Every year at holiday time, George Street Playhouse has endeavored to give theatergoers an alternative to “A Christmas Carol” or “The Nutcracker.” Last yea, we saw the multiple-award-winning “Doubt.” In 2005 artistic director David Saint was even more direct, giving us the hilarious “Inspecting Carol,” a farce that spoofs “A Christmas Carol.” With this season’s holiday offering, he seems to have covered both bases — fun and profundity: a holiday setting, a message of the strength of community, and the hilarity of a bunch of Irish friends around the poker table in a game that becomes much more, a means to redemption.
“The Seafarer” by Conor McPherson received the 2007 Olivier Award, a prestigious prize for artistic achievement in London theater. It opened on Broadway in December, 2007, and ran through the following March. Receiving nominations for the Tony Award as well as the other major New York prizes, it was edged out by the landslide of “August: Osage County.”
“The Seafarer” play is set on Christmas Eve in Baldoyle, a village on the coast just north of Dublin, and centers around a poker game among pals, who are joined by a mysterious stranger. New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley calls “The Seafarer” “a dark and enthralling Christmas fable of despair and redemption,” and goes on to call it the “thinking person’s alternative to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’” “The Seafarer” offers more laughs, though, and less sappiness.
Playing the role of the outsider is actor/singer Robert Cuccioli. Tall, dark, and handsome, he’s just the person to portray the mysterious man who joins the poker game and raises the stakes. Cuccioli burst upon the New York theater scene in 1997 as both Doctor Jekyll and Edward Hyde and, with his “hair acting” (hair plays a big part of these characters) and rich baritone voice, swept the honors at season end with a Tony nomination and winning “outstanding actor in a musical” from the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk. He also won the FANY Award, also known as the “People’s Choice Awards For the Broadway Theater.” Cuccioli’s fan club, which was started by the Guild at the Paper Mill Playhouse, grew exponentially to thousands of members, called “Jeckies,” who attended performances of “Jekyll and Hyde” over and over.
Cuccioli admits that at first he felt the fan club was “strange, a little difficult to get used to,” he says in a phone interview. But he has come to appreciate them as they are very loyal and come to see his performances all over the United States. “I haven’t had any crazy people or stalkers, they’re just supportive.”
Cuccioli didn’t start out bound for the theater. His mother and father had a slight interest in the arts before they started their family in Hempstead, Long Island. “It’s funny that when we children were born, all their artistic qualities went away. We saw very little of it. They were not big on music or theater or any of the arts. We didn’t even have a record player in the house.” His dad was a civil engineer, a partner in his firm; his mother, a housewife who had worked before her marriage as a draftsperson for Sperry Rand. So there was an artistic gene there, obviously. “She could draw really well,” says Cuccoli. But it didn’t spread in their household; his three sisters were never involved in the arts.
He remembers his parents taking him to New York to see Debbie Reynolds in “Irene.” “That certainly didn’t do anything to inspire me. Where my underlying passion for music and theater comes from, I don’t know.” But as a teenager, he loved rock music and had a band. “And I always enjoyed singing.” He appeared in musicals in community theater when he was in high school and joined an a cappella group in college at St. John’s University, where he also did some theater. But he earned his degree in finance.
‘I never thought of having a career in theater until my senior year of college and by then, I had a degree. So I figured since I’d paid for the darn thing, I’d better use it.” He worked on Wall Street for E.F. Hutton and pursued his acting career on his lunch hours. A friend from his community theater days knew the costume person at the Light Opera of Manhattan and arranged an audition for him. “I had a voice and could always sing even though I wasn’t trained.” (He has subsequently remedied this with professional training.)
This audition got him into the chorus at the no-longer existent opera company, and pretty soon he graduated from the chorus to roles in a long list of operettas, and eventually became their lead baritone and got his Actor’s Equity card. “We did every Gilbert and Sullivan show and I played almost every role.” He was with them for about three years and during the first year and a half, he was on Wall Street during the day and on stage at night. “Talk about ‘Jekyll and Hyde!’ — One life by day; another by night,” he says.
In addition to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, Cuccioli has appeared in New Jersey at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey in Madison, and McCarter Theater in Princeton. Beginning in 1987 with Pontius Pilate in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Paper Mill, he performed in six plays or musicals there, including the role of Jud in “Oklahoma” and Nicky Arnstein in “Funny Girl.”
In 1993 he had his first Broadway role as a replacement for Javert in “Les Miserables.” Then came the gigantic breakthrough with “Jekyll and Hyde.” Unfortunately, his parents did not live to see this huge success. However, they did see him perform as Lancelot in the Richard Harris touring company of “Camelot.” “That was an important stepping stone because they weren’t keen on my leaving Wall Street, and especially not going on the stage.” But Richard Harris was a star they recognized. “Then my career seemed legit and they felt, ‘OK, you can do this.’”
Breaking into performing Shakespeare was another landmark for Cuccioli and for this he credits Bonnie Monte, artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. “She trusted me to do classic theater; I think she knew that my understanding of music would also give me the key to understanding Shakespeare. This certainly opened some doors for me.” His first foray was as Mark Antony in “Antony and Cleopatra” in 2000. This past May he played the role of Salieri in the Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Amadeus” and in 2004 his portrayal of “Macbeth” drew strong reviews — Variety said his performance was “crafted with fire and intelligence.” Playing opposite him as Lady Macbeth was his partner in real life, Laila Robbins. They also appeared together, playing a married couple, in McCarter’s 2003 production of “Fiction” by Steven Dietz.
New York audiences have also seen him in noteworthy Off Broadway venues, including the award-winning “And the World Goes Round” (songs of Kander and Ebb) and more recently a revival of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” which was extended a number of times by popular demand.
Monte also gave him another break when she asked him to direct the Shakespeare Theatre’s 2003 production of “The Glass Menagerie.” When asked if he would like to direct more, he answers with a quick, “Yes, I loved it. It gave me an opportunity to use different aspects of my creativity. With ‘Menagerie’ I was involved with the set design, lighting, casting. I enjoy using all those parts of me.”
In addition to more directorial assignments, he would like more work in television and film. “I would like to widen those doors a bit more. Exploring always appeals to me.” He has appeared in films, including two Woody Allen movies (“Celebrity” and “The Stranger”) and on a few television shows. However, he adds, “I never want to give up the stage because it’s very exciting, very spontaneous, and live on a nightly basis. I love that and the rehearsal process, which you don’t get with film and TV.” Cuccioli says that once, when he asked Woody Allen for a suggestion regarding his performance, Allen told him, “No, just do what you do.”
Up next, Cuccioli will play the Italian lover to actress Jane Alexander’s character in the premiere of “A Moon to Dance By” by Thom Thomas, directed by Alexander’s husband, Ed Sherin, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Sounds like something that could well make its way to Manhattan.
Meanwhile, he’s insinuating his way into the poker game in Baldoyle on stage at George Street. And here’s a clue to the mystery of “The Seafarer” — every time one of the characters sings a bit of a Christmas carol, or a snippet of a noel is heard on the radio, the mysterious stranger gets terrible headaches. This is not your usual holiday warm and fuzzy story.
“The Seafarer,” through Sunday, December 14, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $28 to $66. 732-246-7717or www.gsponline.org.