.” (Cumpsty played Husband in the Broadway revival of “Machinal” a year ago.)

Having said that, he admits he loves a “slap-sticky farce” as well. Hence “Absurd Person Singular” which, in one scene, he is seen trying to hide in a cabinet that barely accommodates his head and shoulders. In the second act he stands on a table to to fix a ceiling light and ends up electrocuted and  spends the rest of the scene in a red-faced grimace while shaking.

Hamlet never had to deal with that problem.

Other work

— Cumpsty’s only professional play he did in England was when he played Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale” for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2002 at their home in Stratford-upon-Avon.”

— Broadway plays: 17 of them, including “La Bête” (1991), “Timon of Athens” (1993), “The Heiress” (1995),  and “The Constant Wife” (2005).

— Shakespeare: Ttitle role and co-director of Classic Stage Company’s “Richard III” (2007). At the Public Theater he’s done the title role “Timon of Athens” (1996), Parolles in “All’s Well That Ends Well” (1993), Laertes in “Hamlet” (1990), Time/Lord in “The Winter’s Tale” (1989) and Escalus in ”Romeo and Juliet (1988).

— TV: “One Life to Live” and “All My Children,” recurring roles on the primetime dramas “L.A. Law” and “Star Trek Voyager,” Catholic Priest Ed Brennan in secondhand third seasons of Boardwalk Empire, and guest appearances on “Law & Order,” “Nurse Jackie” and “The Good Wife.”

— Movies: “State of Grace” (1990), ”Fatal Instinct” (1993), “The Ice Storm” (1997), “Eat Pray Love” (2010) and “The Visitor” (2007).