Boston Globe: He answered a 911 call to play Capote in ART’s ‘WarholCapote’

Publication date: 
September 21, 2017
Terry Byrne

Dan Butler got the call on a Wednesday. By Sunday, with only a few days to rehearse, he was onstage playing Truman Capote in the first performance of a world premiere, “WARHOLCAPOTE,” at American Repertory Theater.

“I don’t know if I’m compartmentalizing,” says Butler, best known for his work as Bulldog Briscoe on TV’s “Frasier,” “but I’m just trying to take it in steps. I’ve certainly learned to keep my sense of humor.”

Butler stepped into the role when Leslie Jordan, originally cast as Capote, left the production for personal reasons after a month of rehearsals. Butler got a call from his agent as he and his husband, actor and director Richard Waterhouse, were preparing to leave their home in Vermont. Waterhouse is teaching at Brown University this fall, and Butler was heading back to New York. With only a day to read the script and decide whether to take the role, Butler says he tried to make a list of pros and cons.

“But I couldn’t come up with any cons,” he says. “Opportunities come into your life for a reason, and you have to just go with it.”

“WARHOLCAPOTE” consists of a series of conversations the visual artist and the writer had when they were considering collaborating on a play in the 1970s. Adapter Rob Roth sifted through many hours of audio tape to craft a show that allows both men to reveal their vulnerability, their struggles with celebrity, and doubts about their craft.

“There’s really no time to overthink it,” Butler says with a laugh. “I landed in the midst of tech week, so I immediately sat down on the set in costume, someone immediately put makeup on me, and off we went.”

Although he has been performing with script in hand during previews, with each performance, he says, he’s been able to rely on it less and less. At an early preview, when Butler’s script was missing a page, costar Stephen Spinella stayed in character as Warhol to ask the prompter in the front row to hand over her page.

“The challenge is that because Rob Roth used the exact words Andy Warhol and Truman Capote spoke, the script is filled with ‘buts,’ ‘I means,’ and ‘you knows,’ that are harder to integrate,” Butler says.

Although many actors understudy roles and are prepared to step in at the last minute, going in cold is rare. The last time Butler was asked to jump in without much rehearsal was in 2008, when the New York Theatre Workshop production of Michael Weller’s “Beast” required a last-minute substitute.

“But I was only in two scenes in that one,” Butler says. “This . . . this is much bigger.”

With each performance, he says, he’s also able to step more deeply into the character.

“Truman is all about language, and I feel like I have the rhythm of his speech now,” Butler says.

Working opposite Spinella, a Tony Award-winning actor, has also made a difference, Butler says.

“Stephen and I have known each other for years, but never worked together,” he says. “He’s been great. The show is set up in some ways like the Andy Warhol Talk Show, with Andy as the mysterious presence and Truman as his guest, so I do take my cues from him.”

But the beauty of the piece, says Butler, is that “WARHOLCAPOTE” explores a section of their lives people don’t know. The two men are drawn to each other because they are both “peculiar, unique, and authentic,” Butler says.

“It’s easy to get lost in the things Truman is saying because both he and Andy are worrying about the impact of celebrity on their ability to be creative, and wonder if they’ve wasted their lives.” Adapter Roth says Butler is “the bravest man I know, to step in at the last minute.”

But Butler says he hopes he earns his applause, “not because I was the last-minute fill-in, but because I’ve created a compelling character.”


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