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A peak performance, at 79 years young

Alan Mandell gets raves as a Nuremberg judge in the play 'Trying.' 'It's a validation of more than 60 years of work.'

August 31, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

In a career spanning more than six decades, actor Alan Mandell has conquered almost every challenge in the theatrical world, from demanding roles in plays by Shakespeare and Beckett to running esteemed companies such as the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center.

But tackling the role of a cantankerous, aging Nuremberg judge in a two-character production of "Trying" at the intimate Colony Theatre in Burbank was more than trying for Mandell, who will celebrate his 80th birthday this holiday season. It was a grueling ordeal that came close to beating him down.

"It was agonizing and just felt to learn this is beyond me," recalled Mandell of rehearsing the role of Francis Biddle, which was not only physically demanding but required memorizing voluminous, detailed dialogue loaded with dates and names. "I was just very fearful of getting out there and not knowing it. I was not happy at all."

But Mandell did more than conquer the role. At an age when most actors would have long turned away from the stage door, Mandell is earning the best notices of his career at the 276-seat Colony, eliciting the kind of response that would make any performer dizzy with exhilaration.

F. Kathleen Foley in The Times called Mandell's portrayal "a marvel -- one of the five best performances you will see in this lifetime." Variety said, "This award-worthy performance, a perfect match of actor and role, deserves to be seen widely."

Theatergoers have responded -- the run is virtually sold out. The hosannas to Mandell have helped make "Trying," directed by Cameron Watson and co-starring Rebecca Mozo as Biddle's initially uncertain but determined assistant, one of the most successful productions in the theater's 32-year history.

"This is a true juggernaut," said artistic director Barbara Beckley. "This is a first in my career that a lovely, character-driven two-hander will eclipse in box office every other play we've done. We're having repeat business, something that never happens. People are bringing their kids and their fathers."

She added with a chuckle, "And Alan even has groupies."

Mandell is no stranger to praise. He has long been considered one of Los Angeles' consummate classical actors. And his love for theater has extended beyond the footlights -- he co-founded the San Quentin Drama Workshop for inmates and was consulting director for Los Angeles Actors' Theatre.

But even he is overwhelmed, still grappling with the accolades for "Trying." Finally, he says, "It's a validation of more than 60 years of work in the theater."

Walking around his brightly lighted and immaculate Brentwood home, filled with ornate art and memorabilia from his theatrical past, a few weeks after the play's August opening, Mandell should be exhausted -- it's the morning after five weekend performances of the 2 1/2 -hour play, and he has a doctor's appointment later in the day. But he can't seem to stay still.

"Last night, it was just so electric between me and Rebecca," he said excitedly. "When I got home, I was so wired I couldn't sleep. There was this thrilling connection between me and the audience that was just so mesmerizing, and we were just feeding off each other."

The engagement marks Mandell's second theatrical triumph this year. He drew raves with his spirited turn at the oldest juror in the touring revival of "12 Angry Men" starring Richard Thomas and George Wendt, which played at the Ahmanson Theatre in March.

Part of a talented ensemble with "12 Angry Men," Mandell must shoulder a far heavier load with "Trying," which is based on playwright Joanna McClelland Glass' real-life experience as a secretary to Biddle, attorney general under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and chief U.S. judge at the Nuremberg trial of Hitler's top aides. Mandell and Mozo are on stage for almost every minute of the play.

Biddle makes up for his considerable physical frailty and fear of illness and death with stubbornness and a demanding personality, with a knack for firing secretaries. He and young secretary Sarah Schorr (Mozo) are at odds through much of the drama while warning her that he keeps seeing the "exit sign" of his life blinking above him. But their relationship deepens, mostly because of her understanding and patience, and in the end, they are emotionally bonded.

With a vigor and stamina of a man half his age, Mandell possesses few of the weaknesses that plague Biddle. But he can relate to his character, which he has based on a few older friends.

"It's the vulnerability of the man that I really connect to," he said. "He's really at the end of his life, and he knows it. He's sat at all these seats of power, and now that power is gone, and he's confined to an office space."

Key to his portrayal, Mandell said, is his duet with Mozo, who was cast first by Watson. The actress suggested Mandell as a perfect match for Biddle. The two had performed together in last year's Mark Taper Forum production of "The Cherry Orchard" but had spent only a few minutes on stage together.

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