It's not an act

Herald-Leader Culture ColumnistJune 22, 2008 

Ed Desiato will be the first person to tell you he's no John Barrymore.

”I'm not an idiot,“ Desiato says in a ­gravelly voice deepened by cigarettes and with a lingering New York accent. ”There was only one John Barrymore.

”I'm doing what Christopher Plummer did,“ Desiato says, referring to the actor who originally played the acting legend in William Luce's play Barrymore. ”Plummer played himself, with the characteristics of John Barrymore. That's the way I am going to play it.“

Desiato is performing in Balagula ­Theatre's production of Barrymore for three nights this week at Natasha's Bistro. It's a play that the well-traveled actor says he ­always has wanted to do. And while Desiato's career does not have the national, historic status of Barrymore's, it is one of the more colorful and diverse ones on the Lexington stage.

It started when Desiato, now 71, entered college in New York, and attempts to study classical guitar and violin didn't work out.

”I was going to Fredonia State Teachers College in New York State,“ Desiato says. ”I got involved in a theater group because my faculty adviser was Jo Oatfield, who once upon a time had been an actor on the West End of London and in New York in the '20s and '30s. And she knew Fran Fuller, who was the director of the American Academy in New York.

”So she called me into her office one day and said, "Mr. Desiato, you did very well in the play' — I played Priam in Tiger at the Gates, and she thought that was quite a feat for a young man — "and you're doing rather well in English and in history. However, there are other subjects that you have to master when you are in college, and you're not mastering them. So, I've called your father, and I've called Ms. Fuller, and you're going to audition at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.“

With that decree, Desiato auditioned, and he was accepted.

”My father drives me in for the first day of classes for the new season, drops me off at the corner of 52nd and Broadway, reaches into his pocket, gives me a $100 bill and says, "You want to be an actor? Act.'“

And he did.

One of Desiato's first breaks was being cast by writer William Inge and director Worthington Minor in Glory in the Flower. In the play by Inge, who also wrote Splendor in the Grass, Desiato played the male lead, Bronco, a role played by James Dean in a 1953 CBS television production. Desiato was in his junior year of college and being paid union rates for the production, which ran for six weeks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

After that experience, ­Desiato went on to a couple of years on The Jackie­ ­Gleason Show before it moved production from New York to Florida.

”You never saw my face on television,“ Desiato says. ”I was the rear end of a mule, I was a snowman, I was a boulder — a talking boulder, I might add — and that was quite an experience.“

He went from there to a role on the long-running soap opera The Edge of Night, a gig that lasted until he punched somebody e_SDHpbackstage.

”The next day I was written out of the script,“ he recalls, noting that his character was killed in a car accident.

”I've since calmed down, and I don't hit people,“ ­Desiato says with a hearty laugh that fills the dining room at Natasha's. ”I may berate them verbally, but I don't hit them.“

He continued acting and eventually came to Lexington to work at Diners' Playhouse, a union theater that used to offer shows in repertory on North Broadway. It changed management and names several times before closing in June 1982.

Despite the theater's ­closing, Desiato has remained in Lexington and active in ­local theater, particularly with ­Studio Players, where he is house manager for the Carriage House Theatre. He also is vice president of Balagula Theatre, the company that performs at Natasha's Bistro on Esplanade.

In those years, he's turned in some memorable performances, particularly as a lonely old man dealing with the gay young man ­caring for him in Jeff ­Barron's Visiting Mr. Green at Studio Players.

In the community, Desiato is a distinctive and opinionated talent who advocates for the basics over newfangled approaches to theater that he says often have nothing to do with acting.

Desiato's method to playing Barrymore harks back to his training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with his acting styles coach, Jack Aronson.

”One of the questions Jack would ask us in class was, "What does your character look like?'“ Desiato recalls. ”You'd say, "He's 7-foot-5, weighs 390 pounds, he's got a big hump on his back, blah, blah, blah.' Then, he'd say, "What does he sound like?' "Well, his voice is blah, blah, blah.'

”Then he'd hand you a mirror and say, "That's what your character looks like.' And he'd been recording, and he'd turn it on and say, "That's what it sounds like.'

”It's the truth. This is the only machine you have — your body, your voice, your looks, whatever. We can do all sorts of funny things with makeup, but underneath the makeup, there's the person, and that's the actor.“

And that's who this ­Barrymore is: Ed Desiato, drawing on his own stage career of more than 50 years and playwright Luce's words to bring one the 20th century's legendary actors to life.

”That's the only way this play can be performed,“ e_SDHpDesiato says. ”To get the chance to work this character is an actor's dream. But there's no way I could be John Barry­more. I wouldn't even try. It would be insulting to his memory and a crime to the pictures he left behind. But I am sure enough of myself to know I can do this role.“

Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217, or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.

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