Pittsburgh theatergoers have gotten to know Leo Marks as a dynamic presence on stage for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, where his breadth of roles reflects his career on stage and screen.
The well-traveled actor has taken on Hamlet and Billy the Kid, while his guest-starring TV roles run the gamut from "The Practice" to "The New Adventures of Old Christine." Mr. Marks and his talented wife, actress Nike Doukas, reside in Los Angeles but in recent years have made a regular summer stop, where his work in the company's ambitious Chekhov Festival last year earned him a co-Performer of the Year by the Post-Gazette.
This year, we have the acting couple for just one show, "Lady Windermere's Fan." Director Alan Stanford continues his exploration of the works of Oscar Wilde with a notable cast of 17, including Mr. Marks as Lord Windermere and Jodi Gage as the Lady of the title, a couple whose strict moral code is tested when the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne (Ms. Doukas) comes into their lives.
Mr. Marks' career has taken him from California to New York and back again, and included flirtations with paths other than acting. He has been a teacher -- "of math and things the furthest away possible from acting" -- and a behind-the-scenes political strategist.
"I do have a lot of passion in that direction," he says of politics. "A dear friend of mine was running for city council when I first moved from New York back to LA, where I grew up. I went to New York and I was there for the '90s after [graduating from Yale], then I moved back to LA and my friend Eric Garcetti said, 'Will you run my campaign?' And I said, 'Are you completely out of your mind?' But I was cheap and I was available and I learned a lot as I went along. I would like to say that all the aspects of my life dovetail, but I was more on the strategy and data side of things -- again, as far from the acting and theater side as possible."
If the name Garcetti sounds familiar, it's because it's now Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti. Mr. Marks described his work then as crunching numbers, "finding out who were the senior-citizen Armenians in the eastern part of the district we needed to grab."
"I could have gone deeper in that direction," the actor says. "I had offers and I was a paid political blogger for a [then] brand-new outfit called The Courage Campaign, which is a progressive political blog based in LA. I enjoyed that a lot, but it was always with the understanding that the second I got a play, all my focus was going to go back to the play."
His early acting career, when he wasn't making appearances on the soap opera "All My Children" or as a TV guest star, was rooted in experimental theater. He was a member of the New York-based Elevator Repair Service company that became known for the eight-hour marathon production "Gatz."
"We were doing collaboratively generated new work ... we were really out there," he says. "I have sort of taken a journey toward the classical, which I like very much."
In 2009, he played "Hamlet" for Theater 150 in Ojai, Calif. His director, Jessica Kubzansky, told The Santa Barbara Independent, "Leo was born to play Hamlet. He has the intellect, the power, and the passion." In April of this year, he was back in that experimental phase with the world premiere of a Noah Haidle play at South Coast Rep. As Variety described it, "If Thornton Wilder had dropped acid, he might have written 'Smokefall.' "
Mr. Marks' roles for PICT have taken advantage of his range, from the bawdy, outrageous Frank in "The School for Lies" to the cuckolded husband in "Betrayal." His current role "wasn't on my radar, but it's a lovely part," he says.
"Lord Windermere is a genuinely decent man, which is not necessarily the stuff of compelling theater," he says. "But I feel like the question of how to be a good person is at the heart of this play, so playing someone who is sort of naturally good and decent has some juice. Wilde is really surprisingly kind to Windermere. [My character] ultimately is wrong about certain things -- he doesn't get to undergo the same learning process that Lady Windermere does. She comes to understand the complexity of being human and leading a good life, and the sort of ways purity may not be such a perfect ideal after all."
In "Lady Windermere's Fan," the much-admired aristocrat Lord Windermere becomes the subject of gossip concerning the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne, which causes his wife to make some hasty decisions. Mr. Marks says a lesser playwright could have portrayed his character as "a prig," but instead, Wilde seems to have great affection for a man who does what his conscience demands of him.
"I find that is so surprising, considering who Wilde was and that Lord Windermere's ideas of decency would not include Oscar Wilde, and yet Wilde can be that kind to him and present him so positively and compellingly."
Wilde, who was jailed for "indecency," was tweaking the puritanical Victorians when the play debuted in 1892. Mr. Stanford has transported the Windermeres to post-World-War II London, where not much seems to have changed in quick-to-judge social circles.
Mr. Marks and director Stanford have developed a shorthand after working as co-stars and as actor and director through several PICT productions, including Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Last year, they reversed roles, with Mr. Marks directing the poignant "Swan Song," a segment of "Funny Chekhov" during the PICT festival honoring the playwright.
"That was very exciting," "Mr. Marks says of directing his director. "It's interesting to step into the role of directing someone I very much look up to. It was a lovely relationship. ... He didn't need me, but he absolutely treated me as the director and we had a really fruitful collaboration."
Mr. Marks recounted his PICT seasons while seated in a booth at the The Porch restaurant, across the street from Oakland's Stephen Foster Memorial where PICT practices its craft. In the intertwined world of theater actors and regional companies, Mr. Marks first came to Pittsburgh accompanying Ms. Doukas, who had been recommended to then PICT artistic director Andrew Paul by fellow actor David Whalen. As this turn in the road goes, the husband-wife team had performed in a West Coast production of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal" for director John DeMita (Lord Darlington in the current PICT production of "Lady Windermere's Fan.") They were invited to reprise their "Betrayal" roles here in 2010, with Mr. Whalen completing the triangle, and became company mainstays.
"We have a community here now, we have so many dear friends," Mr. Marks says. "It's a second home for us now."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. First Published July 11, 2013 4:00 AM