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Actor plays lawyer in Mamet story tackling race, other hot-button issues

Thursday, January 10, 2013
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Attorney Jack Lawson (J. Anthony Crane) explains the ropes to neophyte associate Susan (Shelley Thomas) in David Mamet’s play “Race” at Capital Repertory Theatre. (photo: Joseph Schuyler)
Attorney Jack Lawson (J. Anthony Crane) explains the ropes to neophyte associate Susan (Shelley Thomas) in David Mamet’s play “Race” at Capital Repertory Theatre. (photo: Joseph Schuyler)

Playing “Scar” in the national touring production of “The Lion King” was great fun, but J. Anthony Crane is ready to get back to some really serious drama.

“It’s quite a different experience theatrically, and quite a different role,” said Crane, who plays Jack Lawson, a white attorney defending a wealthy white executive charged in the rape of a black woman in the Capital Repertory Theatre production of David Mamet’s ‘Race.’ “ After spending some time on a national tour of a musical, it feels good to get back to something a bit more serious, and some new material that you can really dive into headfirst and do some experimenting with.”

‘Race’

WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany

WHEN: In previews Friday through Sunday; opens Tuesday and runs through Feb. 10; performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday; Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m. Jan. 23 and 30

HOW MUCH: $65-$16

MORE INFO: 445-SHOW, www.capitalrep.org

The Capital Rep production, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, will preview Friday through Sunday and officially open on Tuesday. Along with Crane, the cast includes two more New York City-based actors, Shelley Thomas and Wynn Harmon. The other featured role will be played by Albany’s Kevin Craig West.

Related story

For Gazette theater writer Carol King's review of this show, click here.

“At our very first reading I was sure we had a great cast,” said Crane. “There’s a lot to tackle in a play like this, a lot of issues, and we’re going to tackle all of them. I think it’s going to be terrific.”

Enjoys singing

A 1994 graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Crane was in the Capital Region in February of 2011, playing the villainous “Scar” in “The Lion King.” Along with numerous New York City credits, Crane was also part of the Las Vegas “Spamelot” cast in 2007.

“I’ve done a handful of musicals, but I’m usually not the guy who is required to be the strongest singer,” said Crane. “I’ve always enjoyed singing, and when I went to Northwestern I was planning on joining this a cappella group. But then they disbanded, and I was too busy to start my own.”

Crane grew up in Southern California, and while he thought about attending “a conservatory-type school, I ended up going to Northwestern because of that old-fashion Big 10 collegiate atmosphere,” he said. “They also have a very rigorous four-year program there, and they had that a cappella group, which I really would have loved.”

After earning his theater degree, Crane returned to Southern California, where he got plenty of television work. From 1996-97, he played Remy McSwain on the series “The Big Easy,” and he also landed guest spots on shows such as “Touched by an Angel,” “Roseanne,” “Judging Amy,” and most recently “Ugly Betty” in 2009. It was back in 2002, however, that he decided to leave the West Coast and try his luck on the New York stage.

“It was odd for me to be back home where I grew up, so I just wanted to go somewhere else, do something different,” he said. “I thought, creatively, there might be more work in New York for me, so I moved here and I think it was a good change.”

Crane understudied prominent roles on Broadway in both “Sight Unseen” in 2004 with Laura Linney and “Butley” in 2007 with Nathan Lane. Those two gigs, along with performing as Lancelot and others in the Las Vegas production of “Spamelot” are among his career highlights.

“I did most of the roles that John Cleese did, and I got to work with Eric Idle and Mike Nichols,” said Crane. “It was two hours of putting on and taking off costumes and doing funny voices, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. It was a lot of fun.”

‘Thrilling ride’

Crane wouldn’t call performing in a play like “Race” a whole lot of fun, but it is quite gratifying.

“A friend of mine saw ‘Race’ in Chicago and loved it. And while I didn’t get around to seeing it, I loved it when I read it, and it’s one of those plays you have to read twice,” said Crane. “I am drawn toward this kind of stuff, and when I saw the audition notice I just thought I’d take a shot at it. I guess I matched the mental image Maggie had in mind, and we seemed to be on the same page with the character.”

“Race” made its Broadway premiere in November of 2009 with James Spader, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington and Richard Thomas in the four key roles. The story focuses on three lawyers, two black and one white, who team up to defend Charles Strickland, a wealthy white man accused of a sexual assault on a black woman. In the Capital Rep production, Strickland is played by Wynn Harmon. West plays Henry Brown, a black attorney also defending Strickland, while the third member of the defense team is Susan, a young black female attorney new to the firm, played by Thomas.

“A small room, smart articulate characters and explosive subject matter make this a directing challenge and thrilling ride for the actors and audience,” said Mancinelli-Cahill. “Mamet is a masterful wordsmith. He demands attention to every syllable. Actors have to tackle his dialogue as they might poetry, listening for the rhythm.”

For Crane, the primary goal is to remain true to the character that Mamet created.

“There are some very difficult issues in the play, and the idea is to deal with them as the character and not try to let any of your own ideas into it,” said Crane. “If you’re faced with playing a character with prejudice then that’s what you do. You can’t really incorporate your own emotions into the story. I think Mamet is a great writer and he’s trying to stimulate a conversation about race. I think that’s great. We still need to talk about it.”

Points of view

The play, according to Crane, isn’t so much about whether or not the defendant is guilty.

“I think Mamet set it in the theater of the law because the issue of innocence or guilt is almost irrelevant sometimes to the practice of law,” he said. “Your duty is to state your case and tell your story, and through all of that we’re never quite sure of what our biases or prejudices are. I think every point of view out there is equally represented at some time by one of the four characters in this play. It’s a great piece of work by a guy who you can tell really loves the theater.”

While Crane and Thomas are both making their Capital Rep debut, Harmon played Gremio in the 2008 Capital Rep production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” West, who was born in New York City but grew up in Albany, has done more TV and film work in his career, including a role as a baseball player in Kevin Costner’s 1999 film, “For Love of the Game.” He last performed at Capital Rep as the Rev. Sykes in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 2010.

 
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