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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Sometimes, an actor has to play a character more than once before he's happy with his performance.
Just ask Dick Latessa, whose forty years of theatre experience include Cabaret, The Will Rogers Follies, and a Tony Award-winning turn as Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray.
Currently, Latessa's on Broadway in The Lyons, Nicky Silver's dark comedy about a family that's trying to make peace before Ben Lyons, the patriarch, dies. And sure, there are tender moments, but they always devolve into shouting matches about drinking problems, ancient grudges, and the romantic potential of a cancer patient down the hall.
You might not think death and alcoholism are funny, but the writing and the cast---which also includes Linda Lavin---find twisted humor in terrible situations. As Ben, Latessa gets laughs even though he spends most of his performance in a hospital bed, knocking on death's door.
When The Lyons played at The Vineyard last fall, Latessa took a subdued approach to Ben's condition. "It's hard lying in that bed for forty-five or fifty minutes," he says. "In the first incarnation, I played it more 'on his way to death.'"
This time, though, Ben thrashes and shouts and makes a scene. That helps him reach the back of the Cort Theatre, which is much bigger than the Vineyard's intimate space, and it gives him more to do.
"I'm enjoying this incarnation much better," the actor says. "The audience reaction is better, too. It's funnier. The guy is supposedly dying, but what's more boring than watching somebody die? You want to watch him not go silently into the night. I'm using all my faculties and all my strength for my last gasp, and I think that's right for this character. He dies on the run."
Latessa's not surprised his performance has improved. "For me, that's the way repeating roles has always been: The second time around is much better," he explains. "We've all gotten better. Having that time off between---we didn't know whether we were going to go to Broadway or not---it's like a gestation period. You never lose something that you've worked on. It sits in there somewhere, and when you get to do it a second time, you come back with a lot more."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor