Actor Reg Rogers, a featured cast member in "Poor Behavior." (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from New York — — It was evident from the moment Reg Rogers stepped onstage in "Measure for Measure" in Central Park this summer that he wasn't your typical Shakespearean actor.
As the acid-tongued Lucio in the Bard's comedy, Rogers quipped, cast a wry eye and generally instigated a kind of gleeful mayhem, channeling what seemed to be both a wisecracking Dudley Moore and Johnny Depp as directed by Tim Burton.
In both "Measure" and the alternating production "All's Well That Ends Well," in which Rogers played the equally ethically challenged Parolles, he had the audience at New York's Shakespeare in the Park in stitches with his dark, even nihilistic humor. "Who was that?" people muttered as they filed out of the George Delacorte Theater.
Angelenos may be asking the same thing about Rogers after they see "Poor Behavior," the world premiere of the new play by Theresa Rebeck ("Mauritius," "Omnium Gatherum") at the Mark Taper Forum. It began previews last week and will open Sept. 18.
Performing in "Behavior" at the Music Center is a homecoming of sorts for Rogers, who grew up in Newport Beach and whose father still lives in Southern California. In the dramatic comedy, directed by Tony Award winner Doug Hughes ("Doubt"), two married couples retreat to the country for what proves to be a chaotic weekend, sexually and otherwise.
"It's one of those plays that's about a downward spiral. But that spiral can be very funny," Rogers said. Johanna Day, Sharon Lawrence and Christopher Evan Welch are the other members of the foursome.
Rogers plays Ian, a husband who, according to Hughes, "performs a kind of jujitsu by refusing to say the right thing." He wears a T-shirt that says, "I'm only saying what you're thinking," a flourish that adds a touch of Larry David to Rogers' repertoire.
"And there's probably similarity with the Shakespeare roles, which also had me saying some pretty wild things," Rogers added, alluding to Lucio's inadvertent badmouthing of a duke to his face and then his hilariously desperate attempts to backtrack.
Rogers' twin roles drew praise from publications such as New York magazine and the New Yorker, which lauded Rogers' gift for comedy, even though the productions themselves drew tepid reviews.
Playing two Shakespearean roles simultaneously wasn't easy, and Rogers said he had to take pains to paint the differences between them. "I came to love Parolles because he wanted badly to be the best guy in the room. He simply didn't have the equipment," he said of the hanger-on. "Lucio, on the other hand, wanted anarchy. He's much more of a cynic."
Although nominated for a Tony back in 1996 for his lead role in a revival of Philip Barry's "Holiday," Rogers has remained curiously below the radar for the wider public. He earned rave reviews and an Obie award for his role as Langley, a sensitive pianist, in Richard Greenberg's 2002 drama "The Dazzle."
But he has made little splash in the decade since "The Dazzle," landing few high-profile Broadway parts and only small, "Law & Order"-type parts on television. Despite steady work — he has appeared in less well-known (and well-received) plays by John Patrick Shanley ("Cellini") and John Guare ("A Free Man of Color"). Rogers is a walking reminder that for every Nathan Lane or Norbert Leo Butz, there is a highly skilled actor with both dramatic and comedic chops who hasn't quite broken through.
The upside for theatergoers, of course, is that they can still see these actors in relatively intimate confines.
Unlike most Southern California kids interested in performing, Rogers had no affinity for Hollywood and no real interest in television or film acting when he was growing up. Instead, he says, he found himself drawn to books about the theater, particularly the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Chicago scene, which seemed appealing and mysterious.
After graduating from high school, he "drifted through a few" colleges before gaining entrance to the Yale School of Drama. He graduated in 1993 and moved to New York soon after.
At 46, he seems poised for a breakout. Hughes, who has collaborated with Rogers twice before — including on "The Royal Family," the 2009 Broadway revival of the drama about the Barrymore clan — says, "Reg has a gift for being cutting as well as emotionally honest," and compares him to no less a figure than George C. Scott. "Reg isn't the proverbial household name, but I think he's coming into his own in middle life," Hughes said.
Rogers said he has tried to remain Zen about the way his career has unfolded. "I feel maybe I just haven't come into who I am but I feel like I'm really close. I've gotten to play a lot of characters who use rich language and have a dark wit, and apart from that all you can do is take what's offered," he said.
And then, upon reflecting on the positive notices this summer, he added, "It is nice to be stroked, though."