Stages

Interview: Larry Neumann Jr. Talks About Beckett, About His Acting Career and Growing Up on the South Side

Larry Neumann Jr. is known as one of Chicago’s finest character actors. I have seen him in a wide variety of roles in the 30-plus years I’ve been a Chicago theatergoer and critic. I remember Larry playing Branch Rickey in a play about Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers; architectural photographer and preservationist  Richard Nickel; a puppetmaster and Holocaust survivor; and the cabdriver in Hellcab, a Chicago classic. I know Larry from the days we worked together at Famous Door Theatre, where I was a member of the board of directors. Larry is now going to play one of the leading roles in a new production of Waiting for Godot. We met at a coffee shop on Irving Park Road near his rehearsal location. It was fun to get reacquainted with Larry and talk about this new role and his career.

Larry, I have vivid memories of you in many plays but my favorite was probably the Famous Door production of Cider House Rules in 2003. There was a film version of Cider House Rules, with Michael Caine playing Dr. Larch. But there weren’t dozens of productions or dozens of Dr. Larches. That’s quite different from your next role, playing Vladimir or Didi in Waiting for Godot. There have been hundreds of productions of that play, many featuring some of the most famous actors in the world.

How do you create a role like that? Do you study those other performances—or do you avoid all those other Didis?

We have seen a little of these other productions. What’s been fascinating is that there are actors in India, actors in China who also have played that role. You can find little snippets of those on the internet and you can just look at them in those different languages. That’s interesting. And we just had a new actor join the cast as Pozzo—Steve Pickering. And just bringing that new voice in affected me and Mike Saad who’s playing Gogo (Estragon). Just the change in the timber of the piece and his voice, you know, just the blend of the voices. This is a role. I mean, my goodness, any actor I think wants to do this role or wants to do Beckett, you know? Yeah. Didi and Gogo.

Neumann as Dr. Larch,.right, in Cider House Rules.

And on the other hand, Lucky is a little gem of a role too. Pozzo’s servant.

Oh yes. Lucky, Pozzo’s servant who’s deaf and dumb pretty much throughout the play, but then has that one magnificent scene. It’s a three-page monologue of absurdity. Just amazing.

Beckett is one of my favorite writers. So I was excited for the opportunity, when Dennis (director Dennis Zacek) called me and said, I could use you, can you do this? I said, of course. Why wouldn’t I want to do this role? And it’s great. So I guess I can cross that off the bucket list.

I have a question about the pronunciation of the title—it’s controversial. Some people pronounce it the European way with the accent on the first syllable—GODoh—and some use the American pronunciation.

Yeah, we’re using the American pronunciation, GooDOH.

Your director, Dennis Zacek, is a legend in Chicago theater. Is he doing anything that will surprise us with this production? I know Beckett’s estate restricts any changes in the script.

I think what Dennis is focusing on with us is the listening. Even though some of the sequences are absurd, it’s a matter of trying to find the truth. It’s that simple. Find the truth in the words and use the words. Because if you follow the words and the little punctuation bits and the ahs and the pauses and all of that, you’ll get the sense of the play. You know, there’s no need to add bells and whistles to Beckett.

Godot has kind of a gloomy magic. That’s how one writer described it. But if someone asked me what it was about, I might be a smart ass and say it’s like Seinfeld, it’s about nothing. But it isn’t, is it?

My sister-in-law asked me last night, well, what’s the play about? And it took me a moment. It’s about waiting. And it’s about doing, you know, either wait, wait, wait, wait. Or you actually take hold of your life and get on with it. The will to keep moving. No matter what happens, no matter where you are in your life, you gotta keep going on.

Neumann as the driver in Hellcab.

I’d like to talk about your career. You’ve been acting in Chicago theater for about 35 years, I guess, right? On your website you have a page about what critics have written about you over the years. That’s an amazing collection of roles that you’ve played, starting back in the ‘80s.

Playing Artaud (Antonin Artoud in Artaud at Rodez, by Charles Marowitz) was the first kind of breakout thing that I did. That was when me and a few friends from college (at Illinois Wesleyan) started Blind Parrot Theatre and focused on absurdist plays. And then after that, I was sort of free for a bit and then worked with Famous Door for about 10 years until it folded in about 2005. That was the last company I was with and I sort of miss being part of an ensemble.

But I’ve been very blessed, I’ve worked almost every house in Chicago. I think there’s a few exceptions, but I worked with Bob Falls over at Goodman in a number of productions. And I’ve been able to do Chekhov, I’ve done O’Neill and now I get to say I’ve done Beckett. And I’d love to do more Beckett because now I’m finally the right age. Most of Beckett isn’t for 20-year-old college students.

You mentioned that Dennis Zacek called you and asked you to do this. Do you have to audition for roles very much any more? Or do directors say this is a Larry Neumann part. Let’s get him.

Yeah, that happens. We’d like to see Larry come in and give us a turn. That’s pretty much how it is.

Neumann as Ted Kazinsky in Celebrity Row.

So back in the early days, did you have some horrible audition experiences?

The nightmare auditions were mostly related to TV. I was always very confident, but for TV, it’s that you come in and it’s like this is what we want for the scene and you do it. It sounds bad, but there’s no working with the actor.. There’s more time when you’re on a feature film. There’ll be more time to work on a rehearsal process. But for the most part, anything smaller, like if you have a guest part on a television show, you’re there to support the main people. You’re there to be a character that advances the plot. You’re the homeless guy, you know, or the drunk. That’s what you specialize in.

Do you remember what your first professional role was?

I guess it was with Blind Parrot. But we weren’t paid, it certainly was not an Equity production. And this production (of Godot) sort of hearkens back to that a little bit really because it’s a short process. Three weeks of rehearsal, then tech rehearsal, then preview. So next week is tech.

I’ve seen Waiting for Godot, I don’t know how many times. I saw a production in a church basement where the setting was the Mexican border. And that excellent Irish production that was at Chicago Shakespeare last year. And the Court Theatre production a few years ago with Allen Gilmore and Alfred Wilson. Did Gilmore play Didi?

He played Didi. He’s going to come and see me. That whole cast was great.

How long did it take you to get your Equity card?

I got an Equity card first for stage managing down in Park Forest (at the Illinois Theatre Center). And then when we started Blind Parrot, I had to withdraw from the union because at that point we couldn’t afford to pay actors. I finally got the card back when I did The Skin of Our Teeth at the old Goodman Theatre behind the Art Institute—that was my first union production. I was the rear end of the woolly mammoth.

Thinking again about Cider House Rules. There were some days when you did both parts—six hours of performance.

We were at the old Victory Gardens, what is now the Greenhouse. The audience could go have a bite to eat at John Barleycorn. And then we’d come back and do part two. I think we did that on Saturdays and Sundays.

That has to be physically exhausting. How do you do that?

You learn how to conserve your energy, you know, so that you had to keep in your head. I’m doing both parts today. But at the same time, the beauty of that show was when we did both shows in the same day, the audience was really involved in the story. It was a beautiful way to see it. And nobody felt exhausted. It was well received and everybody I think loved doing that. We won six Jeff awards for that. I know I got one.

Is Waiting for Godot going to be exhausting?

We’re got about an hour in the first act and about 45ish for the second, so it runs two hours with the 15 minute intermission. It’s a five-week run, I think, and by the end of the run, we’re exhausted. By the end of the ride. End of the play.

It will be different once we’re in performance mode because now, you know, we start the day really early. I’m not a morning person. We’re starting about 10 o’clock and rehearsing four or five hours. And then my character doesn’t ever sit down. Gogo sits down to get his boots off or on. But Didi, never. He’s the one with the urinary problems.

Well, who carries the vegetables in his pocket? Didi or Gogo?

That would be me—Didi. He has both carrots and turnips. Godot is sometimes funny. There are a lot of vaudeville bits.

Alfred Wilson and Allen Gilmore in Court Theatre’s Waiting for Godot.

Did you have a life before theater in between college and when you started that theater?

There were two years I was helping my dad out with the hot dog stand. Jay’s Where Beef Is King—that was at 9400 South Commercial underneath the Skyway. So I was doing that and then I saw this opportunity to go to Park Forest and work for the Illinois Theatre Center. They needed a stage manager. So I went in and started working there.

After that some younger friends who had graduated by then told me, Hey, we’re starting a theater company. You have to be part of it. That was Blind Parrot. That was when I finally transitioned from the South side to the North side. Now I’m back on the South side again, living in South Shore.

What neighborhood did you grow up in?

I grew up in what they called the East side, around 101st and L street. it’s the area where they ran out of street names, so they use the alphabet. So we grew up on L. We were like right on the lake, south of the mills, the steel mills were right around there. So I had three or four uncles who all worked in the mills. And my dad was the renegade. He started off as a truck driver, then he became a hairdresser. He opened up his own beauty shop called Glamorific. And then he sold insurance for Metropolitan Life and then he went into the beef and hotdog stand. And then he was a meat inspector for the state. The one thing he always told me, and I bless him for it, was he said, if you’re not doing what you want to do, don’t do it.

What did he think of what you did?

Oh, he thought that was ridiculous. I said, but dad, I’m doing what I want to do. He said, but how are you going to live? I’ll live, I said. I’ll be fine.

Do your parents and family come to see your shows?

They do come and see the shows, usually the extended family. My parents are frail. But yeah, my sister and probably my other brother will come and see the show and they’ll bring them with them and make a day of it, you know? Sometimes my aunts, cousins, nephews, people like that. It’s great to have all that support, you know. It’s love. It is.

Do you see a lot of theater, other than what you’re working on?

I try, you know when I’m not working. You have to keep yourself open to what’s going on, you know, it’s your life.

Do you have any heroes in theater, actors, directors, playwrights that you particularly admire?

I would certainly say Bob Falls (artistic director at Goodman Theatre). Oh, I would say Dennis Zacek. A good friend, Gary Zabinski. I went to school with him. He’s involved in theater now, writing, blogging, stuff like that. But he was a mentor as well and then a partner at Blind Parrot. And he kept me going quite awhile.

In film, I was always drawn to (Robert) DeNiro’s work  because that was when I was growing up and being a young actor. Yeah, he’s still great.

Is there any playwright you’d particularly like to do?

I’d like to do more Beckett. I’d like to do more Beckett and there’s more out there. Steve (Pickering) and I were joking about how we would be good for Endgame. We would be Hamm and Clov. Remember, Hamm is blind and Clov is his servant, pushes his chair around. Steve would be Hamm and I would be Clov. So I just planted the seed for some director to do this.

Neumann as Finkelbaum in The Puppetmaster of Lodz.

Is there some particular role that’s made a mark on you, that’s changed you in some way?

Probably there are a few. The Puppetmaster of Lodz. It was at Writers Theatre when it was behind the bookstore in Glencoe. Years ago. And it’s such an intimate theater, you know, I don’t know how many seats, 40, 60, whatever. And it was perfect for that play.

The audience has to be with you there. It’s the empathy that builds up for that character and his struggle. it’s what I try to focus on—the empathy and the love that keeps people going. That’s what drives us. The puppetmaster—Finkelbaum—was a Holocaust survivor, basically holes himself up in a garret and creates a puppet of his wife. And there were a couple sizes of puppets. There was one that was close to life size. She was made out of wire and cloth and she was about this high (measures). Then there was a tiny one. And he tried, he was reenacting their life.

So a classic question for a veteran actor. If an acting student asked you for advice, what would you say you wished you had known before you started this acting stuff that you have dedicated your life to?

Don’t. Don’t do it. And I don’t know if it’s generational or maybe because it’s who I am. You can’t get this mindset of, okay, I’m going to get my union card and then I’m going to head out to LA and get a TV thing and boom, there I go. That’s my career. But sometimes they come back.

Maybe you can say that I took a safer route and didn’t go out there, but for me it was always the sense of community here. I mean, it’s what Chicago theater is. We’re a big community. A tribe. Really. For me part of what keeps me going is being able to work with this group or that director. This is the first time Steve and I have worked together as actors. He has a Sherlock Holmes piece that he wrote and he cast me in that. So I’ve worked with him as director, but this is the first time we get to share the stage. I mean that’s the thing about theater, you know, you meet new people, you meet someone that you haven’t seen in 10 years and then it’s pumped.

This is a question that theater people don’t agree on. Do you read reviews? Some actors say they never read reviews, or they don’t read reviews of their own work.

No, I read them. And when I was young, yeah, I would go out in the middle of the night when the reviews came out in the papers. I used to do that. Well I think it was basically what I was used to—I did speech competition in high school, you know. So you were always being judged and you got a score. So there was always that in the back of my head, I want to see what they say. What’s the review? What bothered them.

Do you ever take note of what a reviewer says?

I read it and that’s it. I’ve read it. No, but I will analyze, I will see what they got from the show, what they thought of my performance. And then of course now being old and jaded, I’ll have my opinions of the critics as well and what their work is like. And then you have the audience’s reaction too, but then the critic hopefully, is more familiar with the material. And that’s important, you know?

Is there a difference to you being in a small theater like this (the upstairs theater at Victory Gardens where Godot will be staged) as opposed to being on a big proscenium theater stage?

Oh, certainly. Certainly you feel more connection with the audience, I think. And that’s how Chicago grew up, with the smaller storefront theaters. I still like those houses. And then you have the bigger houses, of course. But I think the design of the bigger houses that have been built in the last couple of decades have tried to break that barrier and connect with the audience. So that’s a cool thing. That’s an evolution of how we look at the space.

Is there a role you always wanted to play that you’ve never been asked to play? Do you ever want to play Macbeth or Hamlet?

It was this one until now–Godot. I’m too old for Hamlet and Macbeth now. So this is a good role, now that I just turned 60—I’m starting my sixties, playing Beckett, that’s good.

Sort of philosophically thinking, what has acting taught you about yourself or about human nature?

We’re all capable of anything, of being anything. I think we all have a seed within us of pure good and pure evil. I think it’s a matter of where you focus your life and of course your circumstances. But I think every man is Everyman.

So is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you’d like to comment on?

This little soapbox is my chance? Just keep doing it, you know and be sure it’s true. Someone said, I remember, it just flashed in my head about someone, I won’t say who, an artist said we need to do this because this is what we do and we don’t care about the audience. And I was so adamant against that kind of thinking. It’s anathema to me—because it’s for the audience, for making that connection. You know, you could do your play with no audience and what is the purpose?

Well, thank you, Larry. This has been great and I appreciate your taking time to talk to us.

It’s been fun for me too. Thanks.

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot opens Sunday, November 17, in the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens Theater. Previews begin Friday, November 15. Ticket information is here.

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