5 Questions for Broadway's Gentleman Caller (and "New Hottie"), Brian J. Smith
Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith in The Glass Menagerie
Michael J. Lutch
Here's what I wrote about actor Brian J. Smith in 2002 when he was a 21-year-old student starring as Alex, head of the Droogs, in Collin College's production of A Clockwork Orange: "His command of this difficult role is impressive and memorable. Smith, who grew up in Allen, has the incendiary stage presence of a young John Malkovich, but with the sweet good looks of a teen movie idol. This young actor's going places, wait and see."
Here's what New York Times critic Ben Brantley recently wrote about Smith, now 32 and starring on Broadway as the Gentleman Caller in an acclaimed revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie: "... his scene alone with Laura -- in which he gives her and himself a lecture on becoming a positive person -- may be the best version of it we'll ever see."
So just as predicted, Smith has gone places as an actor. After Collin College, he went to Juilliard, where he earned his BFA in acting. He went into good roles in small movies and a big role in two seasons of the SyFy cable TV series Stargate: Universe.
Glass Menagerie is Smith's third Broadway play. Buzz around his performance has him pegged as a probable Tony nominee this spring, along with co-stars Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield, Zachary Quinto as Tom and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura. Entertainment Weekly said Smith's performance "hits just the right notes of vanity and vulnerability." The New York Post profiled him under the headline "the new hottie burning up Broadway."
I saw The Glass Menagerie from the second row at the Booth Theatre last week. Smith's scene, a nearly 30-minute monologue opposite the shy, lovestruck Laura, is exquisite, the heart of one of the great pieces of American theater. (The Times wrote a separate feature about the delicate dance between the characters of Laura and her Gentleman Caller in this "play within the play.") If Smith reminded me of Malkovich when he was 21, now he is a young Jimmy Stewart, tall and handsome, a skilled but never showy actor. When his Gentleman Caller takes Laura in his arms for a long kiss, it feels so real and intimate, the audience seemed to freeze for a moment, afraid of breaking the spell.
I've kept in touch with Smith through the years. He's a Broadway star now but as yet unhindered by "handlers" or publicists. The day after I saw him in The Glass Menagerie, I tossed him five questions about his current success.
Smith, center, in A Clockwork Orange
What are some perks of being in a Broadway hit? Audiences seem to be a little more relaxed when they know they're coming into an experience that's gotten mostly good press. There's an excitement in the air before we even dim the houselights, so there's no sense of having to sell them something or to win them over. We just hop on the ride with them. It's also been great seeing some familiar faces backstage afterwards. We've had fashion designers, music producers, Top Chef stars and, of course, some great actors and directors.
The set for The Glass Menagerie [designed by Bob Crowley] seems to float above a lake of reflective inky liquid that covers the stage. The effect is magical, but have there been any mishaps with whatever that stuff is? Two older guys got into a fight one day during a matinee and one of them was shoved into the water. And that stuff is brutal -- it's a combo of glycerin and black dye, because the designers found that plain water was both too reflective and didn't give a sense of depth. So if you get that stuff on you, it's not going anywhere. And it's fascinating how many times we hear about people in the audience just plain sticking their hands or fingers in that stuff.
You have to talk pretty much nonstop AND chew gum for about 30 minutes in this play. What's with the gum, and do you have a favorite moment that you look forward to each night? There's so many great moments. Any time I get to spend onstage with Celia (Keenan-Bolger, who plays Laura) is golden. That big scene we have together is one of the greatest duets in the history of the stage. It's like a chain of startling moments, one after the other. And the moments happen so quickly and are written so spontaneously that they're over before you have time to worry about them. It's funny you mention the gum because that little moment where Jim interrupts this big speech just to carefully take it out and wrap it in paper is always very fun to play and takes the audience completely by surprise.
If you could star in any other play or musical currently running on Broadway, what role would that be? I haven't seen it, but I hear the Twelfth Night at the Belasco [starring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry] is really extraordinary, and it's all in original Elizabethan costume and makeup, so that would be great fun.
And if you could talk to the 21-year-old you back at Collin College, what advice/warning/reassurance about being an actor would you give you? I think I would tell him to chill the hell out! I'd tell him to enjoy his 20s and just trust that everything will turn out the way it's supposed to turn out. I've always worried too much, and I think I'm getting a bit better at letting that go now that I'm in my 30s. Hope is much more powerful than worry.
Bonus question: What's next for you after The Glass Menagerie closes February 23? I'll know more in the comings weeks, but there are some exciting possibilities starting to pop up. I'm a good old workhorse, so I'm hoping I won't have to go on vacation!
See also: Droog Addicts
The Glass Menagerie continues through February 23 at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. Tickets available online or by calling 212-239-6200.
Also, Irving's Lyric Stage is presenting the world premiere of a musical version of the play, Blue Roses, starring Sally Mayes as Amanda Wingfield, February 7-23, at the Irving Arts Center. Tickets at lyricstage.org or by calling 972-252-2787.
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