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O'Hare's Evolution

Date: Mar 27, 2007


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The actor Denis O'Hare, who typically appears in a few plays a year and who worked on six films last year, doesn't just memorize his characters' lines and blocking. Also in his permanent memory bank is the White House phone number.

"It's a comment line, and they ask for comments," says O'Hare, who estimates that he calls in about once a week. "My most recent call was about Iran."

O'Hare's everyday sense of political engagement and observation is particularly well suited to his role in the Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind, which opens on Apr. 12. O'Hare plays E.K. Hornbeck, a muckraking journalist based on the real-life curmudgeon H.L. Mencken; Mencken is known for, among other things, covering the infamous Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925, in which a Tennessee schoolteacher was prosecuted for teaching evolution. At the time of the trial, in which the teacher was found guilty, Mencken wrote ominously that it "serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land."

By the time Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee dramatized the trial in 1955, though, times had changed, and the teaching of evolution was not the hot-button political issue it had been three decades before. Indeed, O'Hare says, they intended the trial's cautionary messages about demagoguery and superstition to be mainly allegorical.

"At the time, the writers assumed the play would be taken as a metaphor for McCarthyism, because the issue of Darwin and evolution was so distant and so non-topical," O'Hare says. "They felt the Scopes Trial itself was dated; it wasn't an issue anymore, it had been settled and was done. For them, it was a fable."

Now, with President Bush urging educators to teach "intelligent design" alongside evolution so that children can "understand what the debate is about," this controversy seems newly minted, and this 52-year-old play has improbable new relevance. In trying to figure out why, O'Hare takes a long view--and differs slightly with the acerbic Mencken.

"We ignore at our peril the history of these movements--the depth, the passion and the motivation of these movements," O'Hare says. "It's all very well to say that these people are rednecks and Neanderthals, but that doesn't help us to meet them, talk to them, find common ground with them."

O'Hare isn't just good on national politics: He's also an expert at show business politics, which might be one reason he works so much. His Tony-winning role in the play Take Me Out, for instance, came about because he did two earlier readings of the play. A role in the upcoming Tom Hanks film Charlie Wilson's War happened same way.

"You do a lot of readings, you do a lot of favors," O'Hare says. In the case of Charlie Wilson's War, the director, Mike Nichols, assembled his cast for a screenplay reading, for which O'Hare was handed six supporting roles for the reading--including an Egyptian foreign minister, a Pakistani prime minister, a 70-year-old man--i.e., none of them parts for which O'Hare would ever be considered.

"Which means that now I have to go into a room and do an incredible job on parts that I can't do--basically an audition for parts you're not going to get," O'Hare recalls with a rueful laugh. But his hard work paid off, he says. "I was noticed, so they kind of offered me a pity part."

Another story from earlier in his career illustrates the odd synchronicity of the business: He'd just done Woyzeck for director Joanne Akalaitis, for which he'd had his head shaven and grown a goatee. This unconventional look landed him a role as--what else?--a villain in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

The director of said episode? Writer/director David Hare, in whose play Racing Demon O'Hare would later make his Broadway debut. As O'Hare puts it: "You never know where your next job is going to come from."

O'Hare may not know exactly where the jobs will come from, but there's little chance that this busy, talented actor will have to worry that they come.

"Inherit the Wind" is in previews and will open at the Lyceum Theatre on April 12. More information here.