Actor Larry O'Dwyer finally has come home to Baltimore, a place where he never actually lived.
For the past 14 years, O'Dwyer has performed regularly at Center Stage, which has allowed him to sample the city's offbeat delights. The actor is a regular at City Cafe and haunts the antique shops in Hampden. He makes it a point to visit the American Visionary Art Museum at least twice a year, seeming to feel a kinship with the self-taught, outsider artists showcased in the galleries.
Indeed, some of the objects decorating O'Dwyer's digs in Mount Vernon - the helmet made from buttons and twine, the puppet of the Frog Princess that the actor has used to entertain kids in hospitals - could have been taken from AVAM's display cases.
"Larry is the oldest, wisest, most wonderful child I know," says Doug Wright, a playwright who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, and who has been a close friend of O'Dwyer's for more than three decades. "He's also probably the single most spectacular repertory actor this country has. It's unfortunate that he's been so unsung."
Baltimore theater lovers have long thought of O'Dwyer as one of their own, and two months ago, he made it official. He packed up his collection of antique toys, left Dallas, moved into an apartment within walking distance of Center Stage, and adopted a cat. He also immediately began rehearsals for John Ford's bloody, 17th-century revenge tragedy, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. In the show, opening Wednesday at Center Stage, O'Dwyer plays a friar who delivers a graphic lecture on hell to a woman involved in an incestuous relationship.
The role of a holy man might seem out of character for the decidedly irreverent actor, but it's merely the most recent in a string of unorthodox castings. In 1997, Irene Lewis, Center Stage's artistic director, persuaded the senior citizen to take the role of Puck - complete with red high-top sneakers and a Mohawk hairdo - in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Five years later, he performed the role of Tootles, one of Peter Pan 's Lost Boys.
"That's why I love working with Irene," O'Dwyer says. "She's always finding new ways to reinvent me on stage."
O'Dwyer's range is immense. He is adept at commedia dell'arte - a form of Italian improvisational theater from the 16th century - and a longtime friend in the business describes him as one of the foremost U.S. interpreters of Moliere.
"If this man were living 150 years ago," says actress Pamela Payton-Wright, "he'd be a household name all over the world."
At least three famous playwrights have been inspired to create roles for the actor: Pulitzer Prize winners Doug Wright and Beth Henley, and James Duff, best known for his hit TNT television series, The Closer.
When Wright was penning his acclaimed play, Quills, he never considered anyone other than O'Dwyer for the central part.
"The role of the Marquis de Sade calls for every theatrical trick in the book," Wright says - "language that at turns is off-color and classical, grotesque hyperbole and malevolent wit. Larry is the only one I know whose arsenal is that large."
O'Dwyer grew up in Washington as part of an eccentric Irish family, and as a child, he showed promise in multiple art forms. He began painting in the fourth grade, a hobby he continues to this day.
What O'Dwyer seems to like creating the most are stylized figures outlined in black that he likens to "primitive children."
His beings share a common look: Their eyes are wide open and twice as large as normal. But their mouths are small and scratched out, virtually nonexistent. It's tempting to wonder: If painting is a form of autobiography, what do O'Dwyer's canvasses reveal about the artist?
"I've been given the gift of comedy, but I'm a very dark person," he says. "The stage is so important to me because I'm happy there."
After graduating from college, O'Dwyer embarked upon the peripatetic life of an actor. He lived for several years in Los Angeles. For four years, in the late 1970s, he was head of Bennington College's Drama Department. But the place he stayed the longest was Dallas, where, in 1961, he was a founding member of a troupe called Theatre Three, which, nearly five decades later, continues to thrive.
More than a dozen years ago, Payton-Wright caught O'Dwyer in Dallas, performing two Moliere plays back to back. "My jaw dropped," she says. "I knew that I was in the presence of something great. He revealed himself without holding anything back - the good or the bad."
The next time she was cast in a Center Stage production, Payton-Wright began raving to Lewis about the brilliant comic actor she'd discovered. Lewis hired O'Dwyer sight unseen to perform in a 1995 production of Don Juan.
"Every since then, I've incorporated Larry into shows whenever I can," Lewis says. "He is fearless, he aims to always be truthful on stage, and he creates signature, one-of-a-kind portrayals."