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On The Spot Playing Kurt Weill's 'Johnny'

July 12, 1986|JANICE ARKATOV

"One of the things I tried not to do was idealize Johnny, make him an Everyman," says Ralph Bruneau, who plays the title role in the Paul Green/Kurt Weill 1936 anti-war fable, "Johnny Johnson" at the Odyssey Theatre. "I wanted him to be a specific individual, a three-dimensional person, not just an idea."

The play traces idealistic young Johnny from pro-peace rallies in the early 1900s on to equally fervent enlistment (believing President Wilson's promise that World War I would be "the war to end all wars") and through to the horror of the trenches, an ill-fated plea to the Allied high command and, finally, to a stretch in a mental institution. Bruneau believes the piece is as powerful a message against war as it is a celebration of the human spirit.

"The most tragic part of this is that it's still so timely," he says. "What was really important to Ron (Sossi, the director) and to me, is that Johnny not be daunted. (In his own mind), he never fails. He never loses. He's lost people (a fiancee, fellow soldiers), he's lost things, but he hasn't lost spirit. At the end (gray-haired, impoverished and alone) he addresses the audience: 'Choose my path. Come with me.' "

Bruneau, 33, acknowledges, however, that Johnny's unfailing resolve did not come naturally.

"Johnny experiences some terrible things in the play," he says, "and my instinct as an actor, as a person, was to be crushed by them. But Ron kept reminding me, 'You're not Johnny. You can't know that you're not going to affect the generals. You have to believe that people will do what's right--even though you know that they won't. You have to believe that you can affect that kind of change.' And Johnny does. His mind is simple, strong and pure."

Bruneau believes that the story escapes corniness precisely because of that purity. "It's a wonderful thing to inhabit someone whose soul is so noble," he says, "but I wanted him to have human feelings, to struggle with things, have idiosyncrasies and also, have some of me in him--let a part of Ralph come through."

Paradoxically, he adds, "There's a lot of stuff I have to shed to become Johnny, things I have as a man in 1986--to be able to travel back to that stage of innocence: seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, exploring what America really means."

Within the play's subtitle, "Biography of the Common Man," lies a serious political agenda from Weill who had fled Nazi Germany.

"It was hard to make both sides (hawk and dove) credible," Bruneau says. Yet while he recognizes the presence of dissent, the actor, like Johnny, remains wide-eyed in his assessment of the world situation: "I can't belive that there's a person living today who doesn't believe that war is folly."

Bruneau's concerns haven't always leaned toward the political. Originally planning to become a commercial artist like his father, the Arizona native became hooked on theater and music while on a college exchange program in Rome.

In 1974, he graduated from Notre Dame in Indiana and set off for the Juilliard School in New York.

"I changed my mind at the last minute, because I got cast in 'The Fantasticks' (on his first audition), and you're not allowed to work and go to Juilliard at the same time." Instead, he studied at Circle-in-the-Square for two years, later appearing in "Doonesbury" on Broadway and Off Broadway in "March of the Falsettos."

A move to Los Angeles 18 months ago was prompted by the lure of television and movies. He's landed spots on "Remington Steele," "Newhart" and "Hunter," appeared in an unsold pilot for NBC--but as for the big film break, he admitted, "It's been difficult."

Yet Bruneau isn't fretting: "I've always been a slow starter, plodded along. I haven't had any big spurts in my career. Everything, I think, has happened as it was supposed to. Two years ago, I wouldn't have been able to enjoy playing this role as I am now."

At just under three hours running time, he noted, "it can get really tiring. Marvin in 'Falsettos' (a frantic-energy role) was exhausting, too, and that was only 70 minutes long. But Johnny's the kind of role where you really have to give 100% all the time."

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