Richard Dreyfuss Likes Finding Work Off Beaten Path (i.e., TheaterWorks)

Richard Dreyfuss redefined what it meant to be a leading man in the "New Hollywood" era of the 1970s, in such groundbreaking films as "Jaws," "American Graffiti," "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," "Inserts" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

He's made well over 50 movies. His work for TV includes portraying convicted Ponzi scheme king Bernie Madoff in the miniseries "Madoff," which aired earlier this year.

Dreyfuss also has a long and distinguished career on the stage. You just have to look outside of Broadway to find much of it.

He starred (alongside Stockard Channing) in Peter Nichols' dark comedy "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre in 1980 and returned to Long Wharf in 1984 to do the stage version of Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight."

Both shows transferred to New York, but Dreyfuss chose not to go with them. Not doing "Joe Egg" again "may be the stupidest thing I ever did," he says, "since it won all these awards."

But, slumped comfortably in an upholstered chair in a rehearsal room at Hartford's TheaterWorks on Pearl Street, where he'll perform in Mark St. Germain's play "Relativity" Oct. 7 through Nov. 20, Dreyfuss doesn't seem fazed by paths not taken. He obviously has a love for theater that's found off the beaten path.

When asked if he prefers the regional theater realm to Broadway, Dreyfuss waves an arm around himself. Here he is. The show may well move on to New York, though nothing has been confirmed. Hartford has it now. The TheaterWorks run of "Relativity" was just extended by a week, and is selling out quickly.

When TheaterWorks approached Richard Dreyfuss to play Albert Einstein in the theater's season-opening production of "Relativity," little did they know that Dreyfuss had recently read Walter Isaacson's biography "Einstein: His Life and Universe." Nor did they know that Dreyfuss had written an unproduced screenplay about the renowned physicist.

"I don't think of it as coming back," Dreyfuss says of taking a stage role amid his busy career in film and television. "It's part of my life. I never left it." On the other hand, "after I'd done two plays that closed on opening night, I did 'Sly Fox.' It ran for six months. I thought it would go on after me, but they closed it. I stood outside the theater and watched my name come down from the marquee, watched the name of the play come down, and I felt closure. I felt that now I'd done everything."

"Sly Fox" was comedy writer Larry Gelbart's reworking of the classic 17th-century comedy "Volpone" by Ben Jonson; the New York production was directed by Arthur Penn. It seemed tailor-made for Dreyfuss — an inspired modern comic actor who can eagerly discourse on the nuances of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. He describes at length a production of "Hamlet" he once directed in Manchester, England, describing how he had Ophelia dash excitedly across the stage and jump into her brother Laertes' arms. He then talks about playing Iago (to Paul Winfield's Othello) at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta in 1979. "The fight director," he recalls, "believed that all fights should be real," and hid an abundance of small weapons in Dreyfuss' costume.

Finding The Spectacle

Will "Relativity" be as physically demanding as some of his Shakespearean roles?

"Well, I wrestle her," Dreyfuss deadpans about castmate Christa Scott-Reed, who plays Margaret Harding in the play. He extends the joke with hilarious imagined descriptions of other violent altercations.

In truth, "Relativity" spars with words rather than fists. Einstein, while wrestling in his mind with matters of time and space, is forced by an unexpected visitor to confront a difficult personal decision from his past.

Despite the number of chairs apparent in the small office setting of the play, "Relativity" sounds like quite a lively piece. Dreyfuss will wield a violin, for instance.

The spirited encounter in the play is in keeping with previous Mark St. Germain works such as "Freud's Last Session," "Camping With Henry and Tom" and "Becoming Dr. Ruth." Those shows also uncovered uncomfortable yet illuminating episodes in the lives of celebrated public figures.

"First of all, it's all true," says Dreyfuss of "Relativity." "Hopefully, we'll find a way to hit the audience right in the mouth. It has to be the verbal equivalent of 'The Lion King.' You have to have some spectacle or it's not interesting."

Dreyfuss ruminates a lot on the power of the spoken word and the value of thoughtful leadership. Thirty years ago, he co-founded the still-active and highly influential L.A. Theatre Works (unrelated to the similarly named Hartford company), which produces popular radio versions of classic plays. Dreyfuss has performed in numerous broadcasts with L.A. Theatre Works including the Arthur Miller dramas "The Crucible" and "The Price."

The actor rhapsodizes about Orson Welles and how he brought a special style to his "Mercury Theatre on the Air" radio shows of the late 1930s. He speaks animatedly of the great potential he still sees in radio drama. "I want to reinvent radio theater," he proclaims.

Another passion is civics education. Dreyfuss' interest in helping children learn about the workings of government led him to create the Richard Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that brings "civics discussion club" programs to schools and otherwise promotes "the advancement of civic education, civic virtue and the role citizens can play in the success of our country." While in Hartford, Dreyfuss hopes to speak with state legislators about his civics interests.

Civics by day, physics by night — Richard Dreyfuss has come to Hartford.

"RELATIVITY" runs Oct. 7 through Nov. 20 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Tickets are $60-$75. 860-527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org.

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