Thursday, February 19, 2009

Theater feature: Veteran TV, stage actor Converse makes local debut in 'The Weir'

Declan Mooney, left, and Frank Converse in The Weir,
at Palm Beach Dramaworks.

By Hap Erstein

When stage, screen and television star Frank Converse was growing up, actors had two ways to go with their careers.

“I came from a school where we were either going to be Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier,” he says. “Those were the choices in the ‘60s. I went for the latter, I got into a Shakespeare company and worked there for a couple of years,” appearing in such shows as Hamlet, Richard III, Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing.

The result? “Fortunately what that did was get me an agent and work in television.”

Better known for such television series work as Coronet Blue, N.Y. P.D. and Movin’ On than for spouting the Bard, Converse, 70, is now making his West Palm Beach debut in the Palm Beach Dramaworks production of Conor McPherson’s collection of Irish ghost stories, The Weir, which opens Friday.

With his Tony Award-nominated wife Maureen Anderman, Converse has been a part-time South Floridian for the past five years. They bought a condo in West Palm on the advice of his accountant/business manager (“That was when the market was a little better,” he says drily) to be near Anderman’s mother.

And in their exploration of the neighborhood, they noticed Dramaworks’ tiny playhouse on Banyan Boulevard.

“One of the bad jokes I make is that it’s an easy walk from my apartment,” Converse explains. “In the beginning, we kept driving by the theater and we would always laugh and say, ‘Oh, look what they’re doing. We’ve got to go over there.’ And we put it off and then finally said, ‘You know, we’re fools if we don’t go over there. It might be worth it.’ Now maybe people can drive by and laugh at me.”

Frank Converse.

Producing artistic director Bill Hayes was instantly receptive to the idea of having 6-foot-2-inch Converse in a production, initially offering him the father role in Moon for the Misbegotten.

“I said he might have a problem, because that would mean he’d have to have a double-sized Josie,” notes Converse. “She’s supposed to dominate everybody.”

They settled instead on Jack, the gregarious grease monkey and confirmed bachelor in The Weir, even though Converse was not familiar with McPherson’s plays. But a voice from the grave gave him encouragement.

“I watched an interview with Harold Pinter the other night on Charlie Rose. It was more than a year old, from March of ‘07,” recalls Converse. “He asked him about some of the playwrights he liked and (Pinter) mentioned in particular McPherson. I had already made my commitment long before that, but now that Harold Pinter gave him posthumous endorsement, I felt a lot better about it.”

Working on the play has given Converse even more respect for McPherson’s writing skill.

“The general notion at first was that it was just people telling stories. But I’m convinced now after studying the text quite a bit that he’s one of these playwrights who is able to put two different things on the stage. What the people are talking about and everything is not really what’s happening,” he says. “There’s all these connections developing underneath. It’s a little Chekhovian in that way.”

Converse feels comfortable with the character of Jack, even though he is very different from himself. “He’s never been married and I’m in my ultimate marriage, my third. We’ve been very happily married for 27 years, been together 30 years, have two kids,” he reports.

“I think I identify with (Jack) because of his worldliness and his sense of humor. I have that cantankerous, nasty sense of humor, the kind that doesn’t suffer fools. It’s fun to try to create someone like that.”

Do not be surprised if Dramaworks is able to lure Converse back again to be in another production in the future.

“I’ve got to say that I took this kind of as a bet with myself,” he concedes. “It’s very hard to know if it’s going to work, and I’ve been looking at it steadily since the end of October, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to learn the lines.

“And now I find that I’m really hooked.”

THE WEIR, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Feb. 20-April 5. Tickets: $40-$42. Call: (561) 514-4042.

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