More than once over the decades, I have found myself faced with the pleasurable dilemma of having to introduce Alvin Epstein to an audience of young people unfamiliar with his work. The dilemma was pleasurable because his career offered so much substance to choose from. Alvin, who died on Dec. 10, 2018, at age 93, was one of our theater’s most astonishing polymaths. He was a Beckettian and a Brechtian, a classical Shakespearean and an avant-gardist, a musical-theater performer with a fine singing voice who was also gifted as a mime. When he directed plays, he did so as an artist who understood acting from deep inside, but with a sensitive understanding of visual imagery and with an electrifying flair for the gestural. He embodied, for me, and I believe for many others, the idea of the theater as a place of infinite possibilities, where every aspect of human life could materialize in the form of a meaningful fiction.
I worked with Alvin, on and off, for so many years, and saw so many of his performances and his productions, that it is almost impossible for me to convey the profusion of his abilities. In my recollection, I can see him dashing about the stage in a physical and vocal frenzy; equally I can see him standing or sitting absolutely still, gazing out at the audience with the weight of a thousand years of sorrow readable on his face. I can see him turn himself into a terrifying mechanized automaton, a relaxed, warmly soothing wise man, or a rueful comic sad sack. Within its limited space, the theater’s imagination has no limits; and in this respect Alvin was the theater, a visitor from the imaginative realm who had paused briefly in our world to teach us how far our imaginations could stretch.
And he accomplished all this with great good humor, great common sense, great charm, and zero pretension. Reading over what I’ve just written, I feel uncomfortably aware of how impatient Alvin would be with all its generalizing. Even abstraction, for him, had to be specific—a thought or action boiled down to its essence. Once, translating a French text for him, I inserted a joke of my own that I thought clever. Alvin did not refuse to speak the line, but he had the character, who is writing an essay and reading aloud as he writes, say the joke, ponder it for an instant, and then carefully scratch it out. Few playwrights have ever had their “darlings” killed so effectively.
Obituaries for prominent actors usually reveal our society’s questionable priorities. Commercial-blockbuster movies and running roles on TV series come first, followed by less notable movies and one-shot TV appearances. Theater experience, if mentioned at all, comes last, in a separate paragraph, with Broadway credits always heading the list. Alvin managed to break this mold, by the simple device of having had a stage career too notable to ignore, in which film and TV appearances played such an insignificant role that they—and not his theater work—appeared as afterthoughts.
In fact, he had one movie credit that, in a differently shaped career, would have been the icon around which the whole obituary might have been built: He voiced the small role of the Bookseller in Disney’s 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast. No doubt there are passionate Disneyites for whom this makes Alvin, at least in a minor way, a cult object. For me, the salient point is that, in all the years of our long friendship, when I saw or talked to him frequently, I never heard him mention it. He was much more interested in discussing—and I in hearing about—his performance in the world premiere of a Sam Shepard play, or as King Lear, or Firs in The Cherry Orchard, or in what turned out to be his last New York appearance: as the émigré stage designer Sergei Soudeikine in the Lincoln Center production of Richard Nelson’s Nikolai and the Others. But of Disney and the Bookseller who befriends Belle, I never heard him speak a word.
The Times obituary got around the absence of commercial hits on Alvin’s résumé by saluting him as a Beckett expert, and it is true that Beckett’s works had a recurring role in his life, particularly Endgame: He played Clov in its American premiere when young, and Nagg (to Elaine Stritch’s Nell) when old; in midlife, he directed a stunning off-Broadway production of the piece, with a somberly beautiful set by Beckett’s painter friend Avigdor Arikha, in which he played an authoritative Hamm to Peter Evans’ wistful yet tart-tongued Clov. There is no doubt that Alvin could find his footing in Beckett’s world, and maneuver his way through Beckett’s knotty language, as few actors have: When I think of Alvin’s voice, the first thing I hear in my mind is his gravelly, sepulchral reading of the opening line of Ohio Impromptu, “Little is left to tell…”
But a great deal is left to tell. Alvin never met Beckett (they did have some phone conversations when he was preparing the Endgame production), and I think he probably viewed Beckett simply as a necessary part of a contemporary actor’s toolkit, like Brecht or Shakespeare, or knowing how to handle a song. What, after all, was Beckett to the actor who had started his career with the one-two punch of posing in tableaux vivants to introduce Marcel Marceau’s sketches and then playing the Fool to Orson Welles’ King Lear?. In the early 1950s, after studying at Etienne Decroux’s Ecole de Mime (where he and Marceau were classmates), he acted in repertory with Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater, learning Hebrew as he went. And somewhere in that magical 1950s New York era came what he regarded as his most sublime theater experience: speaking the narration provided by W.H. Auden for the New York Pro Musica’s staging, in various churches around Manhattan, of the medieval Play of Daniel, with countertenor Russell Oberlin singing the title role. Unquestionably Beckett was fine, fresh, and exciting—imagine sharing the stage with Bert Lahr as you gave Broadway its first taste of Waiting for Godot—but in the larger context Beckett was only one part, however significant, of the vast panorama that is the theater.
On that panorama, Alvin ranged more easily than any actor or director I have ever encountered, with the exception of Jean-Louis Barrault, who was a friend and role model to him (and a prior mime student of Decroux’s). Like Barrault—who had declared that Offenbach and Feydeau were as necessary to his company’s artistic development as Racine, Beaumarchais, Beckett, and Genet—Alvin had no hesitation about tackling the frilly and frivolous alongside the somber and tragic. On his Broadway résumé, King Lear and Waiting for Godot are followed closely by From A to Z, a musical revue that starred Hermione Gingold (Woody Allen provided some of the sketches), and Richard Rodgers’ No Strings, in which Alvin played a Paris fashion photographer and shared a musical number with the dancer Noelle Adam. After which, by the logic of the panorama, he played Trotsky to Peter Falk’s Stalin in Paddy Chayefsky’s flamboyant meditation on the Russian Revolution, The Passion of Josef D.
That, of course, was only the Broadway tip of the theatrical iceberg. Sandwiched in between those forays were the equally wide-ranging off-Broadway shows: Endgame; Marcel Aymé’s farcical Clerambard (with Claude Dauphin and Tammy Grimes); Oberon in a dark, surreal Midsummer Night’s Dream (with Gloria Foster as Titania); and the Sergeant in the Bolcom-Weinstein “opera for actors,” Dynamite Tonite!
It was on Dynamite Tonite!, initially produced at the Yale Rep, that our paths first crossed, though I had seen Alvin onstage in several Broadway productions. I was one of librettist Arnold Weinstein’s playwriting students at the time, and found myself working as his gofer on the production. At Yale, the cast was also graced by Linda Lavin, George Gaynes, William Redfield, and Gene Troobnick, but it was Alvin of whom I was in awe—a condition that has never wholly abated.
Dynamite Tonite! is a deliciously odd work—a sung-through, slapstick operetta set in the trenches of an Absurdist-cartoon World War I. Alvin’s role, that of a gentle-souled Sergeant, featured one huge aria, in which he described the church he has helped to build, and the enemy’s destruction of it, ending in a frenzy of despair and exhaustion. (“Oh, they bombed the church/ Though they love You too/ Hello God, remember us?/ Remember the fuss we made over You?”) The combination of Alvin’s mime-trained physicality with his musical sensitivity and the easy precision with which he caught each of the aria’s rapidly changing emotions made his performance an object of wonder to me; I can’t remember how many times I stood at the back of the house, watching it, rapt. I wasn’t surprised when, after the show’s off-Broadway move, his performance won him an Obie Award. (I had no idea then that within a decade, I would become a Voice staffer and an Obie judge.)
The combination of frenzy, ease, and precision with which Alvin could apply his top-speed body English made him a magnificent comic performer. Recalling how he moved onstage links him in my memory to the grotesque, extreme characters in Nikolai Gogol’s comedies (Khlestakov in The Government Inspector at Yale Rep, the meddling Kotchkaryov in Anatoly Efros’ dazzling production of Marriage at the Guthrie). And immediately I think of frenzy’s antithesis, the haunting stillness Alvin could create, as Shakespeare in Edward Bond’s Bingo, or as Kirilov in Andrzej Wajda’s unforgettable production of Dostoyevsky’s Possessed, sitting and waiting for the appointed time of his suicide, a giant brass pocket watch held beside his head as he stared out front, unseeing. At the Atlantic Theater Company, when Alvin played the old servant Firs, abandoned in the closed-up house at the end of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, they cut the lengthy, fragmented monologue with which the character closes the play. I asked Tom Donaghy, the adaptor, what motivated that decision. “We felt we didn’t need words,” he said. “We had Alvin.”
I have gone well over my word count here without even starting to discuss Alvin’s brilliance as a director—of Shakespeare and of Brecht particularly. (I never had the good luck to work with him on a Beckett production.) He always seemed to charge his casts with a special fervor, an excitement that sustained itself whether the work was high comedy or stark drama. The process of collaboration with him was exhilarating and demanding; as in his acting, he was willing to listen and weigh other people’s notions before choosing what was most meaningful to him. I remember that during our rehearsals for Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, he described to me a startling image he proposed for the climactic moment when Jimmy, the hero, is executed. The next number is the somber parable “God in Mahagonny,” and Alvin wanted to let our Jimmy dangle from the gallows on which he had ostensibly been hanged all through its several stanzas. I immediately objected, and spent at least an hour explaining to him everything that was wrong with the idea, including its impracticality, its possible danger to our lead actor, and its breach of the production’s aesthetic premises. He listened gravely, and thought for a long while before saying, “That may all be true. But I can see a way to make it work, and the more you object, the more I can see how valid it is. So I’m going to do it. If you turn out to be right, we can change it.” I was wrong, of course. The image, shocking and disturbing, turned out to be the show’s capstone; the actor went with it enthusiastically; and I doubt that anyone who saw it has ever forgotten it.
That was, one might say, an ordinary day in Alvin’s work life. Collaborating with him made you accustomed to miracles, and challenged you to create a few of your own. He was the first to go with any genuine inspiration that someone else brought, and the first to toss away an idea, even one of his own, that lacked the inspiring quality.
Alvin’s inventions rarely suffered that lack. I remember a moment—one of many—in his staging of Camus’ Caligula, with the young Chris Walken riveting in the title role. An elderly senator has come to plead with Caligula to stop his senseless slaughter of patricians. In Alvin’s staging, when the man enters, Caligula is busy painting his toenails. He motions the senator to sit on the floor next to him, and as they converse, Caligula swings his legs onto the man’s lap, continues applying paint, and finally, as the senator reaches the climax of his plea, Caligula picks the tiny wooden paint dish off the floor and rests it on the elder man’s bald head. The chilling gap between absolutism and its victims has never, in my theatergoing experience, been more perfectly rendered. My sadness at Alvin’s passing is tempered by my knowledge that he left a thousand such moments stored in mine and others’ memories. Our sense of loss is the greater because we know how very lucky we have been.