`Goodfellas' star brings his intensity to stage

CATCHING UP WITH... Ray Liotta

Actor Ray Liotta is finding his time on Broadway to be something wild

April 18, 2004|By Jeremy Caplan | Jeremy Caplan,NEWSDAY

When Ray Liotta first worked on Broadway, he wasn't anywhere near the stage.

"I put the candy out, sold it before the show and during intermission, and then went home with $7 in my pocket," says the Hollywood veteran. "I used to do what that guy's doing," he says, motioning to a concession salesman in the Plymouth Theater, where, more than two decades after manning the M&Ms, Liotta is making his Broadway debut in Match.

"It was a great job to have, because you got to watch people on stage, and you learned," says Liotta, 48.

After growing up in New Jersey and graduating from the University of Miami in 1977, Liotta moved to New York to get started in acting. He spent three years on the NBC soap opera Another World, soon caught the attention of Hollywood and in 1985 had his breakout role in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild.

Leading roles in hit films followed. From Goodfellas and Field of Dreams to Hannibal, Liotta was too busy starring in movies to find time for Broadway. He considered and rejected various offers before finally falling for Stephen Belber's script for Match.

Set in an apartment, the play tells the story of a couple who show up for a routine interview with a choreographer (portrayed by Frank Langella), only to find their lives turned upside down by the day they spend with him. "To originate a role on Broadway, that was intriguing to me," Liotta says. He loved both the suspense of Belber's story and its characters.

As surprised as Liotta was to discover "how organized the chaos was" when he made his first studio films in Hollywood, he's been equally stunned at the goings-on backstage on Broadway. "There are things that happen that make you think, `This shouldn't be happening; this is Broadway,' " Liotta says. "It's definitely been a roller coaster."

One unusual development was the relatively late departure from the cast of Melora Walters, originally slated to play Liotta's wife in the three-actor drama. She's been replaced by Jane Adams. As with many new plays, the script was changed constantly throughout the preview period. The playwright, actors and director Nicholas Martin refined lines and sharpened the characters.

The result is a powerful drama with copious humor. The degree of laughter among some audiences has surprised Liotta. "Sometimes it's just out-and-out, they don't stop, and sometimes it's a slow roar, and sometimes it's more subtle," he says. "Each audience has its own flavor."

`An emotional journey'

When Liotta received Belber's script in July, he signed on to play Mike, a tough Seattle police officer who accompanies his wife on a research trip to New York. "Usually in a movie I'm killing somebody or in extreme circumstances," says Liotta, whose roles have included a lineup of mobsters, psychopaths and thugs. "This character is just a guy who's troubled, who's trying to find himself. It's about an emotional journey."

Before starting rehearsals, Liotta consulted with an old acting coach to brush up on his technique. "It's like going back and reading the Bible or a book that means a lot to you. You can read it 100 times," he says. According to director Martin, Liotta arrived in New York ready to jump on stage.

"I've never seen a work ethic like his except for Nathan Lane," Martin says. "He came in to the first rehearsals with both his lines and his performance, which is almost never the case on Broadway with actors like him." Martin surmised that Liotta may have drawn on his experiences as an adopted child to mine the script's issues of personal identity.

One of the challenges for Liotta as a movie actor was preparing for the endurance demands of live theater. With no cameras around to record his best moments, Liotta will have to repeat an intense performance eight times a week for at least five months.

"He has remarkable emotional range," Belber says. "He goes from quiet and charming to incredibly angry, to vulnerable, to incredibly sweet. We know from his films that Ray Liotta can play tough and angry, but onstage he shows a lot of new colors."

Liotta says his film experience prepared him for some aspects of Broadway. "In a movie, you do seven, eight, 10 takes of something in a row and have to make it fresh and real each time. Onstage you have a new audience each night, and a certain adrenaline takes over. You come backstage and hear all the buzzing, and you just commit to it."

Langella has helped

Liotta says his co-star Langella has helped him adapt.

"He's kind of taken me under his wing," Liotta says of Langella, who's making his 13th appearance on Broadway, having won two Tonys since his first starring role in 1975's Seascape. Liotta was bartending in the late '70s when Langella was starring in Dracula. Now the two are sharing the stage.

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