Better Acting through Chemistry


DENZEL WASHINGTON and Viola Davis were little more than professional acquaintances when they began rehearsing in March to play husband and wife in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Fences.” They had worked together briefly on the 2002 film “Antwone Fisher,” Mr. Washington’s directorial debut, but there had been no bonding. “Polite and formal” was how Ms. Davis described their interaction back then.

Yet now, after five weeks of performances, Mr. Washington and Ms. Davis display a warmth and playfulness with each other that reflect the essential rapport of any successful Troy and Rose Maxson, who, after 18 years of marriage, are each other’s source of hope in a world of otherwise expired dreams.

During a recent hourlong interview, the two stars of this critically acclaimed “Fences” frequently finished each other’s sentences:

He: “The play is ultimately about a family.”

She: “Who know that family is their most precious treasure.”

They complimented each other sweetly:

He: “You look extra beautiful today.”

She: “Oh, he makes me smile so much.”

And over and over, each called the other “Troy” and “Rose” and seamlessly weaved dialogue from the play, set in 1957 Pittsburgh, into the conversation.

Asked about their nerves on the first day of rehearsals, Ms. Davis remembered feeling “panicked” — at which point Mr. Washington sprung from his chair and began imitating her pacing the room, flipping through an imaginary script. “She was like a little bee,” he said midstride as she laughed delightedly, “all this feverish energy, to and fro, to and fro.”

“Denzel, you started learning your lines weeks ahead of me!” Ms. Davis said before turning to a reporter and adding: “This is one very smart man.”

The two were nominated this month for Tony Awards for best leading actor and actress in a play, with the production itself earning 10 nominations altogether, the most ever received for a revival of a play. This is the first “Fences” on Broadway since the original 1987 production starring James Earl Jones and Mary Alice, who earned Tonys for their performances (though Ms. Alice won in the best featured actress category).

Mr. Washington is widely known for playing tough-talking extroverts and firebrands in films like “Malcolm X” and “Training Day” (for which he won an Academy Award in 2001), while Ms. Davis has tended toward controlled characters with gnawing anxieties, like the protective mother of a schoolboy in the movie “Doubt,” which earned her an Oscar nomination in 2009. For all their differences as actors, however, Ms. Davis and Mr. Washington said they initially shared trepidation about following their predecessors of 23 years ago. Mr. Washington saw Mr. Jones and Ms. Alice on Broadway the same year that he earned his first Academy Award nomination, at age 32, playing the anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko in “Cry Freedom.”

“That voice of James Earl Jones, that physical presence, filled the theater in a way that I’ve never experienced since,” said Mr. Washington, now 55. “Sitting there, watching him, I never imagined I would play this role. Well, maybe I did, briefly. But —— ”

“There’s no way to prepare yourself to step into a work with such history,” Ms. Davis continued.

One of Wilson’s 10 plays in his study of the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th century, “Fences” stands as his great marital drama. While the other nine plays mostly feature brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, and boyfriends and girlfriends, the emotion in “Fences” centers on the seemingly unbreakable bond between Rose and Troy, one or both of whom is onstage until the play’s final scene, when the Maxsons’ children reckon with their lives and the marriage of their parents.

The demands inherent in the play’s structure guided much of the rehearsal work for Mr. Washington and Ms. Davis. Act I, while dotted with dark moments, is essentially a romance, establishing the affection, companionship and sexual attraction between Troy and Rose. Wilson’s dialogue ranges from tender (Troy about Rose: “I love her so much, I done run out of ways of loving her”) to baldly carnal (Troy: “We go upstairs in that room at night, and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever”). For Act II to successfully deliver the devastating blows that Wilson sets up, audience members must believe by intermission that Troy and Rose — whatever their personal foibles — are a couple for the ages.

Working with the director Kenny Leon (also a Tony nominee), Ms. Davis and Mr. Washington had long discussions imagining a richly textured back story about the couple’s courtship, love life and reservations about each other — a narrative that is all but absent from Wilson’s script. Ms. Davis took the lead, writing out several pages of a conjured origin story about the first date of Rose and Troy, their first night of sex, and the first time that Troy tells Rose that he once killed a man (in self-defense) and spent 15 years in prison as a result.

“Our first date was especially crucial as an establishing moment in this relationship, and it was an epic first date,” said Ms. Davis, 44, who in 2001 won the best featured actress Tony for another Wilson play, “King Hedley II.” “We sat on the porch of my house, and he entertained me for hours with all of his stories so that by the end of the date I was mesmerized and falling in love with him. We talked until dawn, and he was the perfect gentleman. He kissed my hand and walked away.”

“But part of me knew that wasn’t right, that he’d want to do more than kiss my hand,” she added with a girlish giggle.

“What? Like take you to a strip joint?” Mr. Washington asked.

“No, no, but you’re a bad boy,” Ms. Davis said of Troy. “And I was so sexually attracted to him. And sex is important, sex could mask our problems. There are moments in Act I where I need to make it clear that I’m thinking: ‘Did I make a mistake marrying this man? Did I not think realistically about this relationship before I married him?’ The fact that he did murder someone — I didn’t want to marry someone with that kind of past, but I fell into it because my loins were on fire.”

Mr. Leon, who had directed regional productions of “Fences” previously, said in a telephone interview that he had come to learn from those experiences that Rose and Troy — as well as the actors playing them — needed to “seem inseparable in their bones if ‘Fences’ is to truly work.”

“Chemistry between actors isn’t enough,” Mr. Leon said. “You need people who can convey through body language, through pauses, even through the pace of their breathing around one another, that Rose and Troy are everything to one another.”

Mr. Washington, in turn, who was last on Broadway five years ago as Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” said he concentrated on balancing Troy’s devotion to Rose with disappointment in other parts of his life, like his failed baseball career, and with traumas associated with his father and brother. Yet Mr. Washington said he was determined not to play the character for sympathy. As a result, he said that he sometimes feels a desire to make Troy seem as tough and dominant as possible — which can backfire if he is not careful, he added.

“The hardest thing for me to do is listen,” he said. “Onstage I sometimes think, ‘Denzel, listen to Rose, let her finish what she’s saying.’ It’s tricky because, by my own nature, I’m a talker, and Troy’s a talker, and he’s always cutting people off. I personally have this natural instinct to talk, and I’m playing a man who draws power partly from hearing himself talk.”

Audience reactions also present a challenge at some performances, said Mr. Washington, who described trying to tune out the distraction of female theatergoers laughing or whispering at inappropriate times, like Troy’s most pained revelations to Rose in Act II.

“There are all these women coming to see me, to see this actor they like, and I appreciate that,” he said. “But at some shows, women are carrying on and snickering too much. Like at our Mother’s Day performance. Some audience members wouldn’t stop talking during an Act II speech. So I walked down to the front of the stage and stared at them, silently, for 30 seconds. They stopped, and I went on.”

He and Ms. Davis said they were not surprised by nervous laughter and murmurs, seeing it as an outlet for audience members who might feel as unsettled by the marital strife as Rose and Troy are. Both actors are happily married, and they said that their performances drew partly on the painful idea of what their lives would be like without their spouses. Maybe, they said, some audience members are audibly vocal simply to distract themselves from that pain.

“Denzel and I are able to do this play, I think, because we both know what it means to have love in our lives,” Ms. Davis said. Married to the actor Julius Tennon for seven years in June, Ms. Davis continued: “I love having my husband in my life. The part of me that I’m able to share with the audience is the fear and desperation that I would feel if the love of my life was suddenly taken from me.”

“I feel the same,” Mr. Washington said, “exactly the same.”

By PATRICK HEALY

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