Volume 75, Number 34 | January 11 - 17, 200

Theater

From Ibsen to Pinter and back again
Earle Hyman’s long journey with the masters

Photo by Monique Carboni
Mary Beth Peil and Earle Hyman in Pinter’s ‘The Room,’ now in an extended run at the Atlantic Theater Company.

By JERRY TALLMER

When he was 13, a black kid in a white world, Earle Hyman was bitten by a bug named Ibsen. “The first play I ever saw was a present from my parents on my 13th birthday — Nazimova in ‘Ghosts’ at Brighton Beach on the subway circuit — and I just freaked out.”

When he was 66, Earle Hyman in the fullness of a long career starred as Halvard Solness in Tony Randall’s National Actors’ Theatre production of Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” Lynn Redgrave played his wife. Madeleine Potter played Hilda Wangel, the beautiful young hero-worshipper who, urging the old architect of towers to climb higher, ever higher, propels him to his death.

Today, going on 14 years after that, you can see Earle Hyman every night making an extraordinary wordless entrance as a blind Negro named Riley at the jolting climax of Harold Pinter’s “The Room,” on a double-bill with Pinter’s “Celebration” at the Atlantic Theater on West 20th Street.

“This is the last one,” roars tall, majestic Earle Hyman in a Ninth Avenue café a block and a half from the Atlantic. And then, with a laugh: “I’ve been saying that for a long time. Well, I did quit, but I couldn’t stick with it. What am I supposed to do? Sit around with an ancient red cat called Tyss-Tyss — that’s Norwegian slang for shhh-shhh — on my lap?”

Hyman will be 80 years old in October of this new year. He made his Broadway debut at age 18 in the now all-but-forgotten historic 1944 production of Philip Yordan’s “Anna Lucasta,” about a troubled, good-looking black prostitute’s return to her family. Young Earle found himself among such distinguished company as Rosetta LeNoire, Canada Lee, Frederick O’Neal, Alice Childress, and — as Anna — the purely gorgeous Hilda Simms.

“ ‘Anna Lucasta!’ he says, almost in wonderment, being reminded of it by an interviewer. “Nobody ever heard of it — one of the biggest hits Broadway ever had. Hil-dahh Simms!” he says. “The only real Anna.

“They made two movies from it, you know. Two movies within 15 years. The first [1949] was with an all-white cast — Paulette Goddard, Broderick Crawford, and so forth. The second [1959] was with an all-black cast starring Eartha Kitt as Anna. I was asked to be in it as Rudolf, the boy from the South who marries her. I said no, because I respected Hilda Simms.”

Millions of Americans will remember Earle Hyman as Russell Huxtable, Bill Cosby’s father on “The Cosby Show,” but his real work — his stage work — stretches from Shakespeare to Ibsen to Beckett to Albee to Pinter and back again.

For many years now, he has lived and worked half in Norway — Ibsen’s Norway — half in the United States, and he was actually in Norway when word came to him that the Atlantic Theatre, here in Chelsea, was interested in Earle for some upcoming show, only the informant didn’t know what show.

“I came back to New York through Paris and London, to see how they were coming along, and the next thing I remember, Neil Pepe [Atlantic artistic director and director of the Pinter double-bill] was telling me they really wanted me for this play [‘The Room’] and this role.

“I don’t know if I’d ever read ‘The Room’ or not. I did know I’d done a reading of Pinter’s ‘A Slight Ache’ and” — slapping his forehead in sudden memory — “I saw ‘The Homecoming,’ for cripe’s sake, on Broadway. Didn’t understand it at all, but I saw it.

“Then Edward Albee came along, and I was in two of his plays and read all the others. Pinter and Albee are somehow tied up together for me.

“When Albee came along the critics said he was opaque and all that. Not to me. I mean, that last act of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ did not floor me. An imaginary baby has been got rid of? I’m sorry. This was supposed to be unheard-of?

“But I thought Albee’s ‘The Zoo Story’ was great. I’m a word freak, starting with Shakespeare. I love the sound of words, the music of words, the use of words, the meaning of words. Even that last act of ‘Virginia Woolf’ — my God, who else can write like that?

“Well, in 1979 [Albee’s producer] Richard Barr called me. He said: ‘Edward likes to use actors in readings who are not going to be in the play,’ and asked if I’d like to take part in a reading at Barr’s house of Albee’s ‘The Lady From Dubuque.’ I was living on Bank Street, Dick Barr lived on 8th Street. I went over, started reading the part of Oscar — the guy who does the heavy work helping to put terminally ill patients to death — and I thought; This part is mine.

“I’d brought along all my copies of Edward’s work, hoping he’d autograph them. Told him my favorite was ‘Tiny Alice.’ He said it was his favorite, too. As he was leaning over signing his name, he said to me: ‘See you in September’ — and that was that.”

“The Lady From Dubuque,” with Irene Worth, Maureen Anderman, Frances Conroy, Tony Musante, and Earle Hyman, under the direction of Alan Schneider, ran 12 performances — not in September but in January 1980 — at the Morosco Theatre. Too opaque. And where is the Morosco Theatre today?

“Torn down! Finished!” Earle Hyman bellowed.

But he, as we have seen, is not.

“Once I knew I had the part of Riley in ‘The Room,’ I started reading all the Pinter I could get, some of it in Norwegian. His ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is playing there right now. Neil Pepe knows Pinter. Got to know him standing next to him at a urinal.

“With Riley, I realized, and Neil agreed, that there would be no explanations, no statements [a la Actors Studio probing into motives and background]. The subtext [or back story] was mine and mine alone. The other actors have their own subtexts.

“Mary Beth Peil [who plays Rose, the woman whose room is invaded by Riley and others] and I have never discussed it, and won’t. We will when the show’s all over. But I know who she is, and she knows who I am. Which is why we can never do this play together again.”

Hyman let that sink in before he said: “I have never heard such thunderous silence as when Bert [Rose’s man — actor Thomas Jay Ryan] comes in and I come in [at the end of the play]. It’s frightening. And every night there’s one man out there in the audience who — same place, same time —clears his throat so as not to start crying. Does it mean we’re great actors? I don’t know what it means.”

Earle Hyman was born October 11, 1926, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

“My mother was not married to my father at the time, but did get ahold of him and married him three years later. My hometown is Warrenton, North Carolina. Charlie Rose was born there. President Polk was born and is buried there.

“Both my parents were teachers, but then my father went into agriculture and landscape gardening. They moved themselves and us from North Carolina to Brooklyn so my brother and sisters and I could get a better education in the black schools up North. My brother Zacharia Henry Hyman designed systems for submarines for General Dynamics, and the FBI came to visit him every five years.”

It was when he was 31, in 1957, that, wanting to visit the country of Ibsen’s birth, Earle “first hit Oslo with a letter of introduction from Romney Brent,” one of his two teachers at the American Theater Wing.

The other teacher, or something more than that, was Eva Le Gallienne — “the greatest actress in the world” — with whom, down at Knoxville, Tennessee, Hyman did scenes from Shakespeare. This was when he was 48. “Her mother was Danish, you know. Miss Le Gallienne spoke Danish and I spoke Norwegian.”

He’s had a cottage on the west coast of Norway — “the fjord country” — for some 20 years now. Two years ago he also acquired an apartment in Oslo. He has starred in “Driving Miss Daisy” in the United States, of course, but also in Danish in Denmark, in Norwegian in Norway. The impetus — over and above Ibsen — that first sent him to Norway was the five years bondage he put in at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut.

“I had a salary, and could take vacations in Oslo. Only the last of those seasons, under [director] Bill Ball, was any good. It’s the only one that even smelled like Shakespeare. For the rest, I stank and so did the rest of them — except for my beloved Katharine Hepburn.”

Though Earle, like the Nobel Prize committee, considers Harold Pinter a genius, he wonders whether Pinter’s anti-Americanism played any role in the 2005 Nobel for Drama going to Pinter.

He himself, by the way, Earle Hyman, has appeared in the plays of four Nobel Prize winners: Eugene O’Neill, Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka, Harold Pinter. He was also, as the Atlantic program puts it, “the first black actor to have played all four of the Shakespeare giants, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear.”

Apart from the red cat Tyss-Tyss, what family has he?

“None. All dead. Except for my adopted son.

“I’m so lucky. Twenty-nine Shakespeare roles in 20 Shakespeare plays. Only Ellis Raab and Bill Ball have done the complete canon. I’ll never make it now.

“I’ll be 80 in October,” Earle Hyman says. “All my life I’ve been trying to be simple in my work, and very seldom achieving it.”

Sitting there, he gives examples of various drah-matic strengths and shadings of voice power. “In a sense, I daren’t take off all my clothes” — drop all those effects — “and still hold an audience’s attentions. “I always thought: If you feel it, really feel it, then the audience will too. Well, they may not.”

At “The Room,” at the Atlantic, when Earle Hyman comes in, and you could hear a pin drop, they do. Ask that man, whoever he is, who always — same place, same time — clears his throat to keep from crying.

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