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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| Theater

As Luck Would Have It

Good Timing and Choices Have Led Andrew J. Robinson to Some Fulfilling Offstage Roles

March 06, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I've kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?"

--Clint Eastwood as detective Harry Callahan in "Dirty Harry," addressing serial killer Scorpio, played by Andrew J. Robinson.

*

As it turns out, Andrew J. Robinson has been lucky.

Lucky to have had the sense to drop out of Hollywood when he felt trapped being typecast as a bad guy in the wake of his 1971 breakthrough role in "Dirty Harry."

Lucky to have retreated in the early 1980s to the mountain community of Idyllwild, where he and his wife, Irene, taught theater to children and teenagers. There, Robinson says, working with kids taught him the crucial virtue he had lacked in previous attempts at stage directing: patience.

Lucky to have restored his acting career, in 1984, with yet another bad-guy role--this time a deep and compelling one. Robinson played killer Jack Henry Abbott in an acclaimed, long-running stage adaptation of "In the Belly of the Beast."

Now South Coast Repertory is in luck. Having courted Robinson for several years, the theater finally was able to mesh its schedule with his, leading to his current gig as director of the Southern California premiere of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," Martin McDonagh's critically hailed play that opens this week on SCR's Second Stage.

Robinson, 58, seems ideally equipped to help bring McDonagh's humorous but ultimately stark and shocking play to life. In 1995, Robinson had his breakthrough as a stage director with an acclaimed production of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" at the Matrix Theatre Company in Los Angeles, where he is a founding member.

McDonagh might not admit it, but "Beauty Queen" owes as much to "Endgame" as any strong, original work can owe to a stronger, more original work.

The Anglo-Irish playwright, whose family hails from rural western Ireland, where his plays are set, was just 25 when "Beauty Queen" opened in London four years ago. Immediately lionized as a major new voice, he commenced constructing a public persona as a rock-star-like anti-establishment bad boy. McDonagh, who dropped out of school at 16, has claimed that his most important influences are film and television, not other playwrights, and that theater, in fact, bores him.

Robinson says his experience with "Endgame" has been "incredibly useful" in directing "Beauty Queen." Beckett's piece gives us a literally immobilized, comically caustic master, the crippled Hamm, lording it over Clov, a figuratively immobilized slave who can't bring himself to escape. A very similar dynamic fires the battle in "Beauty Queen" between Mag, a slovenly old woman who spends most of her time in a rocking chair demanding to be waited upon, and Maureen, the beyond-frustrated daughter who lets herself be dominated--although not without endless, acidly funny verbal volleying.

"I don't know how conscious of it McDonagh was, but dollars to doughnuts he knows ["Endgame"]. And--God love him--it's the most creative kind of influence," Robinson said last week, sitting in the plaza outside SCR to enjoy a day as pleasant as his disposition. Dressed in a working man's jeans and plaid flannel, he spoke enthusiastically and forthrightly in a voice that calls to mind Alan Alda's.

Set against a bleak, isolated, rainy landscape, the poisonous core relationship in "Beauty Queen" erupts shockingly in a violent climax.

Robinson said he won't pull punches to cushion the shock or make it seem less flabbergasting.

The crucial challenge of the play for director and cast, Robinson says, is to make sure its strife, its poignant romantic current and its violence do not lapse into melodrama. Instead, he aims to attain a mythic quality, as a searing, mystery-laden embodiment of some of humanity's most gut-deep needs and torments.

Robinson comes well-versed in playing to mythic scale. His acting roles have included Jesus Christ, Achilles and Odysseus on stage, and John F. Kennedy in a latter-day episode of "The Twilight Zone." Oh yes, he also played Liberace in a made-for-television film of the glitzy entertainer's life.

He knows the real from the phony when it comes to portrayals of violence--all too well, actually.

Robinson was 3 when his father died fighting in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. He says his mother had a breakdown, the family fell apart, and he spent part of his youth living on the streets of Hartford, Conn.

"The violence I've experienced is horrible and sloppy, and it comes out of awkward, unexpected stumblings," he said--knowledge that informs his understanding of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."

"I had a very rough childhood . . . I was exposed to more than I would rather have been exposed to as a kid, so I know about violence."

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