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This is how he's being judged

Larry Bryggman's comic stage turn in 'Romance' is earning raves. What would Dr. Dixon think?

October 26, 2005|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Larry Bryggman always loved the Marx Brothers -- which may explain why he's also loving his role as the loopy, allergy-pill-popping judge in David Mamet's courtroom farce "Romance."

A typical snatch of the judge's antihistamine-fueled rant: "I don't need a reason, all I need's this little hammer here

"I said: I just can't pass this up, this is too much fun, I love things like this," says Bryggman, a fit-looking 66-year-old with a coiffed Nike swoosh of reddish-blond hair who is probably best known to general audiences for his 35-year stint as the nefarious Dr. John Dixon on the CBS soap opera "As the World Turns."

In fact, hot on the heels of performing in the acclaimed Broadway revival of "Twelve Angry Men," this two-time Tony Award nominee turned down the opportunity to portray the title role in the recent Broadway production of "Julius Caesar" -- and the chance to be murdered by Denzel Washington's Brutus -- to portray a gavel-happy nut job in Mamet's first real comedy, which premiered off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company.

"The minute I read it, I knew," Bryggman says. "When I started working on it, David said: 'Listen, there's not a whole lot of history to these characters. It's like boom-boom-gag, boom-boom-gag; it's vaudeville.'

"So I said no to Shakespeare," Bryggman adds with a chuckle. "Caesar's dead by the second reel, anyway." Or by the third act, actually, unless you mean the movie. But never argue with the judge. " ... I get bored? 'Go to jail.' You think I'm kidding? ... "

To be sure, Bryggman has always had a sense of humor about Shakespeare. In 1991, he played both the title role and the character of Falstaff at some performances of a New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Henry IV, Part 1" when the actor scheduled to play Falstaff was stricken with an infected vocal cord. After all, he reasoned, the characters were never onstage at the same time.

And if the reviews of the production at the Mark Taper Forum are any indication, Mamet was the right choice. Even those critics who panned Mamet ended up praising Bryggman.

Paul Hodgins of the Orange County Register called Mamet's first stab at farce "an exercise in vanity" but noted that Bryggman "explores new worlds of wacko." Los Angeles Daily News critic Evan Henderson, who disparagingly dubbed the play "Mamet lite," called Bryggman's performance "cerebrally zany."

And critics who liked Mamet's profanity-laced script also singled out Bryggman: Daily Variety's Steven Oxman described Bryggman's Judge as a "keenly kooky perf" (that's "perf-ormance" in the keenly kooky lingo of the trade paper), and Times reviewer James C. Taylor wrote, "Any opening argument on the merits of this madcap courtroom comedy cannot proceed without mentioning Larry Bryggman."

Bryggman did not read the glowing L.A. reviews -- in fact, the Bay Area native, who lives in upstate New York, didn't get a taste of them until his wife and his agent phoned him and read them aloud. "If you're not going to believe the bad ones, you kind of have to wonder about the good ones," he muses.

With Tony nominations for "Proof" (2001) and "Picnic" (1994), as well as a distinguished resume that includes membership in the Atlantic Theater Company as well as long associations with the Theatre Company of Boston and the New York Shakespeare Festival, Bryggman is perhaps one of the most successful character actors of his generation.

Last year, he left "As the World Turns" when his contract was not renewed. Bryggman says producers told him it was just about money; he believes it was also about age.

"They weren't using me; they didn't want to write for me," he says. "I am getting older, and these shows are always about young people. But I thought I still had value."

The "good" doctor from the show, Don Hastings -- 71 and still on the soap after 45 years -- agrees that youth is key in today's soap opera world. "When 'The Young and the Restless' came on, they called our show 'The Old and the Listless,' " he jokes. Both Bryggman and Hastings go back to the days when most soaps were half-hour shows, performed live. Hastings thinks the demands of live TV required skilled actors. "You really had to have some background, and most of it came out of the theater," Hastings says. "A lot of them today -- gee, they're just kids. Some of them stick and become very good actors, and some of them are just part of the passing parade."

Bryggman acknowledges that he went into soaps because it was a steady gig and he needed to support a family; he did theater at night, and a clause in his TV contract accommodated his matinee performances. Still, he says, he tried to give the doctor depth. "He was what they call a 'complex character,' " he says.

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