Gangsters have an enduring spot in our culture, and as someone who's playing one in Pittsburgh Public Theater's "Born Yesterday," Ted Koch shotguns the perfect analogy for today.
"Gangsters are like vampires," he says.
Shady guys and molls misbehaving are a staple of American stage and screen, and few so enduring as Garson Kanin's Harry Brock and Billie Dawn.
"Born Yesterday" spent 1,600 performances on Broadway in 1946 -- "A Streetcar Named Desire" had half as many the following year, points out Mr. Koch (pronounced "coach"), who has played Stanley Kowalski in a career filled with vibrant characters. The actor also portrayed Happy in the 1999 Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman."
The other Ted in the conference room at the O'Reilly Theater, artistic director Ted Pappas, has long wanted to direct Mr. Koch as Brock, who throws his muscle around and uses his clout to strong-arm politicians and his girlfriend.
"I would have waited if Ted was not available because I wanted to see him play this part," Mr. Pappas says. "The trick was to honor the original without replicating it. We're in a different place artistically now. Even though I love history and classic work, I like to think of these plays as being produced for the first time, and finding a different look and sound and staging technique is part of the fun for me."
"When Ted [Pappas] told me about it, I reread it again and again," Mr. Koch says. "It's such a classic piece of theater. It's kind of unique. Ted talks about the fact that it keeps getting refreshed by comedy, which is really true. It goes along and it gets to this serious point and it has a lot of deep things in it, but it keeps refreshing itself with the comedy, which I think is fascinating."
Those readings led him to look up other classic plays of the day, and that's how he came to the by-the-numbers assessment of the popularity of "Born Yesterday."
"It was a monster," Mr. Pappas adds. "The biggest hit of its time."
And now it opens the 2012-13, American-themed season (playwrights and settings) at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
On a recent rainy day, the set furniture that will transform the O'Reilly stage into a swanky Washington, D.C., suite are being loaded into the theater, and both Teds couldn't be happier to start rehearsing with the real deal. "It's like suddenly marrying someone rich," Mr. Pappas says of watching the stand-in chairs exit and the high-end pieces arrive.
It's a little bit like the class differences that Billie Dawn experiences as she weighs her education and self-esteem against the D.C. crowd and one jaded reporter in particular.
"The play is very much about language, 'wanting to talk good,' class distinctions, people's backgrounds, the formality of Washingtonian as opposed to Jersey," Mr. Pappas says. "One of the lead characters is a journalist, so words matter enormously. They've always mattered to Garson Kanin and his audience. I thought it was a good show for the Public Theater because the audience gets excited about language, whether it be Shakespeare or August Wilson."
In the minds of many, the late actress Judy Holliday became almost interchangeable with the role of Billie Dawn, which she originated on Broadway and film.
Melissa Miller, who has appeared on stages throughout the Northeast and off-Broadway, had been considered for a role here last season, but Mr. Pappas wanted "Born Yesterday" to be her introduction to the Public's audience.
"Melissa Miller is giving a thoroughly original performance in the role," the director said. "It honors the spirit of the original Billie Dawn without conjuring up visions of Judy Holliday,"
With Mr. Koch, Pittsburgh actor Daniel Krell fills out the Big Three as journalist Paul, who opens up the world of literature and possibilities to Billie. They are surrounded by a bustling ensemble that, among other things, represents the hotel world of guests who are spending a lot of dough for the best.
Mr. Koch returns after performing in "God of Carnage" last season and first appearing with the Public in George Abbott's "Broadway" in 2004. The actor portrayed a mobster in that one, too, but Mr. Pappas said he hopes to find more varied roles for the Teds to explore together.
The director touts the actor as being unafraid to open doors to a character that have never been open or appear to be locked.
The actor says he feels at home in Pittsburgh, perhaps because it reminds him of where he grew up in upstate New York. Mr. Koch has built a career on stages from here to Broadway and as a guest actor in a multitude of television series, most recently "Pan Am" and "The Good Wife."
At Pittsburgh Public Theater, where he says every production is "top notch," he's drawn to Mr. Pappas' clarity of vision and drive.
"We both like to work hard and to push into things that are difficult. We don't look for the easy way," Mr. Koch says.
"I'm grateful he considers the Public Theater one of his artistic homes," Mr. Pappas says, seated beside the other Ted. Neither man so much as blushes as they exchange candid compliments, perhaps because they complement each other so well in their work.
"I am endlessly curious about him as an artist, and there are few people in my career I find inspiring in that way," the director says. "I think we both agree on what is wonderful, and once you agree on that, you never want to give it up."theater
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published September 27, 2012 4:00 AM