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By RAVEN SNOOK
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
His name may not be above the title, but judging by the curtain call applause, Michael McGrath is a major force in Nice Work if You Can Get It. As a testy bootlegger named Cookie McGee who's forced to pose as a butler, the veteran character actor earns constant laughs with his sarcastic wisecracks, all delivered in a thick Noo Yawk accent.
It's not just theatregoers who are eating Cookie up: Last week McGrath snagged his second career Tony nomination (Spamalot marked his first), and it's easy to see why. A Gershwin catalog musical meant to evoke the Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse-penned tuners of the '20s and '30s, Nice Work is a throwback to another era, and so is McGrath, with his craggy mug and warbling baritone. While other actors work valiantly to affect an old-time vibe, McGrath's Cookie may have arrived on stage courtesy of a time machine.
"I drew on a lot of characters from old movies that I watched growing up," says the fifty-something actor. "Guys like Slip Mahoney [played by Leo Gorcey] in The Bowery Boys, even Mo Howard from the Three Stooges. Those were the people I used for inspiration. I always loved those weird guys."
McGrath has had quite a while to hone his characterization. He first played Cookie in a 2001 incarnation of Nice Work (then called They All Laughed) at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House. Over the next decade, he reprised his role in various developmental readings, and he's the only original cast member who made the journey to Broadway. Not that Cookie has changed that much over time. "He's a little heavier, maybe a little slower and ten years older---kind of like me," deadpans McGrath.
In the screwball plot about a band of bootleggers hiding out in the mansion of a womanizing playboy, McGrath gets to roll his eyes, throw a few punch lines, and croon a couple of glorious Gershwin tunes, notably the duet "Looking for a Boy" opposite fellow Tony nominee Judy Kaye. Kaye plays a temperance crusader, fighting the evils of alcohol wherever she goes, which leads to several feisty encounters with Cookie.
"Getting to play with Judy eight shows a week is a dream come true," says McGrath. "She's such a pro. It's like getting to do [the classic Abbott and Costello routine] 'Who's on First?' with her every night."
Period pieces seem to be McGrath's forte. His resume is full of roles in classic revivals (Born Yesterday, Wonderful Town) or new shows set in the old days (Memphis). "I play to my strengths, and that's one of them," he says. "I guess I seem old-fashioned. That's okay; I'm such a fan of those classic movies. [Nice Work co-star] Matthew [Broderick] and I quote lines from old films to each other all the time."
McGrath appreciates the warm reception his character gets each night. "Cookie's a lot like the character that I played in Spamalot, as far as how the audience perceives him," he says. "He's a blue collar guy, a people's guy, no nonsense, somebody that you root for. I try to give those kinds of characters as much heart as possible. Otherwise he could come off as a criminal who's always yelling at people."
Raven Snook regularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Joan Marcus