Theatre yesterday and today



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This year marks the 40th anniversary of when I got my Equity Card; the official start of my career as a professional actor. The production I was cast in that got me that card was the world premiere of a play called The Buddy System, by Jonathan Feldman, at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (it was about young counsellors at a boys' summer camp). I remember the entire experience like it was yesterday, and among the eight-person cast are friends with whom I've kept in touch all these years. Two of them, David Garrison and David Wohl, I've been particularly close to, and whose careers I have followed joyously, whether it be film, TV or on the stage.

And out of sheer coincidence, I got to see the two Davids over the past few days in two very different shows. Garrison was prominently featured in the three-day run of Stephen Schwartz (and company's) Working, the first of three City Center musicals being revived this summer in their annual "Encores! Off-Center" series. And Wohl has a leading role in Robert Ackerman's new play Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, now playing through July 6th at the A.R.T. New York Theatre on West 53rd Street. Seeing these old friends deliver the goods in individually, beautifully modulated performances left me kvelling—the Yiddish word which translates best as "bursting with pride."

David Garrison (left) and David Wohl (right).

In 1978, David Garrison made his Broadway debut in A History of the American Film, by Christopher Durang (also his Broadway debut). In addition to Garrison, it boasted the likes of such future theatre veterans as Maureen Anderman, Walter Bobbie, Swoosie Kurtz and Brent Spiner, yet sadly played just twenty-one performances. But it was with his next show, two years later, that Garrison scored big-time. It was the musical A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, and for his performance as “Samovar the Lawyer,” he brought the one and only Groucho hysterically back to life in the Marx Brothers spoof which marked its second act, and for which he was nominated for a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Over the years, he has also appeared in such Broadway fare as Titanic, creating the role of the ship's builder Bruce Ismay, and most recently in John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally's The Visit, which starred Chita Rivera. There was also a detour to Hollywood in the 1980s, where he starred opposite a young Jason Bateman in the sitcom It's Your Move. A few years later, when the writers of that short-lived show had a new one ready to go, they recruited Garrison, which is how he came to play Steve Rhodes for four seasons on the long-running Married With Children.

David Garrison as Serge B. Samovar in A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (1980).

The bulk of David Wohl's career has been in film, television, regional theatre and Off-Broadway, though the four Broadway shows in which he has appeared have all been choice. His first was 2002's well-received Roundabout Theatre revival of Arthur Miller's The Man With All the Luck, which originally only ran but four performances back in 1944. Wohl then played Lazar Wolf in the 2004 Fiddler on the Roof that starred Alfred Molina, as well as roles in the Lincoln Center Theatre Company productions of George S. Kaufman & Edna Ferber's Dinner at Eight and Clifford Odets' Golden Boy.

David Wohl (r.) with Jonathan Crombie in Freud’s Last Session, Pittsburgh Public Theatre (2012).

As those four shows were all revivals, it is nice that Wohl is creating a part in Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson. With a title like that, it would be easy to think it's some sort of metaphor, but it's literal. Ackerman worked on commercial shoots for many years and this comedy is loosely based on an actual AT&T spot where gumballs were dropped on Luke Wilson. I know it sounds silly, but as the commercial's director, the Academy Award documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line) Wohl is deadly serious and deadly funny. His inspired performance as Morris ranks high up there with other famed megalomaniacs portrayed on film or on stage. And I'm not saying this because he's my friend. Laura Collins-Hughes in the New York Times agreed, describing his performance as "delicious."

As for David Garrison, in his various roles in Working, it was one that came close to the end of the evening that caught not only mine, but the entire audience's attention. As Joe, a character conceived by the composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia, Garrison took the monologue that darts in and out of the song to new heights. I've seen it done many times before, but never as movingly as Garrison did. And again, I wasn't alone in that appraisal. He received a sustained ovation at the end, and Brian Scott Lipton at called him "absolutely superb."

When I met both Davids, I was twenty-two. They were four and five years older than I was, respectively. And I mean this sincerely: each taught me how to work as a professional in the theatre. Committed as they were to the process, the very green and excitable kid I was needed other cast members to look up to, and both Davids provided that example for me. When that play, The Buddy System, was later produced two years later off-Broadway at the old Circle in the Square Theatre downtown on Bleecker Street, I was fortunate enough to recreate the role I played previously, as was David Wohl, but we lost David Garrison to Broadway, since he was then starring in Day in Hollywood. It's hard to say if The Buddy System would have succeeded if we had him playing the lead character that he did to perfection in Cincinnati, but it sure wouldn't have hurt to have a David Garrison on board. It never does. Nor a David Wohl.

So here's to the two Davids. More than just friends, mentors and colleagues, but two most excellent actors. Catch them acting in something the next time their name pops up in a review, or their faces on your television. Only it'll be hard to catch them acting—because that's how natural their acting is.

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