So Hal Linden is back onstage in Kansas City. For the first time since the 1950s.
The award-winning actor (an Emmy for “Barney Miller,” a Tony for “The Rothschilds” on Broadway) is starring in New Theatre Restaurant’s production of Ken Ludwig’s farce, “Over the Moon” — a play Linden has never done before. And that’s the point. Linden doesn’t like performing plays he’s already done.
“I don’t like to repeat,” Linden said over lunch at the New Theatre rehearsal studio west of downtown. “It’s a short life, and there’s a lot of plays.”
Ludwig’s play is a backstage farce about a touring theatrical couple, George and Charlotte Hay, who are on the road performing “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Private Lives” in repertory. Linden plays George opposite Carmen Roman as Charlotte. (Roman replaced Marion Ross, who withdrew from the production for health reasons.)
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The 1995 play was once called “Moon Over Buffalo” but the New Theatre is using the title Ludwig employed for a 2001 London production that happened to be directed by Ray Cooney, another writer of farces whose plays the New Theatre has staged repeatedly through the years.
“I wanted to do another farce, and I figured if I turned this down, how many more years will it be before I have a chance?” Linden said. “First of all, it’s nice and physical. You generally behave in a larger way than you would in real life. It’s also existential, because farce happens to you. You never play anything ‘farcically.’ You play a real situation and the world comes down on your shoulders, or an event happens that destroys all your plans. In other words, it happens right then and there to the characters. And I think that’s why the audience loves it.”
Director Dennis D. Hennessy said a good farce depicts an unlikely but plausible chain of events. And actors have to play it straight to draw the audience in.
“We have to believe that everything is possible, but not probable,” he said. “It could happen, but it probably wouldn’t.”
Linden is best known for his starring role on “Barney Miller,” a sitcom set in a police precinct house in lower Manhattan. Most episodes were contained within the precinct station and unfolded a lot like a stage play. The show ran from 1974 to 1982.
“It was originally performed in front of a live audience,” Linden said. “The producer was such a perfectionist that he was working on his scripts even as we were rehearsing them. By the fifth week or so we didn’t have an ending so we canceled the audience. And that’s a bad thing to do to people who came to see the show. We never had an audience again. It turned out to be really a good thing. ‘Barney’ was a show that didn’t depend on an audience’s laughter for timing. It was about reality. The more real it was the better the show was.”
One of his co-stars on the show was Abe Vigoda, who for four seasons played Fish, a curmudgeonly senior detective. Vigoda had achieved fame as the capo Tessio in “The Godfather” and later starred in “Fish,” a “Barney Miller” spinoff. Vigoda died in January at 94.
“What you saw is what you got,” Linden said of Vigoda. “He was simple, direct. That’s the way he played Fish. He just showed what the character needed. (Co-creator) Danny (Arnold) saw him in a reading and early on wrote the character to the advantage of the directness that Abe had personally.”
Linden said he had worked with Vigoda only once previously, when they were young actors shooting a TV commercial.
“Many years before ‘Barney Miller,’ a good 10 years, we were both in a commercial pushing a car, I think,” he said. “We were both much younger actors just trying to make a living. I never got to know him particularly but we followed each other’s careers after that.”
Linden enjoyed success in television, but he is also a man of the theater. He claimed a Tony in 1971 for his performance in the “The Rothschilds,” a musical by composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and writer Sherman Yellen.
“I know I have done more than 20 Broadway and off-Broadway productions,” he said. “How many more I don’t recall. Most of them flops.”
In 2012 and 2013 he headlined productions of “The Scottsboro Boys,” first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles. The musical by Kansas City-born composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb, was a creative telling of a notorious story of racism and injustice from the 1930s. Nine African-American teenagers were tried and convicted for the rape of two white women on a train in Alabama, although evidence suggested strongly that no such crime had occurred.
Kander and Ebb borrowed the structure of a traditional minstrel show and Linden played the Interlocutor — the only white character in the piece. The productions were directed by Susan Stroman, who had staged the show on and off-Broadway in New York.
“It’s unusual and controversial,” Linden said of the minstrel show format. “It’s a relic of America. It’s as racist as you can get. So a large portion of the black community took umbrage. It was terrific off Broadway. It was a big hit. But then the minute they brought it to Broadway it became controversial. It is so brilliantly staged. There’s no scenery. Just the chairs of the minstrel show. There were brilliant theatrical moments.”
Linden grew up in the Bronx in an extended family that was rich with musical talent. Six out of eight cousins were professional musicians, he said. He was drafted into the Army, where he played with the 356th Army Band. He played reeds but was often asked to sing.
“That turned out to be very big for me because up to that point I had never set foot on a stage,” he said.
In the 1950s he came through Kansas City with the Sammy Kaye band. It was his only other appearance here.
Before Linden returned to rehearsals, he answered a final question: What’s the most satisfying part of performing in theater?
“I used to say, ‘All of the above.’ Now I say, ‘Rehearsal,’ ” Linden said. “That’s the only time an actor really has creative input. Otherwise, he’s executing other people’s writing, other people’s direction. Now, you try to execute it artistically, but in rehearsal you actually have input. It’s a joy upstairs. This is the part I enjoy before the show opens.”
“Over the Moon” runs through April 24 at the New Theatre, 9229 Foster, Overland Park. Call 913-649-7469 or go to www.newtheatre.com.