- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

NEW YORK — In his native England, Henry Goodman is known for the breadth of his theatrical roles: everything from Billy Flynn in "Chicago" to Shylock in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." To American audiences, though, he's more famous for the role he didn't play at least not for very long.
In April, Mr. Goodman was dismissed suddenly from "The Producers" only four weeks after taking over for Nathan Lane in the lead role of Max Bialystock. The part eventually went to Mr. Lane's former understudy, Brad Oscar.
Gossip columns were abuzz immediately with musings about the highest-profile Broadway firing in recent memory. Why had Mr. Goodman been let go? Not funny enough, some whispered. Too sinister to fit the show's zany ethos.
Some even foresaw the end of Mr. Goodman's budding Broadway career.
However, eight months later, he's back bruised, but with a renewed sense of artistic purpose heading the cast of the Roundabout Theatre Company's "Tartuffe."
These days, he says, he's seeking out roles that bring great personal satisfaction, even if they don't hold the same promise of celebrity that "The Producers" did.
"I'm not here to prove something by doing 'Tartuffe,'" says Mr. Goodman, seated on a couch at the Roundabout's 42nd Street theater, where the play opened Thursday. "It's quite understandable for people to think that I am, but I'm not.
"If I'm here to prove anything at all, it's to myself. Since I left New York in April, I've had huge debate and depression and question marks and self-doubt about what happened, but I wanted to come back here to have a wholesome experience."
"'The Producers' never came up, to be honest, in terms of our rehearsals," "Tartuffe" director Joe Dowling says. "It certainly was very much in Henry's mind, but in terms of how the work was done, it wasn't an issue."
Mr. Goodman, 52, hasn't needed to demonstrate his worth as an actor for some time. He already has won two Laurence Olivier Awards (the British equivalent of the Tony) for lead actor one for the Sondheim musical "Assassins" and one for "The Merchant of Venice." He has been acting steadily in London for more than 20 years, both as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and in numerous productions on the West End and at the prestigious National Theatre.
In New York, though, the dark-haired, mustachioed actor is still fighting to forge a name for himself. Before "The Producers," he had appeared on Broadway only once, as a replacement in Yasmina Reza's "Art."
Watching him onstage as the treacherous title character in "Tartuffe," it's easy to see why Mr. Goodman would have been tapped to play Bialystock. His face twists athletically from one expression to another a wide sneer one moment, a grossly insincere grin the next. It's exactly the kind of two-sided nature that Bialystock displays in "The Producers," and Mr. Goodman doesn't shy from playing the fool.
As Tartuffe, he makes several bug-eyed (and ultimately humiliating) attempts to seduce the lady of the house. "The Producers," of course, is rife with ludicrous sexual situations.
So what happened in April?
Mr. Goodman says the show's producers began to panic when ticket sales cooled after Mr. Lane and co-star Matthew Broderick left the show in March. Mr. Goodman says he was made the scapegoat.
In addition, Mr. Goodman says, there was constant tension between old and new during his tenure in the show. He wanted to make the role of Bialystock his own but felt the show's producers wanted to him to imitate Mr. Lane.
Their mantra, he says, boiled down to: "'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' but as a creative actor, you naturally want to try things."
Mr. Goodman says he may have conceded the point a few too many times, so his performance landed uncomfortably between his own vision and Mr. Lane's.
Looking back, Mr. Goodman says, his own overconfidence also was a problem. Thinking he could blast into the biggest hit on Broadway and put a new spin on it was unrealistic, he now realizes.
"The arrogance or self-delusion that I am guilty of is thinking I could work organically within the tension" of recasting the show without Mr. Lane. "That came from a confidence built on 30 years of work," he says.
Mr. Goodman seems to relax as he elaborates on the fiasco as if, once articulated, the memories aren't quite so burdensome. He settles further back into his seat as the conversation turns to his early career, which began on the streets of London's East End when he was 10.
He spent his weekend days at the Petticoat Market, near where he lived, hawking watches for spending money. The market served as a kind of acting school, he says.
"It was thrilling to work an audience, to persuade them that they wanted to buy this watch," he remembers. "You had to have a hammer and gather people around and do a show you had to perform."
He went for more formal training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, then moved with his wife to South Africa. He spent his 20s appearing in regional productions there and eventually became artistic director of playwright Athol Fugard's Space Theater.
After 10 years, the couple with a newborn son in tow moved to London.
"I was desperate to go home and do Shakespeare, to be honest," he says. "That was a mountain I had to climb."
He continues to seek out roles in the Bard's plays. After he finishes Moliere's "Tartuffe," Mr. Goodman will return to England to star in an RSC production of "Richard III."
Will he return to Broadway? Only if, as in "Tartuffe," he can develop his performance on his own terms.
"He's not an actor who comes in and says, 'This is the only way I'm going to work, and that's the way I am,'" Mr. Dowling says. "He's used to working with ensembles and companies, where you have the opportunity to watch how things are developing."
That was precisely the approach he wasn't able to use on "The Producers."
"Being part of 'Tartuffe,' where I had to be in a creative environment that's my strength," Mr. Goodman says.
"As soon as you start with the vanity of, 'I'm ideal for this role, just put my name on the posters,' you're finished," he says. "There has to be confidence, but you've also got to discover."

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