For Len Cariou, Dying Onstage Each Night Has Been ‘Invigorating’

For Len Cariou, Dying Onstage Each Night Has Been ‘Invigorating’

Chris Domig was able to throw within the towel.

After a year-and-a-half-long search, a church chapel in Gramercy Park was the one inexpensive area Domig, the inventive director of the Off Off Broadway firm Sea Dog Theater, had been capable of finding to mount a manufacturing of “Tuesdays With Morrie.” Chairs must be organized on a set of risers on the altar. The props could be a piano, a few chairs, a walker and a wheelchair.

The firm additionally had virtually no promoting finances.

But it did have Len Cariou, an elder statesman of the theater who in 1979 gained a Tony Award for originating the position of Sweeney Todd on Broadway. He would play Morrie, a former sociology professor who, after receiving a prognosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., reconnects with one among his college students in what turns into a sequence of weekly conferences.

Cariou, additionally recognized for his turns in musicals like “A Little Night Music” and “Applause,” had been taken with the character of Morrie ever since he learn the 1997 memoir by Mitch Albom on which the 2002 play is predicated.

“I mentioned, ‘One day, I’d like to play that half,’” Cariou, 84, mentioned final month throughout a joint interview with Domig at St. George’s Episcopal Church, the place the just lately prolonged “Tuesdays With Morrie” is about to run by means of April 20. “It’s such a wealthy position in a present that asks, ‘What if despair and dying aren’t the top? What if there’s one thing extra?’”

But one main hurdle remained, Domig mentioned: How had been they going to tug off the play with solely a handful of props?

Cariou didn’t miss a beat.

“Len was identical to, ‘You know what, we don’t want any of this,’” Domig mentioned. “‘We can do it as a reminiscence play that takes place in Morrie’s head.’”

That angle is typical of Cariou, mentioned Erwin Maas, the director of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and Cariou’s longtime pal and neighbor in West New York, N.J. “He doesn’t want a giant theater or really feel like something is beneath him,” Maas mentioned in a latest telephone dialog. “What drives him is a ardour for the work.”

During his greater than six-decade stage and display screen profession, Cariou has additionally performed the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law within the 2015 movie “Spotlight,” and, for 14 seasons and counting, starred as a former New York City Police commissioner on CBS’s “Blue Bloods.”

But the problem of taking part in Morrie is that it isn’t a task that’s simple to depart on the stage door every evening. Many older actors, Domig mentioned, is perhaps reluctant to grapple with a topic — dealing with the top of life with grace — which may hit somewhat too near house.

But for Cariou? “It was simple,” he mentioned.

“It’s form of like what Morrie says within the play when he will get the information that he has A.L.S.,” he continued. “He says, ‘I requested myself, am I going to withdraw from the world, like so many individuals do, or am I going to reside?’ And he decides, ‘I’m going to reside so long as I’ve left.’ And that’s just about what I’m doing.”

Domig, who performs Morrie’s former scholar, Mitch, reverse Cariou every evening, simply shook his head.

“It’s such a brave efficiency,” he mentioned. “Len has no concern about saying, ‘Let’s see the place this lives in me.’”

After rereading the play in the course of the pandemic, Domig mentioned, he had been struck by its rawness and candor. He enlisted Cariou and Maas in 2022 for what was initially a one-night studying of the play within the basement of the church.

Around 60 individuals sat in folding chairs within the church basement, with Cariou and his spouse supplying wine for the reception afterward. “Everyone was in tears on the finish,” Domig mentioned. “I had particular person after particular person inform me, ‘You guys ought to do that play as a manufacturing.’”

Asking Cariou — who was capturing scenes for “Blue Bloods” in the course of the day — to do a one-night studying was one matter, however enlisting him for a full run was one other. (Domig knew, he mentioned, that no matter he may handle to pay Cariou for an Off Off Broadway manufacturing may on no account evaluate with a TV contract — however that didn’t appear to matter. “We wrote him a verify for $100 for doing the studying,” Domig mentioned. “But ultimately, he didn’t money it.”)

Plus, Domig knew he had one thing particular on his arms — and hoped Cariou thought so, too. He made the ask.

And Cariou mentioned: Yes.

He was not, it turned out, dissuaded by the play’s frank discussions about dying — whilst somebody who was himself in his twilight years.

“You’re combating the age query,” he mentioned. “Morrie’s in his 70s when this occurs, so I mentioned, ‘Well, then I’ll be in my 70s.’ That’s what you must inform your self.”

Neither was he fazed by the calls for of remaining onstage for the whole lot of a 90-minute present, six instances every week, whereas raging, screaming, sobbing, falling out his wheelchair and inhabiting the physique of a person affected by progressive respiratory failure.

“I’ve discovered it invigorating,” Cariou mentioned. “The muscle mass it’s essential to do a play are ones you have to use. It’s like when Morrie talks about having A.L.S.: When your muscle mass not get the message, they wither and die. I’m ensuring the message does get by means of to mine.”

Domig interjected: “There have been a number of days he’s on set for ‘Blue Bloods,’ after which he comes and does this present. He has unimaginable vitality and stamina — he’s involved about my vitality and whether or not I’m getting sufficient sleep!”

Cariou’s dedication to his craft is not any shock to his former “Sweeney Todd” castmate Victor Garber, who, together with Angela Lansbury, appeared with Cariou within the authentic Broadway manufacturing.

“Being within the rehearsal room with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury; I couldn’t think about something larger,” Garber, 75, mentioned in a telephone dialog. “Watching Len and Angela do “A Little Priest” on the finish of Act I’ll by no means be equaled.”

“Len is a consummate actor; he lives and eats and breathes it,” he added. “It’s fortunate for New York he’s doing it.”

“Tuesdays With Morrie” bought out the ultimate 11 performances of its authentic three-week run, and the primary present of its extension.

“We’ve had fairly just a few younger individuals within the viewers, and I feel they’re shocked how a lot it resonates with them,” Cariou mentioned. “And the identical goes for his or her mother and father, the adults. They’re reminded of a mentor or a teacher they’d rising up who influenced or impressed them, and who, like Mitch, they could by no means have seen once more.”

Others, although, who’ve learn the e book, Domig mentioned, have instructed him they’re apprehensive about seeing the present, both as a result of they’ve just lately misplaced a liked one or as a result of somebody near them goes by means of an identical wrestle.

“Yes, the person dies on the finish each evening,” Domig mentioned he tells them. “But the best way he goes on that journey — the resilience and pleasure and encouragement and hope alongside the best way — it doesn’t get extra important than that.”

The present is slated to run just a few extra weeks, although Domig hopes that will not be the top of its life.

“We’re comfortable to do it so long as individuals present up,” he mentioned. “And if I may someway conceive of a Broadway switch …”

Well, that’d be simply wonderful with Cariou.

“I’m going to play no matter I can, for so long as I can,” he mentioned.



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