Role Playing: Brent Barrett’s glad he joined ‘Follies’ as that womanizing, empty cad Ben
Interview: The veteran Broadway actor says Stephen Sondheim’s strutting character, always the center of attention, struggles to find the center in himself. Through Nov. 13 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
At the center of Stephen Sondheim’s acerbic musical “Follies” stands Benjamin Stone, worldly, rich, the envy of his old acquaintances gathered at this reunion of theater folks. Ben is all of that, and one more thing — miserable.
“He’s been dragged to this reunion and the past comes flooding back,” says veteran actor Brent Barrett, who adroitly causes us to feel the pain of this self-centered cad and devoted womanizer. “He’s incredibly good at putting up walls, and he has created a personal façade that he presents to the public. He is not a happy individual.”
But we charmed viewers are very happy watching Barrett’s suave portrayal, his first pass at “Follies,” which the New York actor took on because director Gary Griffin, his longtime friend, asked him to.
“I wouldn’t have had any understanding of this character 10 years ago,” says Barrett, 54, whose far-ranging musical credits extend from “Candide” and “Annie Get Your Gun” on Broadway to a New York City Opera production of “Brigadoon” and an evening Kurt Weill songs with the Berlin Philharmonic. “To get inside Ben, you have to have lived, made decisions that you look back on and question: Maybe I should have gone in that other direction. You can’t see all that when you’re in your twenties, when your life is ahead of you.”
In “Follies,” Ben reluctantly accompanies his wife of 30 years, Phyllis (Caroline O’Connor) to a nostalgic gathering of former showgirls at their old theater, which is about to be torn down. Ben’s marriage to Phyllis has long since soured. On the same road to ruin is the marriage of Sally, another ex-showgirl, and her husband Buddy. Sally once was in love with Ben and, despite the passing of decades, thinks there’s still a chance.
“I find aspects of all of these characters in myself,” said Barrett. “Phyllis makes bargains all along the way to maintain the life she has chosen. Sally lives in a delusional state. Buddy just keeps moving ahead without reflecting too much. There are certainly aspects of Ben that I relate to – relationships I’ve had, the compromises you make along the way, the demands when you won’t compromise. And barreling full speed ahead because that’s what you think you have to do to be successful.”
“Relationships are interesting. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we set up dynamics early in our relationships. You start living that way for three or four years, and before you know it you’ve lived that way for 20 years. It’s very difficult to change. You learn to deal with your partner. That’s where Ben and Phyllis are. They’ve never been able to talk about anything that’s really important to them. They’ve grown apart but stayed together.”
To a critical degree, “Follies”centers on this bitter, seemingly loveless couple. Each of them has a revelatory turn. At one point, Ben looks back wistfully on his doggedly constructed emptiness, in a big number called “The Road You Didn’t Take.”
“We worked on many different ways of doing that number,” Barrett said. “It comes early in the show, before a lot of alcohol has been imbibed. Gary wanted it to be as light as possible. You could get very serious with it, make it a lot angrier. What we wanted to show was Ben’s ease at gliding through life. He’s become so adept at lying, he even believes some of it himself.”
“At first it’s a slap in the face,” said Barrett. “She’s erupting, vomiting all this hurt and anger. On some level, he finds it exciting. He’s discovering there’s more to her than he ever realized. It’s like, Who is this person? Somehow, they have come to this point together and maybe now he realizes it’s not all Phyllis’ fault.
“It’s funny, audiences seem to blame Ben. At a talk-back after one performance, a woman said to me, ‘It’s all your fault.’ I think she meant Ben. But the fact is, he isn’t the grand manipulator that some people see in him. And she’s a classic enabler. There are no good guys or bad guys here. That’s what makes Sondheim so interesting. It’s all a gray area.”
Vocally, says Barrett, the role of Ben is an ideal fit. A classic Broadway baritone with a smooth, high upper range, he says the music “couldn’t be more perfect. It fits right in the middle, where it’s all effortless. It’s not big singing, it’s almost conversational.”
With the “Follies” run extended through Nov. 13, Barrett says he’s reveling in “an opportunity that doesn’t come along that often. This whole production has been such a joy from the beginning. I jumped at this chance and with this group of sensational Chicago actors, I’m happy that I did.”
- Brent Barrett in “Annie Get Your Gun” and other Broadway shows: Go to the actor’s website.
- More Role Playing: Sadieh Rifai zips among seven characters in one-woman “Amish Project”
- More Role Playing: Kirsten Fitzgerald inhabits sorrow, surfs the laughts in “Clybourne Park”
- More Role Playing: Janet Ulrich Brooks portrays a Russian arms negotiator in “A Walk in the Woods”
Photo captions and credits: Top and below: Brent Barrett as Benjamin Stone (center) performs “Live, Laugh, Love” with showgirls Jenny Guse, Christina Myers, Amanda Tanguay and Amanda Kroiss in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” directed by Gary Griffin, through Nov. 13, 2011. Middle: Caroline O’Connor as Phyllis Stone and Brent Barrett as Benjamin Stone. (Production photos by Liz Lauren)