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April 14, 2011

Another spring of deceit on Broadway for Stephen Kunken

by Jesse North
high new broadway play stephen kunken kathleen turner scene

Photo: Joan Marcus

For some people, spring means a time of cleaning, rain boots, and preparation for warm weather. For Stephen Kunken, spring means a role in a hot-button, new Broadway play. In April 2007, Kunken had a supporting role in Frost/Nixon, and last April, he starred in Enron, for which his performance earned him a Tony nomination. A year after that rollercoaster run in Enron (the day Kunken received his Tony nomination was the same day the show posted its closing notice), he is starring alongside Kathleen Turner in the new drama High, opening April 19.

As Father Michael Delpapp, Kunken assigns Turner, an ex-alcoholic nun, to council a troubled teenager, played by newcomer Evan Jonigkeit, suffering from intense drug addiction and abuse. The three characters hurdle down a volatile road of secret connections, painful memories, and religious doubt. While Kunken’s character is more reserved than in his Tony-nominated Andy Fastow role from Enron, Father Michael equally pushes the plot with his secrets and questionable actions.

“A play like this is challenging, because when all the other horses are running, I have to do my job, and this guy’s job is to keep it together for as long as possible,” Kunken said. “His part of the story comes out and you see that he’s in free fall in his own way.”

Kunken noted that he had to “catch up” with Turner and Jonigkeit, who had been involved with earlier incarnations of High in Hartford, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. The role of Father Michael had previously been played by [title of show] director Michael Berresse. “I didn’t want to rush my understanding of the play,” Kunken said. “Sometimes, plays are examined like an automobile. ‘Do you the lights work? Check.’ But with this show, we opened the hood and looked at the whole thing. Now we get from points A to B in a much better way.”

His audition process involved reading alongside Turner, which Kunken described as the optimal method to discovering if a role fits. “Kathleen wanted to be there. It’s kind of fantastic, because if you’re prepared and ready to play, when you’re working with the person who is going to be playing the part opposite you, you get a tremendous amount of information,” Kunken said.

From the first audition, a dynamic existed between the two actors that pushed each other’s performances. “Kathleen is such a straight shooter. She’s so dynamic on and off stage,” Kunken said. “She’s never afraid to tell her opinion when it’s good and when it’s not. I’m not precious about what I do, so I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK!’ When I came in, I could tell in which places the play was different for her and what she was grooving with. And I could feel where she was pushing me in the scene.”

Even without Turner, Kunken knew the heavy material of High would be pushing him either way. “I was drawn to the idea that these three people were all culpable, that there was a triangle of misgivings,” Kunken said. “Everybody has played their part in the downfall of this boy.”

high new broadway play stephen kunken kathleen turner scene

Photo: Joan Marcus

The character of Father Michael has secrets of his own, which Kunken had to figure out how to reveal. “There’s a difference between being a really good liar and fooling the audience completely and being a really good liar within the world of the play,” Kunken said. Citing Othello, Kunken said he did not want to be a “mustache-twirling” Iago, whom the audience distrusts from a mile away, but rather a Michael J. Fox type—a trustworthy character in which deception can easily hide.

Equally challenging was taking on the role of a priest, something Kunken had never come close to before. As research, he met with Father Richard Baker, pastor of St. Malachy’s—The Actors’ Chapel—on 49 St. in the theater district. Kunken said they discussed the play and its issues, as well as the priesthood. “Over the course of this meeting, it just occurred to me that this man was a human being, and that was my entryway into the character,” Kunken said. “I had spent so much time concerned about the vocation that I lost sight of the fact that this is a human being who chose this and has a whole history that precedes his time in the cloth.”

Audiences are sure to be shocked by High’s heavy subject matter, but Kunken insists that the company isn’t being bogged down by it. “It’s a cut-up sort of group, actually,” Kunken said. “I’ve found some of the darker shows that I’ve worked on ended up being a lighter experience than the comedies. It’s like getting a massage. When you step off the table, you’re supposed to feel like you’ve gotten rid of all that tension. If you don’t get to spend it on stage, you then have to come down from that.”

Although reviews won’t go to press until the show opens on April 19, ticket sales for High have been anything but during its preview period. A wave of positive reviews could boost the show’s numbers, as was the case with The Motherf**ker With The Hat this week. If this situation seems like a potential repeat of Enron’s fate last season, Kunken is taking a hands-off approach. “For me, you just do your job. I am as proud of this as I was of Enron,” Kunken said. “You take chances, and that is for somebody else to worry about. The people who have been at the stage door are rhapsodic about the show, and I hope that it catches fire.”

Are you excited to see Stephen Kunken and Kathleen Turner face off in High, Rushers? Did you catch his Tony-nominated performance in Enron last season? Are you more attracted to darker fare, like High, or lighter shows? Leave your comments below, and tune into Stage Rush TV this week for bonus material from my interview with Kunken!

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