A young actor gets star-making role at Kennedy Center

Rothenberg will open as Kowalski in `Streetcar'

Stage: theater, music, dance

May 06, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Talk about pressure.

Twenty-eight-year-old Adam Rothenberg is grappling with one of the American theater's iconic stage roles -- the charismatic, brutish Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire -- a role made famous by none other than Marlon Brando.

Rothenberg, a relatively unknown performer with only five professional credits on his resume, will share the stage with a certified star, the Emmy Award-winning Patricia Clarkson. She portrays Blanche Dubois.

Nor is this just any old production. Rothenberg's every utterance will be dissected by the nation's critics, who are expected to descend upon the Tennessee Williams Festival at the Kennedy Center, perhaps the premiere theatrical event in the United States this summer.

It would be enough to give a mere mortal heart palpitations. Yet, at least some observers are predicting that the brown-haired, blue-eyed actor with the riveting gaze will be the next Big Thing.

Rothenberg took a few minutes during a lunch break to discuss the challenges he's facing.

Q: Tell me the story of your life in five minutes.

A: [Laughs.] I grew up in New Jersey. My father is an anesthesiologist, and my mom is a nurse. I first got involved in theater in high school. I was flunking music, and my teacher offered to pass me if I agreed to try out for the school play, Anything Goes.

I was very shy, but I did like the attention. It was an ice-breaker, and gave people an excuse to talk to me.

After going to college for about a month, I flunked out and joined the Army. I served for two years in Germany, in 1996 and 1997. When I got out, I tried a lot of different things: delivering pizzas, working as a security guard. I thought about being a paramedic. I took a few courses as a massage therapist. I was a fact-checker for Mademoiselle magazine. There were so many false starts.

Q: When did you decide to make a living in the theater?

A: I'm still not convinced that I will make a living at it, to this day.

When I got out of the Army, I knew that I had to get serious and do something with my life, but acting didn't seem like a real career. With every job you get, you go through this terror that it's going to be your last job. There's always a huge risk that you could end up later in life living with your parents.

I finally got off my ass in 2000. It's very dramatic-sounding, but I was sitting in a local sports bar on New Year's Eve. It was me and one other guy, and we were watching the ball drop in Times Square. I was 25 and going nowhere. I decided that actors act, no matter where, so I started out going on every audition I could find. I got in a few plays, non-paying jobs at first. Through that, I got represented, and they started sending me out on stuff. I got a pilot for NBC in A.U.S.A., but they dropped me pretty quickly. I took it very well, because even landing the pilot was way beyond what anyone could have expected, given my experience.

Q: What was it like to audition for Streetcar?

A: As I got closer and closer to getting the part, each time I auditioned was worse than the time before. I was just terrified; I was amazed that it had gone as far as it had. When I'm really tense, I feel it in my chest and my scalp. I get this exposed feeling on the top of my head and the back of my neck.

I'm slightly dyslexic, so before an audition, I usually need to learn all the lines. But for the final audition, I hadn't, because Birdie [another play in which Rothenberg appeared] had closed just the night before.

Patty and Amy -- those two girls saved my life. I read with them both. You can tell when people are on your side and they're going to get the best out of you. [Clarkson and Amy Ryan, who plays Stella, were cast earlier.]

Q: Rehearsing a Tennessee Williams drama day after day can be intense. Have you found any part of Streetcar rubbing off into your personal life?

A: I find myself acting very incredulous over things, kind of like a monkey, like in that moment when Stanley rips Stella's trunk open and feathers and fur go flying.

I'm usually a very shy person, but since I've been rehearsing this play, I find I have a little more attitude in my life. Amy will say, "Stanley, you've gotta chill."

Q: Some people think that Stanley will be your breakthrough role.

A: Aw, shucks. [Laughs.] I always tell everybody that I'm my mother's favorite actor. It's just such a relief to be getting a steady paycheck.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs May 8-30 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F. St. N.W., Washington. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Tickets cost $56 to $75. Call 800-444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

For more theater and dance events, see page 41.

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