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Keeping "Jerusalem" in Check

Date: May 18, 2011


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When award season comes around, playing giants among men (and women) is often good for one's mantelpiece. Hamlet, Medea, Max Bialystock, Mama Rose, Miss Jean Brodie, Roy Cohn: These are the sorts of roles that traditionally win Tonys.

But playing a man among giants has also paid off, at least in the supporting categories. The three Billy Eliot kids won the Tony Award, but so did Gregory Jbara, for playing their dad; same with Boyd Gaines alongside Patti LuPone’s formidable Rose in Gypsy.An especially pronounced case came last year, when Eddie Redmayne won for his supporting turn opposite Alfred Molina’s Mark Rothko in Red.

Now another sallow Englishman has been nominated for his work alongside another unstoppable force.

Johnny "Rooster" Byron is the galvanizing center of Jersualem, Jez Butterworth's myth-glutted new play. In Mark Rylance's Tony-nominated performance, he is equal parts Pied Piper, Falstaff, Evel Knievel, and two-bit hood, and he fascinates a group of young layabouts in rural England.

However, those layabouts make impressions, too, and one of them has earned Mackenzie Crook a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play.

Crook plays Ginger, an underemployed plasterer who fancies himself a DJ and tries to keep the yarn-spinning Rooster in check. That is no small feat when Rooster insists he met the giant---the actual giant---who built Stonehenge.

"Ginger is a cynic," says Crook, 39. "Everyone else is willing to accept these outlandish stories, and Ginger is there to keep Rooster on the ground." This penchant for fact-checking makes Ginger a less than ideal drinking buddy; Crook spends much of the first act in humorously high dudgeon as he learns about the previous night’s epic blowout. But as the consequences of Rooster’s actions become impossible to ignore, the affection behind Ginger’s prickly nature becomes touching and even, in its minor-key way, tragic. 

Crook’s role has changed quite a bit in the two years since Jerusalem premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre. "The original script didn’t bear much resemblance to what it is now," he says. "Jez constantly came in with new pages, and the role of Ginger grew along the way, which I’m grateful for."

And with the famously unpredictable Rylance on the scene, the changes show no sign of letting up. "Mark has to bring an element of danger to it," Crook says. "That part can’t be played in a staid, regulated way, and he’s still changing it up every night." Crook recalls one performance where Rylance took on a booming, terrifying quality---and completely changed his blocking---as Rooster related his exchange with the giant. "We’ve all learned to stay alert and work with whatever comes," he says.

Jerusalem marks Crook's second collaboration with director Ian Rickson; their first play together, a 2007 revival of The Seagull that also transferred to Broadway, was a huge change of pace for the actor, whose career began with stand-up and character-based sketch comedy. Despite well-received turns in the two plays, as well as in the U.K. premiere of Annie Baker’s meditative drama The Aliens last fall, he is still best known for roles like Gareth Keenan, the assistant to the regional manager, on the original U.K. version of The Office, and a glass-eyed pirate named Ragetti in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Though he isn't in the latest Pirates sequel, which opens this weekend, Crook does have a role in Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming adaptation of the beloved Tintin stories. "I’m the goofy henchman, which apparently is my natural category," Crook says.

In fact, it could be argued that Ginger falls into this surprisingly fertile niche, with the caveat that, in the topsy-turvy world of Johnny "Rooster" Byron, "level-headed" is the goofiest thing a henchman could possibly be.


Eric Grode, the author of the recently released  Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.