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An Interview with Jeffrey Donovan

The Hitman Cometh
Article written by Harry Haun
Taken from Playbill - The National Theatre Magazine
August 31st  1999 Issue

Jeffrey Donovan is an actor`s actor who`s on the verge of
becoming - reluctantly - a star

The first thing you say about Things You shouldn`t Say Past Midnight is, What`s an Italian hit man doing in a play like this? The second question is why
is this guy is so much fun? The answer to the second question is dependent on the answer to the first, which is-improbable though it may seem- participating.
Gene (this hit man) is part of this Manhattan sextet having sex and psychobabble into the wee small hours in Peter Acherman`s refreshingly unapologetic sex romp
now holding forth at the Promenade.

The very fact that he doesn`t fit in this nest of neurotics is part of the fun. He`s a dense yet remarkably clearheaded,impervious to the tics and twitches that trouble the others. And he`s played by a real actor, not a comic who`s passing as one.

This is as close to a flat-out comedy as Jeffrey Donovan has come, and he has worked with considerable consistency inthe past four years."The Man You Don`t Know You Know" is his suggestion for thetitle of this article, a comment on how he`s often not recognized from show to show.  "It is so important to me how different I am in the plays I do," he says. "I never want people to go, 'Oh, that`s him again.' I want them to go,'I loved the guy who played Marco in A
View From the Bridge,' then come see this and go, 'I loved the guy who played Gene,' and not know it`s the same guy. That`s what I want.

"I don`t think anactor`s job is to be recognized. I think an actor`s job is to facilitate the writing in a way that changes the way people think. No other business does that."

To this end, Donovan has taken his comedy seriously and played Gene life-size. The laughs that came as a consequece of this surprised him. "I couldn`t believe they thought I was funny, but it was a shock they laughed at Gene so much."

"At first I thought I'd try to get a laughwith every line. then I thought, 'I have to make this better, so they don`t laugh.'  What I realized is, if they laugh at everything, they'll never take in who he is. His maternal instincts, his obsessive compulsiveness- all the things that reveal and flesh out who he is is very important to me. Putting so much work into trying to be funny creates two-dimensional characters. What`s truly humorous, and truly touching, is someone who is dead serious about what he`s doing with his life, and you can`t help but laugh at him."

Donovan credits the success of his performance to Ackerman`s inventive writing, John Rando`s resourceful direction and the ensemble he shares the stage with: Clea Lewis, Mark Kassen, Erin Dilly, Andrew Benator, and Nicholas Kepros.  "The only reason I`m funny is that they set it up so beautifully,"  he insists. "All I do is say the lines.I couldn`t be funny without the rythm, timing and talent of every actor on that stage."

Massachusetts-born 31 years ago, Donovan doesn`t know when he decided to become an actor, or if he decided. "I don`t know if anyone ever decides.  'Oh yeah. You know, I'll be an actor.' It`s not like that." In any event, he studied the art at NYU`s graduate school.

It was at NYU that he did Iago for Michael Mayer.  The director later waved him aboard to take over the role of Marco when A View From the Bridge went into extra innings at the Neil Simon.In restaging the piece for this theatre, Mayer threw Marco a magnificent entrance in the last act: The side door to the alley at the back of the house flies open, and there stands Marco, bent on vengeance. "Carbone!" The audience, as one, turns around. "Eddie Carbone!"  Marco had come for blood, and although Anthony LaPaglia who played Carbone had 50 pounds on Donovan, there`s no doubt he will get it.

Donovan`s open Irish face and his United Nations assortment of accents enable him as an actor to cross all kinds of international borders. He made his Broadway debut as a Brit in An Inspector Calls, passed for a greek as Billy Crudup`s best friend in CSC`s four- hour Oedipus and was an undetermined wild man in Freedomland.

But it`s clear that Italian is the specialty of the house. "These days, Italians are waiting for me at the stage door. They come up to me and make it a point to say,'Your not Italian.' With A View From the Bridge, I got the same wrap. These real Italians would come up to me and say,'What is that Donovan name? That is Irish. Speak to me.' I'd speak in my normal voice, and they'd say,'You see? It was an accent. He doesn`t even talk like that.' I'd say, I`m sorry,' and then they'd get very serious and say, 'No. You do the Italians well."

Fact is, Donovan does everything well. He has the look of a young actor on the launching pad, ready to take off into the bright lights. "I don`t seek it - nor do I shun it," he says, trying for the middle of the road. "I could never say I`m going to do bigger and better things because that would negate what I`ve already accomplished, and I don`t want to do that. I have tried my damnedest to be the best actor I can be. Most of the time, my thinking is: 'How do I help the writer? How do I facilitate the play?'  If that keeps me working and nobody knows who I am, I welcome that. If somebody puts me in something that has exposure where everybody knows my name, so be it.  But, to be honest with you, if I could work the rest of my life and nobody stops me on the street for an autograph, I`m happy."

                              Jonathan Barkey

Donovan (above with Clea Lewis) as the comically
dense hit man in Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight
and as the ethnically challenged wild man in Freedomland (below).

        Joan Marcus