Category: Archive

Rough and Ready: actor Joe Murphy’s working-class portrayals have a ring of truth

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

Last season, when he played Billy, the abusive ex-con boyfriend of the unwed mother played by Lili Taylor in ‘ngus McLaughlin’s “The Dead Eye Boy” at off-Broadway’s Manhattan Class Company, he was Joseph Murphy.

More recently, as an idealistic, unlettered member of the police force of an unspecified mid-size city in the Mideast, giving a deeply moving performance in Rebecca Gilman’s “Blue Surge,” at the Public Theater, he was simply Joe Murphy.

The slight alteration in his billing might easily go unnoticed and uncommented upon, but it somehow seems to conform with the straightforward, all-American image the actor projects, and even with the forcefully unadorned acting, which seems to come so naturally to him.

His work, as it happens, isn’t as direct as it might appear to be, and his portrayal of Curt, the luckless cop in “Blue Surge” was one of the subtlest and most successfully multi-dimensioned portraits of an ordinary working stiff to have graced a local stage in many a season, as unforgettably sorrowing as it was resonant.

The Wisconsin-born, Irish-American anchor sat in the garden of a Chelsea restaurant on a recent afternoon, removing his sunglasses and putting them on again as light and shade alternately took command of the brick-lined space. Either Murphy’s pale, blue-green eyes are a little bit light-sensitive, or the shades represented an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to maintain a slight element of self-protective distance from an interviewer’s probing questions.

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Murphy, whose manager has told him never to divulge his actual age, appears to be a little under 40, or approximately the same age as the plainclothes police officer he played in “Blue Surge,” which completed its run at the public’s Anspacher Theater last weekend.

Managerial advice on keeping an actor’s age a secret is fairly common these days, but in Murphy’s case, it seems almost counterproductive, because part of what makes his impact so emphatic is that he projects a sort of lived-in, experienced quality that suggests a rich, personal backstory that deepens his work.

Director Robert Falls’s five-actor cast was, without exception, excellent, and totally integrated, but it was Murphy’s Curt that stung the most as, despite his every decent intention, his relationships, without exception, vectored toward a lethal whirlpool of loss and disorder.

Those attachments included Curt’s loose cannon of a partner, Doug, the two sex workers with whom the cops interact, Sandy and Heather, and, finally, his upscale art teacher girlfriend, Beth.

Both of Murphy’s parents came from farming backgrounds, although he himself was born in Waukesha, a small city near Milwaukee.

“We lived there until I was in the seventh grade, at which point my dad bought the farm from his mother and moved us out to Arena, a town of 439,” he said.

It so happened that while Murphy was in high school, in a class he says had “about a hundred” students, the Hawaiian-born Korean-American actor Randall Duk Kim founded a group called the American Players Theater, located near nearby Spring Green.

“It was out in the woods,” he said. “There was a sign-up sheet in the library when I was a sophomore, asking if we wanted to go and help build this theater. We built the stage and installed seats they’d gotten from some abandoned movie theater.”

It was the first time Murphy had ever been exposed to live actors. “I was intrigued by these actors,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘Who are these people? Are they like gypsies?’ ”

Murphy credits Kim with introducing him to acting. “He’s a phenomenal Shakespearean actor,” Murphy said. “I’ve seen him play all the great roles, everything from Puck to Lear, and from Titus Andronicus to Richard III.”

It was, however, a visit Kim made to Murphy’s high school English class that opened the door to spoken literature. “He read from Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass,’ ” the actor said. “It was a beginning for me. I was teary-eyed, because it was so beautiful and so moving. Then he switched to Mark Twain. He has us all howling with laughter, and then he left. I’d never seen anything like it and I wondered, ‘What was that?’ I had never experienced anything like it.”

If that weren’t enough, the course of Murphy’s future was sealed for good when Kim brought his actors to school. “They did ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in our gymnasium and it was just outrageous,” Murphy recalled. “I started to spend a lot of time at the theater, up in the hills, as a kind of permanent usher, meeting all these cool people from New York.”

For the middle child of the five sons and daughters of an Irish-American civil engineer from Wisconsin, actually becoming one of those “cool people from New York” was a long chalk indeed.

Father’s obsession

Murphy describes his father, now retired but still living on the farm in Arena, as “obsessed with Ireland,” going there whenever possible.

“In fact,” Murphy said, “he built a huge Celtic cross at the highest point on our land, overlooking all the hills and valleys. My sister was married in front of it last summer.”

Since Murphy’s father was one of 12 children, the actor’s family is a sizable one.

“I have 52 first cousins and 53 second cousins, and not one of them is involved in the arts,” he said.

Although he has strong ties to the Midwest, Murphy has been in New York for about 15 years, working off-Broadway and sometimes understudying major roles in commercial productions such as Patrick Marber’s “Closer,” two seasons ago, and the Roundabout revival of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” a bit earlier.

Outstanding as his work is, one of the reasons he’s not better known here is that he’s spent considerable time performing in Europe, often on the ongoing festival circuit.

“I used to work with a director named Jon Jesurun,” he said. “We were based in Amsterdam, and we played long runs there, and went to all the big festivals in cities like Vienna, Hamburg, Lille, Sarajevo, Zagreb, and places like that. Steve Buscemi was part of the company, and when he left to become a movie star, I took over his roles in plays like ‘Deep Sleep’ and ‘Shatterhand Massacre.’ Along with the Wooster Group, we were the best-known American troupe at the festivals.”

In addition to periods spent working in Europe, there have been times when the actor who’s nothing if not something of a seeker, turned his back on acting.

“I wasn’t raised to be an actor,” said Murphy, who spent a couple of desultory years at the University of Wisconsin’s La Crosse campus.

An acting teacher told him that, as a farm boy, he didn’t know enough about the world. He took her advice seriously and backpacked around Europe, even stopping on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, where he pitched his tent in a farmer’s field.

“Every morning a nun would come by on her bike and sit with me in front of my tent,” he said. “We’d drink coffee and talk about God and the world for hours. I spent days hiking around the cliffs and reading. I had a bike and I’d go to the pub every night. I still think about those times a lot, because they were really incredible, really special.”

Murphy admits to having had fears about the theatrical life to which he was attracted. “I realized I had a tremendous amount of fear: fear of success, fear of people who were successful, fear of people who could help me be successful,” he said. “I never understood that whole fear-of-success thing until I found myself in the middle of it.”

Somewhere along the way, however, he regained control of himself, his life, and his work. The image he uses to describe the way he feels now is evocatively and characteristically working class, close to something Curt, the cop he played so tellingly in “Blue Surge,” might say.

“I feel like my toolbox is full now,” he said. “I’ll still get some really fine finishing tools, but the really big tools are all in there now to work with, where they weren’t before.”

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