In a backstage lounge at McCarter after actor BD Wong has completed rehearsal for the day, he regales me with stories of outings with his father, performing in “Guys and Dolls” in high school in his native San Francisco, and recent fun in Princeton with his eight-year-old son, Jackson. A natural storyteller, it isn’t a surprise that he is drawn to the play “Herringbone,” a one person, 11-character musical that he is performing at the McCarter’s Berlind Theater through October 12.
This is the third time that Wong has worked with “Herringbone” (book by Tom Cone, music by Skip Kennon, lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh.) He says he is very pleased to have the support of McCarter so that he can more fully realize the potential he sees in this one-man tour de force. He first saw the musical in 1982 at Playwrights Horizons in New York; he had just arrived in the city from California and was volunteering as an usher so he could see New York theater for free. He was intrigued by the play’s unusual exploration of a performer’s life and the pressures and influences that bedevil the central character in the musical. The fact that one actor played many parts didn’t phase him at all as he had been involved in forensics (a type of speech and debate interscholastic competition) in high school where giving voice to lots of different characters had been his forte.
The play also deals with themes that touched him. As a beginning actor, he was investigating his craft and beginning a phase of self-teaching. With shifting identities, the actor must look at himself and put the pieces together to find his own personal essence.
Wong began his New York career with an amazing Broadway debut as the mysterious geisha in the 1988 hit play “M Butterfly” by Henry David Hwang, performing opposite Princeton’s “native son,” John Lithgow (not born in Princeton, he lived here during his high school years and graduated from Princeton High School.) This was the time when Wong changed his billing to the non-gender-specific BD from his birth name of Bradley Darryl. “M Butterfly” is based on a true story about a French diplomat who carried on a 20-year affair with a Chinese actor and opera singer, not realizing that his partner was in fact a man masquerading as a woman. BD played the lover with a really big secret and astounded audiences and critics with the mystery and subtlety of his performance. He received a record outpouring of awards: the Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Clarence Derwent Award, and Theatre World Award.
When Wong’s agent asked what he’d like to do after his amazing success in “M Butterfly” on Broadway, he remembered “Herringbone.” The dream of the project began developing. A few years back, he did a brief workshop of the play in Philadelphia. Then summer before last, he connected with Roger Rees, then artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, who directed a small-scale production there. Rees is still on board, directing this full production at McCarter. (Rees is perhaps best known for his role in “Nicholas Nickleby” and played Dr. Colin Marlow in three 2007 episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy.”)
From his first forays with the project, Wong says he felt “this is something I can do, but it’s a challenge. I set the bar high for myself. It’s more fun to do something challenging.”
“Herringbone” is set both in the present day and also during the Great Depression. Supernatural elements and mystery are woven into the journey of the story about an eight-year-old youngster named Herringbone who is possessed by an old vaudeville star and suddenly shows this terrific talent for tap dancing. It seems that the old guy had been murdered. And who did it? And what is he doing infiltrating this youngster? Meanwhile, Herringbone’s dad thinks he’s hit the jackpot with his talented son. Wong also plays the father, the mother, in fact a total of 11 different characters.
The storyteller morphs into the various characters who explain and examine how did this and that happen and allows the narrator to puzzle out and work to integrate the pieces of himself as well as solve the mystery.
Most of us, including Wong, can certainly identify with the child who is prodded by his parents to be this or that. Doesn’t that just go with the territory of being a “caring parent?” Wong remembers being hustled off to a sports camp by his parents. His father, who recently died, was first a letter carrier and retired after around 30 years as a customer service supervisor for the USPS, and his mother is a retired telephone company personnel supervisor, she worked for Pacific Bell for almost 30 years. He says his parents hoped that sports would make him fit in better in the sports-obsessed American population. It wasn’t to be. “I just didn’t like it,” Wong says. Fortunately, they dropped the sports push and were very supportive of his interest and talents in the theater.
He remembers his dad presenting him with two tickets to the ballet Swan Lake. “I didn’t know what those two pieces of paper were, but I could tell by my father’s face that it was something special.” He thinks he was around six years old at the time and recalls that when the swan took her fatal leap from the cliff, he turned to his father to ask, “Where did she go?” Assured that there was a soft mattress back there to catch the dancer, he then asked, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she bounced right back up?” “We couldn’t stop laughing,” Wong says of this memory with his dad. Still laughing as they left the theater, a woman noted how much he must have enjoyed the ballet. Though Wong’s father is now deceased, he did live to see his son’s great Broadway success.
Since then Wong has also appeared on Broadway as Linus in the 1999 revival of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” and as the Reciter, the character who frames the play, in the 2004 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.” Of course there was also one colossal flop: something called “Face Value,” a play with music, which closed before it opened — a distinction in itself. Happily, I saw all of his Broadway performances, except the latter, but most of us know Wong for his recurring characters on television: Father Ray Mukada on HBO’s Oz and Dr. George Huang on NBC’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I suggest that both of these characters should inform his performance as Herringbone, but he reminds me, “I played a psychiatrist; I’m not a psychiatrist!” McCarter audiences have also seen him in the 1994 Second Stage Onstage production of “The Nanjing Race” and more recently as host of McCarter’s 2008 Gala Benefit.
Wong’s first steps on stage were in high school. When he auditioned for the school production of “Guys and Dolls,” all of the parts went to upperclassmen. But the director had singled him out at the audition and told him that if he came to all the rehearsals, she’d find something for him to do. “She spotted something in me and that made all of the difference. I went to every rehearsal, and whenever there was a place for a policeman or some other bit, she called me over.” So playing multiple characters goes back a long way for Wong. With her support and encouragement, he went to San Francisco State University to major in theater. But sometimes when early teaching is so rich, the follow up can’t follow up. Disappointed, Wong dropped out of college and went directly to New York. He did a few Off Broadway and showcase performances and from there self-taught himself. “M Butterfly” came very early in his career.
He appeared in a number of prestigious Off Broadway productions, including playing Ariel in a Public Theatre Production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and more recently in the widely-touted, now-disbanded Drama Department 2003 production of “Shanghai Moon,” for which Wong was nominated by the Outer Critics Circle as Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play.
In addition to his TV credits, he has also appeared in a long list of movies, including “Jurassic Park,” “The Freshman,” “Father of the Bride,” “Seven Years in Tibet,” and “Mulan.”
A really important role for Wong in real life is that of dad. “The hardest part is over. Now Jackson’s eight, we have fun together.” He came along to Princeton with his dad for the McCarter company barbeque. Jackson likes Princeton, especially PJ’s Pancake House on Nassau Street. “He’s impressed with the speed of the service and particularly likes that he was given a marker and told to write on the wall. I’ll have to go back and check to see what he wrote,” says Wong.
Would he encourage Jackson to go into the theater? “Only if he wanted to. Right now he is obsessed with the New York subway system,” noting that he carefully draws it with all its red, yellow, and blue lines. “And he knows the names of all of the stations, even the most obscure ones with unusual names, somewhere out in Queens. He knows and can spell them all.”
“Herringbone,” through Sunday, October 12, McCarter Theater at the Berlind, 91 University Place. BD Wong portrays 11 characters in a musical ghost story. $15 to $49. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.