Two big boys of Milwaukee theater play “Big Boys”
Norman Moses and David Cecsarini, highly regarded Milwaukee theater men of a certain age, face off in Rich Orloff’s Big Boys, a two-man comedy about clashes of personalities and ethics in the upper ranks of business.
Both actors have worked Milwaukee stages for decades. Cescarini is the long-time artistic director of Next Act Theatre, which will open Big Boys at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21) at the Tenth Street Theatre. Moses has played a wide variety of characters for nearly every Milwaukee company. He sings and dances well and holds a special place of honor at the Skylight Opera Theatre, where his portrayals of Groucho Marx are legendary. He returned Dec. 18 from a 10-week tour of Japan with the Disney on Classic show.
Moses is 55, Cecsarini is 56. They have worked together numerous times over the years, but never as closely as in Big Boys, directed by Mary McDonald Kerr. Most recently, Cecsarini directed Moses in Next Act’s Murderers in 2008.
“He doesn’t hire me nearly enough,” Moses said, when the two of them sat down for a fireside interview in the theater lobby Thursday.
That made Cecsarini laugh, but he offered a serious explanantion: “We used to have 20 people on our seasons. Now we’re down to 11 or 12.”
In Big Boys, Cecsarini plays the boss, Victor, a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners executive.
“The character’s name is Norman,” Moses said. “That makes it easy. He’s a hapless fellow, he hasn’t gotten far in life. Getting this job is a big deal to him. Victor is his idol, his Donald Trump.”
But something stands between the two men: A soul. Norman has one.
“The way the story develops,” Cecsarini said, “they find themselves in a contest about doing the right thing in a corporate environment.”
Moses has played bad guys — I recall an especially brutal Mack the Knife in Paula Suozzi’s Skylight staging of Threepenny Opera — but mostly he’s a goofy nice guy.
“I’d like to play more meanies,” he said, “but people seem to like laughing when I fall down.”
Cecsarini assumed Victor from the start. Kerr, the director, asked him to consider the more sympathetic role. Nope, just not him.
Otherwise, he’s grateful to have her.
“This kind of piece,” Cecsarini said, “given the likes of us, could spiral into clowndom. Mary keeps the story in focus.”
As artistic director, Cecsarini picks the plays and hires the directors and actors. Which can making things a little awkward for the director.
“She’s done a fine job of dealing with a multi-hatted actor,” he said. “When you have long-term working relationships, you can be polite and civil, yet direct and honest.”
“Trust is a big part of it,” Moses said. “In this business, there’s a rule that one actor never gives another actor notes. But with us, in rehearsal you can always say, ‘Maybe we could try it this way,’ and it’s fine. Some actors can get very indignant over that. But we’ve known each other forever as actors and as friends.”
“Openness to suggestion is a good skill to have,” Cecsarini said.
They find Big Boys intriguing because it is not all of a piece in its theatrical conventions. They must play some of it naturalistically, but it goes off on fantastical tangents that call for a different acting style. Kerr helps them sort it out. At one point, she suggested that Moses add a whiff of Groucho to his Norman.
“The characters must have open ends,” Cecsarini said. “There is a base of reality, but it launches into the absurd.”
Moses and Cecsarini must also contend with another layer: Almost everyone in their audience knows them as actors and many know them personally. Especially in a comedy in an intimate theater, the two can’t completely disappear into their roles.
“It’s like a play within a play,” Moses said. “People know our act. It’s too easy to fall into your act, and it can get in the way of other possibilities. We try to check that at the door. And yet, that act is who we are.”
Kerr is not the odd woman out in the act. She hasn’t been around quite as long, but she’s also a veteran and has worked with both men more than once.
“Mary and David were arguing about something and it got a little heated,” Moses said.
“She slapped me upside the head,” Cecsarini said.
“So we took a break,” Moses said. “Mary got a cup of tea and came back, and said, ‘Sorry, honey, mommy and daddy were fighting.’ In the end, it was all in the family.”
Big Boys opens at 8 tonight (Friday, Jan. 21) and runs through Feb. 13 at the Tenth Street Theater, 628 N. 10th St. at Wisconsin Avenue (in the lower level of Calvary Church). Tickets are $25, $29 and $35, depending on performance day and time. Call the box office, 414-278-0765, or visit the Next Act website.