THEATRE

Kiss of stardom

Canada’s Brent Carver shines on Broadway

June 7 1993
THEATRE

Kiss of stardom

Canada’s Brent Carver shines on Broadway

June 7 1993

Kiss of stardom

Canada’s Brent Carver shines on Broadway

Heading up Eighth Avenue, the cab tacks its way through rush hour in midtown Manhattan. Brent Carver gazes out the window, looking a little anxious, as the traffic congeals around him. Finally, the cab turns onto West 44th Street and pulls up to the curb beside the Broadhurst. It is in the heart of the theatre district, on a crowded strip of garish marquees. In the buttery light of the late-aftemoon sun, the colors of the street seem fresh and vivid with promise. Stepping onto the sidewalk under the billboard for Kiss of the Spider Woman, Carver turns to savor the moment. “Every day I come here,” he says, “I always look around and think, ‘This is where I’m going to work!’ There’s so much going on. Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me is in our alley over there. Tommy is across the street. Lynn Redgrave is playing just over there. It’s exciting.” Broadway is a long way from Cranbrook, B.C., the small town in the Rockies where Carver grew up as one of seven children in a blue-collar family. And the actor has taken an unlikely route to international stardom—playing a fey homosexual who shares a Latin American jail cell with a Marxist revolutionary in a Canadian-produced musical. When Kiss of the Spider Woman first opened in Toronto last summer, the reviews were mixed and the commercial prospects seemed shaky. Now, after receiving a much warmer response in London’s West End last fall, Kiss has scored a resounding triumph in New York.

Carver is the toast of Broadway. At next week’s Tony Awards, where Kiss is up for 11 nominations, he is the favorite to take home the prize for best actor. He has already won a Drama Desk Award. And the press has been rhapsodic. Time said that Carver “far surpasses” William Hurt’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1985 movie version of Kiss. The New Yorker’s Edith Oliver said that it moved her to tears. And The New York Times, calling him “electrifying,” decreed with stonetablet certitude, “Mr. Carver gives a performance of such uncompromising truth that he qualifies, instantly and henceforth, as a star.”

Carver’s ascension to Broadway’s pantheon confirms a talent that has been a source of inspiration in the Canadian theatre community for a long time. The 41year-old classically trained actor has honed his craft in 21 years of profession-

al experience on stages small and large across the country, as well as in various film and TV roles. Veteran Broadway director Harold Prince, who cast him in Kiss, says that “there’s no fluke involved” in Carver’s success, and added: “You’re aware when someone is ready. And he’s as talented as you can be. Even the Americans have been smart enough to know that he didn’t come out of the blue.”

Carver’s friends and former colleagues seem unanimous on one point: if anyone deserves to be a star, he does. Stratford Festival director Robin Phillips, who has worked with Carver in numerous productions, said: “He makes his entire self available to the audience when he’s performing. He allows you to own him, in a sensual way. Watching him, you feel you’re in very strong hands. And behind the quirkiness of many of the characters he plays, there is this extraordinary eloquence and generosity that he expresses towards the other actors and towards the audience. That stature of human being eventually has to be a star.”

Previously based in Toronto, Carver now lives alone in a one-bedroom sublet on a tree-lined street in Greenwich Village. The apartment, like its new tenant, is modest, unpretentious and classical in appearance. Carver has striking features: blue eyes, fine cheekbones and a mane of golden curls, which serve as worry beads for the histrionic Molina, his character in Kiss.

One warm afternoon last week, after attending a New Yorker luncheon to celebrate Broadway’s centenary, the soft-spoken actor sat down for an interview in a corner pub near his place. He chose a window table with a plaque dedicated to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who drank himself to death in 1953. ‘Two years after I was bom,” mused Carver, whose own ancestry is Welsh and Irish. “They say he dropped dead right outside.”

Sipping iced tea, the actor talked about growing up in Cranbrook, the fourth of eight children bom to Lois and Ken Carver (the third drowned in an irrigation ditch at 16 months). Ken drove a logging truck and Lois worked as a clerk at Woolworth’s (both are retired). Brent, whose father played guitar, began singing as a toddler and later found an outlet in the Anglican church choir. A good student, he was his class valedictorian. ‘We never thought he’d become an actor,” said his mother. “We thought he’d be a teacher or a minister.”

Carver with Rivera; at home (opposite): from Cranbrook to the Great White Way

Carver completed three years of a fouryear program in performing arts at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. But then he left to take a job acting in a children’s theatre company. He has never looked back. Moving to Toronto in the mid-1970s, Carver shared a house with comedian Martin Short—who, as a star in The Goodbye Girl, is now competing with him for a Tony. In the 1980s, Carver put in four seasons at Stratford. And his Shakespearean roles have ranged from Hamlet to Ariel (with Anthony Hopkins in a 1979 production of The Tempest in Los Angeles). Carver has also starred in musicals including Cabaret and in the operetta The Pirates of Penzance. On film, meanwhile, he played a Canadian soldier in an adaptation of Timothy Findley’s The Wars (1983), directed by Phillips, and a philanderer in The Shower (1992). On TV, he has appeared in shows ranging from Street Legal to the mini-series Love and Hate (1989).

More recently, Carver starred as a gay wait-

er in the hit play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, a drama of sex and serial murder by Edmonton writer Brad Fraser, “ft was the kind of script that a lot of actors of his reputation wouldn’t have tackled,” said the play’s director, Jim Millan. “But he bravely accepted.” Last year, while Carver was starring in a Toronto production of Tartuffe, he went after another risky part— Molina. Initially, the producers of Kiss, Garth Drabinsky’s Live Entertainment, hired him to serve as an alternate for American actor Richard Thomas. But after Thomas dropped out, Carver took over the lead.

The musical has undergone a major overhaul since its Toronto launch. In fact, says Carver, “It is a different show.” Based on the 1976 novel by Argentine author Manuel Puig, Kiss is a dark but exhilarating fable of redemption set against a hallucinogenic backdrop of dreams and repression. Molina, a gay window-dresser imprisoned on a morals charge, teases his straight cell-mate, Valentin (Anthony Crivello), with fantasies of the silver screen. Molina’s imagination is embodied by

the divine Aurora and the nightmarish Spider Woman, both played with miraculous flair by Chita Rivera, a 60-year-old diva who is still dancing several years after a car accident shattered her left leg.

But the story hinges on Molina’s metamorphosis. Subversive in spite of himself, he finally stops dithering and takes political action. And, at the climax, which is sealed with a tragic kiss, instead of talking about movies, he steps into one. The disheveled prisoner is transformed into a leading man in white tails dancing a brave tango with Death.

Molina’s triumph seems synonymous with the actor’s. As the curtain closes, the audience consummates the connection, and Carver seems to breathe in the tumultuous applause as if it were pure oxygen. After playing Molina about 400 times, he says that the part has not become routine. “I’ve never been able to understand when people talk about going on automatic pilot,” he explained. “I try to accept what’s happening each moment of each performance.” Then he added: “In life you never know what’s going to happen, or how long you’re here for. In the past few years, I’ve been looking more at what spirituality is, and where you can ground yourself.”

Reporting for work at the Broadhurst, Carver signs in at the stage door and heads downstairs to the basement, past the maze of motors and pulleys that move the scenery, to his dressing room. It is spacious. It has a large couch where he often naps before the show. Dried flowers from opening night hang upside down above the mirror. A stack of fan mail lies unopened on the table. Carver, who is a vegetarian, phones a favorite restaurant to send in some miso soup and curried wonton.

Asked his reaction to his critical acclaim, he replied: “It’s a very strange mixture of feelings. I just find it absolutely curious.” Searching for words, which often trail off into sentence fragments, Carver added, “I don’t separate myself—where I am on the earth—as opposed to something out there that people write about.”

America’s proclamation of his stardom, after years of polite respect at home, seems to reinforce a familiar complaint about Canada’s failure to cultivate its own stars. “But maybe when we don’t invest that thing called stardom in other Canadians,” said Carver, “it’s because we don’t invest it in ourselves. We’re hard on ourselves. Which is good to a certain extent, because it’s a standard that we strive for.”

It is 6:30—an hour and a half before curtain. An announcement comes over the theatre’s PA system, “BRENT CARVER, THERE’S CHINESE FOOD BACKSTAGE.” Carver laughs. “I love the way he said that. It’s not really Chinese food. It’s this fancy vegetarian zen palate thing, and he’s talking about it like there’s this pile of steaming rice by the stage door.” Carver keeps laughing, as if deep in the engine rooms of Broadway he has found a way to bring his stardom back down to earth.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON in New York City