DIVERSE: Al Pacino, left, is the essence of ruin as Shylock. Technique filters… (From left: Joan Marcus /…)
Reporting from New York — — The old notion that British actors work from the outside-in while American actors work from the inside-out has been rendered obsolete by the movies (which have encouraged even plummy English veterans to sweat and stammer like Actors Studio die-hards) and actor training (which has come to recognize that emotional revelation without reliable technique is, well, kind of embarrassing).
But this year's Tony nominees for lead actor in a play suggest that there may still be some truth to the clichés about the Anglo-American theatrical divide. The category, which includes two internationally renowned Brits (Brian Bedford in "The Importance of Being Earnest" and Mark Rylance in "Jerusalem") and three Americans (Bobby Cannavale in "The Mother… With the Hat," Joe Mantello in "The Normal Heart" and Al Pacino in "The Merchant of Venice"), is one of the most competitive, with no clear frontrunner and any one of them a deserved winner.
Virtuosity comes in many varieties. Bedford's Lady Bracknell (a drag performance that refuses to indulge in gender-bending shtick) and Rylance's Johnny "Rooster" Byron (a relentless, no-holds-barred impersonation of a modern-day drug-dealing Falstaff) are ingenious feats of presentational acting. These are monumental, externally carved portrayals that conjure the souls of their characters through enormous physical effort — restraint in the case of Bedford's grande dame hauteur, fiendish explosiveness in the case of Rylance's libertine color.
Psychological realism is more of a priority for the Yanks. This isn't simply a matter of genre. The urban comedy of Stephen Adly Guirgis' "Mother…," with its arias of metaphorically vivid invective, the noble, furious agitprop of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" and the off-kilter romantic tragicomedy of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" are as dissimilar to one another as they are to Oscar Wilde's paradox-firing farce "The Importance of Being Earnest" and Jez Butterworth's roughhouse pastoral "Jerusalem." But naturalism and theatricality seem to be more evenly balanced for the Americans. Which isn't to say that the portrayals by Cannavale, Mantello and Pacino are more modestly conceived. But the focus for them, no matter how heightened the moment, is always on the inner stakes of the character.
It's a matter of orientation rather than authenticity. Neither Bedford, who directed this "Earnest," nor Rylance could be accused of engaging in empty flourishes. Lady Bracknell is an artificial composite but Bedford, with his droll, unhurried timing, never allows her to become a cartoon. Every drop of perspiration Rylance expends — and what a flood it is — is earned. But a protective layer of technique separates the emotion of these British actors from the emotion of their characters. These gentlemen prefer expertly performing their parts; they see no point in trying to live them. Not that it would be possible to "live" Lady Bracknell, but there's a difference between cogent make-believe and blood-and-guts transformation. Men of the theater who enjoy dressing up, they're not seeking glory in a self-extinguishing blaze of naturalism but over the course of a consistently brilliant career.
These thoughts began percolating during a New York theatergoing tear earlier this month that included a sprint to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, where I saw Derek Jacobi's acclaimed Lear in the Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare's tragedy, directed by Michael Grandage. Jacobi's performance, which was broadcast earlier this year as part of the NT Live series, was remarkable in its lucidity, its technical panache and its calculated emotional effects. But I was somehow always aware of the British veteran's modulation — of voice, of movement, of feeling. This didn't undermine my respect, but it did invite more critical detachment.