Ask Denis O’Hare how his current role in
the play "Helen," at The Public Theater in Lower Manhattan,
differs from others, and the actor just shakes his head.
"It’s weird," the Fort Greene resident says, sitting in the Public Theater lobby before a recent performance. "I have to be here, legally, a half-hour before curtain. It’s a union rule." Usually, that’s not a problem, but since O’Hare plays Menaleus, the estranged husband of Helen of Troy (Donna Murphy) in playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s post-modern retelling of the familiar tale, it’s of particular concern: he doesn’t go onstage until about half an hour before the play ends. But the actor keeps an open mind.
"You can look at it in different ways. The bad thing is, it’s like the Olympics," he explains. "Think of the skiers who are going last. They watch everyone else hit their marks and then they end up getting more and more nervous, and they almost always end up choking! They’re waiting too long, which is how I feel at times. Of course, I’m not competing with my fellow actors, but you get the idea."
But O’Hare can see the brighter side. "The good thing is I get a really long warm-up," he says. "I don’t have to spend the whole day having the play sitting over my head. I have two hours once I get here to prepare, so I don’t have to worry about it all the time."
"Helen" reunites McLaughlin and director Tony Kushner - McLaughlin played the angel in Kushner’s epic two-part play "Angels in America" - and stars Tony Award winner Murphy ("Passion," "The King and I"), Marian Seldes, Johanna Day and "The Cosby Show" alumna Phylicia Rashad. O’Hare is understandably jazzed about working with such a list of luminaries.
"I’d done a reading of ’Homebody/ Kabul’ [Kushner’s latest play] at New York Theatre Workshop, and I also did a workshop of his musical ’Caroline or Change,’" O’Hare says. "Tony and I have been dancing around each other for a long time, so when he offered me this part, I read the script and, of course, said, ’Yes.’ As a playwright and a director, I think Tony has a different insight into how plays work than most directors."
O’Hare also has nothing but plaudits for actress-turned-playwright McLaughlin. "She’s a good writer," he says, "and it’s a little intimidating since you want to be equal to what she writes. But she gives very good character notes right in the writing. I’ve worked with a lot of actors-slash-writers, and they don’t always necessarily remember what it was like to be an actor. But not Ellen."
As for the star of the show - Murphy is never offstage - O’Hare is equally rhapsodic. "Donna’s totally great. She’s a consummate actress," he says, explaining, "I always like to play fast and loose, change things all the time. And she’s always completely there, she always goes with me, which is great to see."
For O’Hare and his colleagues, each of whom spends only one scene onstage with Murphy (except for Seldes, who plays Helen’s servant), such an unusual arrangement has forged a strong bond. "We all like each other so much, but we see so little of each other that we have to find excuses to get together," he admits. "Aside from the curtain call, the only time we’re all onstage together, we also enjoy hanging out backstage."
After "Helen" closes this weekend, O’Hare will already be onto his next project: "Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited)," a multimedia evening at the New York Theatre Workshop (just a few blocks from the Public). "I’ll actually miss the first five performances because it’s overlapping with ’Helen,’" O’Hare says.
Following "Vienna," O’Hare returns to the Public - sort of. "I’ll be going into rehearsals for the new Richard Greenberg play about baseball, ’Take Me Out,’" says the actor. "We go to London in June, do it there for a month and a half, then come back and put it on at the Public through September."
The cast for "Take Me Out" will be filled with Americans; usually, only our big "names" perform on the other side of the pond. But for O’Hare, who has played the West End before, it’s not a big deal. "I have British equity," he says, "so I can work over there with no problems."
O’Hare has performed both on and off-Broadway since arriving several years ago from Chicago (where he attended Northwestern University and acted on most of the local stages), acting in David Hare’s "Racing Demon," Shaw’s "Major Barbara" and the hit revival of "Cabaret" on the Great White Way.
"I played the Nazi for the first year and a half in ’Cabaret,’" O’Hare says. "I was there for Natasha [Richardson, who won a Tony as Sally Bowles], then I played it with Jennifer Jason Leigh and with Mary McCormack. I thought it was some of the best musical theater ever done in this city. I haven’t been back to see it since - I’d rather remember it the way it was."
O’Hare loves having Brooklyn as his home base. "I’ve lived in Fort Greene since ’98, and before that I lived in Cobble Hill," he says. "I lived there before it got trendy. As a matter of fact, I lived in Fort Greene before it got trendy! A month after I got there, there was this huge article in the Times about living in Fort Greene. I said, ’Oh no - please don’t come.’
"Of course they came," he continues, "but I still love Brooklyn. I’m a total booster - I always drag my friends from Manhattan over here."
"Helen" plays at The Public
Theater’s Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette St. at Astor Place in
Manhattan through April 21. Shows are Tuesday through Friday
at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm and 7 pm.
Tickets are $45. For more information, call (212) 539-8500 or