Speaking in a hesitant voice tinged by a slight Oklahoma twang, Paul Sparks still sounds baffled that he’s making his Broadway debut in a classic.
“I’m not sure exactly what’s happened,” says Sparks, best known for his work in downtown playwright Adam Rapp’s gritty contemporary comedy/dramas (Finer Noble Gases
, Essential Self-Defense
, American Sligo
), who is now playing Lovborg opposite Mary-Louise Parker in the Roundabout’s new Hedda Gabler.
. “I do feel a bit like an interloper; I recognize that it is a sort of odd choice to cast me. The first time I auditioned, I didn’t even know why they would see me. Then when they brought me back, I got a chance to read with Mary-Louise, and I think we sort of liked each other’s style.”
Indeed, chemistry between Ibsen’s thwarted heroine and the visionary but troubled scholar Lovborg is crucial to the play’s dramatic tension. And as it turns out, feeling a bit out of place can actually be helpful.
“These two people are sort of in the same boat in many ways,” Sparks explains. “They’re outsiders in a culture they don’t understand and don’t fit into, so they’re drawn to each other; they understand each other.”
Their relationship is doomed, of course, and not only because Hedda is newly married to the milquetoast Tesman (played in director Ian Rickson’s new production by Michael Cerveris). The famously perverse Hedda also has a poisonous mix of feelings for the brilliant but disturbed scholar, who has struggled with alcoholism.
“When he comes in, he’s cleaned up—he’s not the same guy she knew before,” Sparks says. “And he’s tangled up with this other woman, which Hedda doesn’t really care for. She longs for the bull in the china closet, the one who is fighting against everything, so she can be part of that vicariously; I think she wants him to be like that.”
It’s revealing that Sparks—who in his limited spare time performs in a theatrical rock band with playwright Rapp called Less the Band
—compares Lovborg to Jim Morrison.
“Certainly at that time, people who were proposing radical, life-changing ideas, like Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, were rock stars in a way. They were shaping society,” says Sparks. Lovborg’s earth-shaking new manuscript, a key element in Hedda’s plot, is clearly meant to place him in the company of such philosophical giants. “If you believe Lovborg has written something that’s really going to change society, there is a kind of rock star status to that. I guess it’s like sex, drugs and literature.”
Though Sparks has done his share of Shaw and Shakespeare, he is not known for classical work, to put it mildly. Though he says he feels more at home in period now, there has been a learning curve.
“If you were to ask me about it a few months ago, I think I would have said it’s an old, 19th-century drawing-room drama,” Sparks says. “But as we’ve worked on it, there is a contemporary feel to it. These are people who are really fighting; all of them are sort of trapped by the society they live in.”
It’s amazing what a little time living in a role can do for an actor.
“When I read it, I didn’t really see myself as Lovborg,” Sparks concedes. “I thought of him as this swashbuckling guy, with a very straight back, pontificating to the skies.” That’s not how he sees Lovborg anymore: “To me, he’s an alcoholic, he has some really complicated views, he has abandonment issues. I play those characters all the time.”
Indeed, in Rapp’s plays, Sparks has masterfully played misfits, losers and sociopaths, endowing them with sympathetic touches without asking for our pity. It’s not hard, come to think of it, to imagine his edgy intensity in the role of Lovborg.
Don’t be surprised, then, if this Hedda Gabler, though fully set in its period, doesn’t feel like a musty relic, or if its Lovborg sticks out like a sore thumb.
“He doesn’t really belong,” Sparks says of Lovborg. This distinctiveness even extends to the show’s costuming: “I don’t wear a Hawaiian shirt, but I do have a very big hat.”
While Sparks paid his dues in downtown theater, he has been reading for a lot of the bigger Off-Broadway and Broadway producers for years now.
“I sort of have been hovering around those theaters for some time,” he says. A few years ago he has a breakthrough, appearing in Pumpgirl
at Manhattan Theatre Club, and he has slowly but surely started to get work outside the tight-knit community that has formed around Rapp and his work.
“I think people need to feel a certain permission to cast people, and I’ve been around so much that there’s been this slow change of opinion,” Sparks says. “Now suddenly from all over there’s this kind of permission, but it’s been cumulative.”
Of his co-stars in the new Hedda, Sparks says simply: “There are some remarkable personalities in this cast—huge, great personalities.”
The quiet, meek twang shouldn’t fool you: Sparks was clearly cast because he’s an outsized personality in his own right.
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