'School of hard knocks' has taught character actor Jerry Lyden well

March 07, 1991|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

Jerry Lyden who plays the streetwise, cigar-chomping detective in the Fells Point Cabaret Theatre production of "Murder on the Waterfront," is making his mark as a professional character actor on stage and in films.

The play, which has been extended to April 14, is one in which the dinner theater audience helps solve a series of murders. Lyden has given 200 performances in this particular theater genre and finds it the ultimate challenge for an actor.

"Once an actor has a modicum of experience, audience participation theater calls on all your resources to develop and maintain your ability to create a character other than yourself," he says.

"There is no fourth wall as in traditional theater. I have about 20 pages of scripted scenes that takes 10 or 15 minutes. The show is over two hours and I improvise the rest as do all the other talented actors in this show.

"We are constantly making changes," he says. "The play is never the same two nights in a row. After an actor has had this experience, working on the stage or in front of a camera is much easier because you have trained yourself to at all times be that character . . . not just project an image but a whole person."

In between shows and a budding film career, Lyden returns to his home on the outskirts of Trenton, N.J., where he lives with his wife, Dianne, and their three children.

He is a veteran of national regional theaters, 200 industrial films, numerous television shows and TV commercials. He has been a radio announcer, a television newscaster and sports broadcaster and can speak in 50 different dialects and voices.

Because of his strong features and silver brown hair Lyden is usually cast as a cop or gangster in films. "I am hard to categorize," he says. "I find romantic leads incredibly boring. I enjoy character roles. They are the most fun and the substance of any play or movie."

Smiling he says, "I come from the school of hard knocks. I have no formal training but have had excellent directors."

On the big screen Lyden was cast as a bar drunk in "Rocky V" but the scene was cut. The same thing happened in "Dead Poets Society" in which the actor portrayed Jamie Waterston's father in the opening scene.

Lyden laughs. "You shoot it and hope it is doesn't end up on the cutting room floor."

The actor had better luck with his cameo in the film "Good Fellas" directed by Martin Scorsese. "I have a delightful close-up bit during the arrest sequence of Ray Liotta," he says.

In the upcoming film "Toy Soldiers" starring Lou Gossett Jr. and Mason Adams, Lyden appears in three scenes with Jerry Orbach who plays a gang boss. "They are powerful scenes," he says. "I have four pages of dialogue. I feel this film, when it is released, will be a big break for me."

Vagabond Theatre

Clifford Odets' strong theater drama, "The Country Girl" is playing at the Vagabond Theatre through March 17.

Unevenly directed by Miriam Bazensky, the play tells the story of Frank Elgin, a once great actor who hit the skids, trying to make a comeback. Supporting him in this endeavor is his long suffering wife, Georgie.

Trisha Blackburn does well as the maligned wife but is too restrained in the role and her vocal projection is often inaudible.

Tom Nolte is passable as Bernie, the hot-headed director, but the actor lacks the underlying restlessness and great passion of this character.

Robert Bayer is miscast as Frank. This difficult role is beyond this actor's experience and ability. His performance is certainly sincere but Bayer's nasal voice placement and slurring Baltimore dialect destroys the believability that he was ever a great stage star. Great stage stars have excellent resonant voice range and control and articulate compellingly in classic English.

In the role of the young ingenue, Cristra Yagjian turns in a refreshing performance.

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