Volume 76, Number 35 | January 24 - 30, 2007

Photo by Amy Arbus

In a first for American theater, F. Murray Abraham is performing two title roles in two different plays at the Duke Theater — Barabas, above, in “The Jew of Malta,” and Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.”

Man about Malta and Venice

By Jerry Tallmer

As for myself, I walk abroad ’a nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls.
Sometimes I go about and poison wells...
Being young, I studied physic, and began
To practice first upon the Italian.
There I enriched the priests with burials,
And always kept the sexton’s arms in use
With digging graves and ringing dead men’s knells …
Then, after that, was I an usurer,
And with extorting, coz’ning, forfeiting,
I fill’d the jails with bankrupts in a year …
— Barabas, “The Jew of Malta,”
Act II, Scene 2
 
I’ll have my bond. Speak not against my bond.
I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond.
Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause;
But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs…
— Shylock, “The Merchant of Venice,” Act III, Scene 3
 
F. Murray Abraham had better stay off subway trains for a while.

“When I’m riding the subway and learning a script, things begin to close out, or close in. I see a headline, ‘27 PEOPLE KILLED,’ and start wondering if that’s related to the play,” said the tall, versatile, constantly-in-demand actor who on Sunday, February 4, 2007, at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street, is to perform the extraordinary feat of opening in the matinee as Barabas, the Jew of Malta, he of the nightmare drama by Christopher Marlowe, and that same evening as Shylock in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

The double-dip opening (after some days of discrete previews) is something that no actor has ever before pulled off in the United States, Abraham believes, though he also thinks somebody (Olivier?) has done it in Britain. Does Abraham ever fear getting any of the speeches of the two characters — one a clear villain, one far less clear — mixed up?

“I don’t think it’ll be a problem, but if it is,” he said without batting an eye, “I’ll let you know.”

Marlowe’s “Jew of Malta,” written ca. 1590, a few years before Shakespeare’s “Merchant” as well as before Marlowe’s own death in a tavern brawl, is like nothing so much — some people might maintain — as a slam-bang quick-cut cop drama on present-day TV.

“But better written,” said Abraham dryly. “There are lines he stole from ‘King Lear,’ from ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ from ‘Richard III.’ ” Dramatic thievery seems to have been as common in those days as — at least on screen — today.

The twin stagings at the Duke — the Marlowe directed by David Herskovits, the Shakespeare by Darko Tresnjak — are presentations of Theatre for a New Audience, and the idea of pairing them was that of TFNA artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz.

Abraham had never been in either play before. “When I was working for Joe Papp,” said the actor who did many and many a show for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival in the old days, “there were two things I asked him to let me do, ‘Merchant’ and ‘Cyrano,’ and Joe said no. Although he had to let George C. Scott do ‘Merchant,’ he hated that play.”

Abraham leaned in to whisper: “I never saw one Shylock I liked.”

I saw one, I said: Boris Tumarin’s, Off-Off Broadway back in the ’50s or ’60s, Shylock as a proud, icy, intelligent Jew, threading his way disdainfully (as I would later write in these pages) “through a mob of boorish, bullying, profligate, uneducated, murderous Yahoos.”

Abraham, who didn’t reach New York until 1965, didn’t see that show, but he did work with Tumarin — “a quiet, austere, compassionate, big-hearted man” — in “The Man in the Glass Booth,” Robert Shaw’s 1968 Broadway drama about Adolf Eichmann.

F. Murray Abraham’s full name — which could be taken as Jewish, except that he’s half Italian-American (his mother), and half Syrian-American (his father) — is Fahrid Murray Abraham. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 24, 1939, but raised in El Paso, Texas.

“My people are coal miners and steel workers. My mom was one of 14 kids. My father came on the boat from Syria. Can you imagine people coming over to this country, not even speaking the language?  Can you imagine the balls of that?”

He himself has been, early on, a target of anti-Semitism — “people making anti-Jewish remarks. Then as soon as I gave my background, they’d start to make anti-Arab jokes.”  Pause. “It’s okay to talk about Arabs derisively now. People say awful things.” Pause. “Both of my Arab-American brothers were killed defending this country — Robert in boot camp, Jack in Vietnam.” One more pause. “The two Kennedys’ names. That never occurred to me before.”

When Abraham got out of high school in El Paso in or around 1960, he lit out, by thumb — “You could do that in those days” — to seek his fortune in films in California.

“A friend said: ‘Look this woman up,’ and I did, and she was Kate Harran [Irish, what else?], and we’ve been together 46 years.” They’re also now the grandparents of 4-year-old Stella, “which makes a difference in everything.”

When he got tired of hearing the California actors, in their inferiority complex, complaining about “New York actors,” he decided to try to become a New York actor himself, Here, he studied under Uta Hagen, waitered, and did commercials — “lots of commercials.” You could learn your craft doing commercials. He took along a tape recorder to auditions — “four, five, six a day” — so he could later hear what he was doing. And like everyone else breaking into the business, he put in almost a year in “The Fantasticks” on Sullivan Street.

He and Kate were living at the time on West 98th Street in 3 rooms — “with a kitchen that seated eight” — for $150 a month. “When the kids came, we moved to Brooklyn.” The Abrahams now have an apartment on Lower Fifth Avenue.

He broke into films with a small part in “Serpico” in 1973, and has never stopped since. (Pacino would draft him into the brilliant “Looking for Richard” — Richard III, that is — in 1996.) “Richard Dreyfus helped me get into ‘The Big Fix’ [1978]. I played [a character based on] Abbie Hoffman. Know who was the first choice for the role? Abbie Hoffman.”

In 1983 Abraham heard that Milos Forman was looking for someone for the role of the Mozart-hating, Mozart-loving Antonio Salerio in the movie version of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.” It was a period when Abraham was pretty sore at British actors coming here to grab roles from Americans.

“You know the old joke: What’s the difference between a good actor and a great actor? A British accent.”

So when invited to audition for Forman, he said the hell with it — “I’m not going to stand up in support of somebody else.” He got another call, and didn’t move. Then another. Then Foreman himself telephoned and said: “There’s going to be a reading at my apartment. Please come.”

Abraham had never been in any production of “Amadeus,” stage or screen. The role of Salerio is a double one — in youth and in old age. Abraham had locked himself in with a tape recorder in one room of their seven-room Brooklyn apartment to work on the voice of Salerno old.

“I came in on the subway from Brooklyn. I didn’t get too excited. I was 40, 41 years old. I was feeling, oh, not good, but okay. I did Salerio young. Then Milos said: ‘Now play the old man,’ so I did that.”

And two years later, in 1985, he would win the Oscar for Best Performance by a Leading Actor as Salerio in “Amadeus.”

“It was very romantic. It was a mitzvah.”

That’s a word Barabas and Shylock would understand. And guess what? The Brits will be seeing F. Murray Abraham in those roles shortly after the close in New York.


THE JEW OF MALTA, by Christopher Marlowe, and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, by William Shakespeare, both starring F. Murray Abraham, now in previews for a February 4 opening of both dramas, at the Duke Theatre, 229 West 42nd Street, (212) 239-6200, through March 11.


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