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Veteran character actor Patrick Breen on starring in The Perplexed at Manhattan Theatre Club
Patrick Breen sets the darkly humorous tone for Manhattan Theatre Club's The Perplexed, Richard Greenberg's world-premiere play about two warring Jewish families reunited at the drama-filled wedding of their children. As James Arlen, a once-promising novelist whose career and life have stalled, he spends the opening scene kibitzing with former rabbi Cyrus Bloom (Eric William Morris), filling him and the audience in on all the characters and their complicated relationships. His blunt observations are bitingly funny, and signal that everyone's in for a bumpy night.
A veteran character, Breen, 59, is a master at playing amusing neurotics and eccentrics. His Perplexed character seems to fit that pattern, but underneath his quips is a festering rage about what's happening in the world—not that he's going to do anything about it. He may have murderous fantasies about killing politicians, however, "James is an observer," explains Breen. He means that literally. Throughout the play, his character is often on stage in the background, just reading a book or listening while the action unfolds around him. "As his sister Evy (Margaret Colin) points out, he's dreamy at the edges; he's still waiting for life to start and he's growing older. He contemplates. His sister, who's a politician, is the one who does things. She's the one who acts."
In real life though, Breen certainly acts. Although he may not be a boldface name, his face is well known from movies (he's most recognized for his turn as the starstruck alien Quellek in Galaxy Quest), TV (Larry Your-Waiter on Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events) and theatre, both on Broadway (Mickey Marcus in the The Normal Heart, Adam in Next Fall) and off. He's also penned plays, notably Just a Kiss, which was adapted into a 2002 indie movie. But lately he's been focused on his first love, acting on stage, where he typically appears in new works like The Perplexed. "I do love new plays; I just like the creative process. I like the way things evolve and I guess I just don't seem to get cast in already established parts," says Breen with a laugh.
The Perplexed is actually his second Manhattan Theatre Club world premiere in a row: Last fall, he appeared there in The New Englanders as a high-strung gay dad. Breen didn't need to audition for either production. "I'll be asked to do a reading or a workshop of a new play and if I don't stink, they say, 'Would you like to be in a production?'" he says. "That's how a lot of my work comes now these days."
Breen sees his Perplexed character James as a stand-in for Greenberg, which makes sense since they're both writers. As the evening unravels and long-buried secrets are uncovered, James just takes it all in. "It's a juicy event: two families that haven't been together in 20 years," he says. "He just wants to see this train wreck. But he also cares about everybody, they're all his family."
Except for Patricia (Anna Itty), a home attendant from Guyana who takes care of the unseen grandfather of the bride, whose tyrannical presence looms throughout. In one of the play's funniest scenes, James confronts Patricia about her positive attitude, wondering how she can be so cheery with such a crappy job and an abusive boss.
"She's the only member of the cast who's not white, and her character is of the lowest caste and yet Patricia's the only one who seems to be happy," Breen says. "James wants to know how she does it. He's not being coy. I think the reason he is so comically upset is that he wants to take up her cause, but if she's not miserable, he'll have to rethink his politics. If he can at least feel guilty about her being miserable, then in some way he's done his job as a liberal, you know?" Many theatregoers—who statistically skew white, well-off and politically woke—will find that to be a haunting quandary in our polarized era of identity politics.
Speaking of identity politics, Breen frequently plays gay characters and is openly bisexual, but for decades IMDB.com has incorrectly listed him as being married with two children. It's an error that has spread all over the Internet, much to Breen's delight. "I call them my IMDB wife and kids!" he says chuckling. "That's my friend Scott Kraft's wife, Nadine Van der Velde. We all did this movie together called East of A." That's when the confusion started, but Breen never corrected it because he thought the mistake "was funny. I wouldn't put it in my Playbill bio, but it amuses me."
Top image: Patrick Breen.