Could anyone play an aspiring Mr. Charm with a hidden agenda better than suave Maxwell Caulfield? He opened last night Off-Broadway at the Promenade as Victorian Age George Love in the American premiere of Tryst.
Playing opposite Amelia Campbell, the 46-year-old actor who began his show business career as a male stripper, acquits himself well -- displaying powerful acting chops that may surprise you if you know him only as Michael Carrington in "Grease 2."

Putting aside the long roster of TV roles he's done and My Night with Reg, his nude romp Off Broadway, directed by his mentor, Tony-winning director Jack Hofsiss, Caulfield did take over the featured role of Gerald Croft in the Royal National Theatre's production of J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls (1994); portrayed John Merrick on tour in Bernard Pomerance's 1979 Tony-winning Best Play The Elephant Man (directed by Hofsiss); and, 20 years ago, portrayed the demanding role of lustful drifter Sloane in Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane Off Broadway.

Tryst marks his return to the New York stage after what he considers a much too-long absence. It's the American title for English author and former actress/director Karoline Leach's play, The Mysterious Mr. Love, which had a successful 1997 premiere at London's Comedy Theatre.

"When I saw it on the West End," recalls Caulfield during a break from rehearsals, "it came over as an unconventional thriller. George was a role that fascinated me. Then (producers) Morton Wollowitz and Barbara Freitag approached me out of the blue. Fate! I have to tell you, George and Adelaide are two cherry roles and Amelia and I are mining them for everything in the lode."

He's in wild admiration for his leading lady, who first impressed Broadway with her Tony-nomiated role in the (sadly) shortlived Our Country's Good. "She's a spitfire! I've been a long-time fan, since catching her in Translations (1995; with Brian Dennehy, Dana Delany, Rufus Sewell and Michael Cumpsty) and Waiting in the Wings (1999; opposite Lauren Bacall, Rosemary Harris, Dana Ivey, among others). In those plays, she was so overshadowed by the stars."

Nor does Caulfield hide his enthusiasm for director Joe Brancato (Cobb, From Door to Door), the founder and artistic director of Stony Point's Penguin Repertory Company (now in it's 28th year). "He never stops brainstorming and is so inclusive. There's a wonderful duality to George and Adelaide, and Amelia and I were -- shall I be polite and just say -- pushed constantly by Joe to discover new facets. It was amazing what we unearthed."

An interesting aspect of Leach's play is that in the beginning, one character comes over as stronger than the other; then the tables turn, and the balance of power between George and Adelaide shifts drastically.
"Not only does George find himself being drawn to Adelaide in ways he didn't anticipate," Caulfield explains, "but they also discover a common bond: parental abuse. It takes a while for Adelaide's penny to drop; but when it does, she's on to George. What George hadn't reckoned on was how this woman would get to him. For the first time, he's forced to confront feelings he's never had."

In charting the course of their characters, explains Caulfield, there were challenges. "It was important for me to maintain a comfortable, charming exterior while still trying to hoodwink Adelaide. In Amelia's case, it was in how she segues from an awkward, innocent shop girl after George does a Svengali thing on her -- when he's finally able to exert control over her and make her look at herself in the mirror and see this vibrant woman."

Caulfield says he relishes creating characters far afield from what he's done "and George, this diabolical character, has been fun. I drew on things in my personal life. After all, we all put on a mask of some kind in our daily lives. Maybe we're not necessarily trying to be duplicitous, but just acting that we are in a better mood than we are or that we're more confident than we are.
"In George's case," Caulfield continues, "it's an extreme version. He's not homicidal. He's merely aspiring to be something that he's not -- to be in a class that he wasn't born into. That blind ambition brings out this dark personality lurking within that gives him that alter ego he uses to seduce and rob women."

In rehearsal, another challenge Caulfield and Campbell faced was that often, while in the midst of quite intimate conversation and combustible moments, they would break the fourth wall. "That took time to get right. The hardest part was to do it in such a way so that the audience doesn't get comfortable with it and think we're doing some sort of cabaret."

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Maxwell Caulfield, born in Scotland, has an American connection in his stepfather, who was a Marine D.I. at Parris Island, SC, and who, when he couldn't stick with the discipline at home, kicked him out at age of 15.
Three years later, he got a Green Card and relocated to the States, where, admittedly, he used his good looks and sex appeal to make money as an "exotic dancer." That somehow led him into acting.

On the road in Elephant Man, he met his wife Juliet Mills, 18 years his senior, who played Mrs. Kendal. They married a year later, and he became fiercely devoted to her daughter Melissa. (Mills plays the more than slightly unhinged, wicked and very funny 300-year-old-witch Tabitha Lenox on the NBC daytime drama "Passions.")

In 1981, Caulfield made his Off-Broadway debut in EMS. That netted him the plum starring role in the 1982 sequel to "Grease," one of the most successful musical films of all time, playing opposite Michelle Pfeiffer.

Both were being groomed for Hollywood stardom, but in its initial release, the film took a critical drubbing and was a box office bomb (a bomb that went on to reap great profits on video and in numerous primetime TV showings).

Caulfield's greatest body of work has been on TV: numerous roles in soaps, voice-overs for animated features, guest roles, recurring roles, series and miniseries. Highlights among those are his portrayal of bad boy Miles Colby on "Dynasty" (1981) and "The Colbys" (1985). He also appeared in the first episode of "Beverly Hills 90210" as a suitor interested in much younger Shannen Doherty.

He worked Off Broadway in several short-lived plays, then in 1985 he appeared opposite Jessica Tandy, David Strathairn and Elizabeth Wilson in Salonika at the Public Theater. Other credits include a national tour of Sleuth opposite Stacy Keach, Sweet Bird of Youth at Williamstown, Paradise Lost with Geraldine Page and The Woman in Black with Roy Dotrice.

How much of his new acting chops were influenced by his father-in-law, Oscar winner Sir John Mills who appeared in over 100 films and who began his career on the English stage as a song-and-dance man in 1929?
"Where do I begin? Sir John [who died in 2095 at 97] was the quintessential English gentleman and the consummate pro. I was always impressed with what an innovative actor he was. His interpretation of working-class men and British military officers was groundbreaking. He showed their vulnerability in a way that hadn't been done before. He brought a new sense of realism.
"I recall once Michael Caine, a sort of professor of acting, speaking in reverential terms about Sir John and the influence his work had had on him. He was a true national institution.
One reason he was so beloved in England is that he didn't attempt to become an international star. He was loyal to his roots. He never went Hollywood. That really endeared him."

Caulfield says that Mills was not only a true family patriarch but also "one of the most generous-hearted men I've had the privilege to know. Even right at the end, his spirit was absolutely dazzling. He urged me to take care of Juliet, and we had a laugh because, all these years, she's been taking care of me!"

In addition to numerous films, Caulfield caught Mills pere onstage as the retired general in Brian Clarke's The Petition (1986) at the National, which co-starred Rosemary Harris; Little Lies, an adaptation of The Magistrate; Goodbye, Mr. Chips at the Chichester Festival Theatre (1982); as Doolittle in Pygmalion (1987); and Caulfield saw his one-man show, An Evening with John Mills, countless times.

"Sir John didn't look too kindly on primetime telly and resisted taking roles on it for years," recalls Caulfield, "but I almost had him talked into doing a guest bit in the hit BBC medical drama, "Casualty," which I did for two seasons."

In 2004, Mills, then deaf and legally blind, was invited to do a double episode, and Caulfield read him the script. "Even though he was somewhat infirm," says the actor, "he was still mobile as long as someone was on hand. The character he was to play is ailing in hospital and, in the end, dies. I almost had Sir John there. 'Yes, yes,' he'd say. 'I can see this working.' I didn't want to read him the ending, but I had to. He said, 'Oh, that's in such poor taste, the poor man dying. Tell them I'm not interested.'"
Caulfield sadly concludes, "I only got to watch him. That would have been my opportunity to work with him."

Though Caulfield has kept busy the last two years, he hasn't been onstage. "I'd be lying if I didn't say the living isn't easy at home in Santa Barbara. I committed a huge blunder in not coming back (to the New York stage) sooner. I saw how ultra competitive it had become and wasn't fond of all the stunt casting that was going on. But when the script for Tryst arrived, Juliet read it and got very excited. She has great instincts and told me I should do it."

Caulfield says that he and Campbell are so happy to be in such a sumptuous production. "Our producers have pulled out all the stops. David Korins (Bridge and Tunnel; Blackbird) has designed a magnificent set, and we couldn't have asked for a better lighting designer than Jeff Nellis. Joe's orchestrated the music really creatively. It's eerie and foreboding but also pushes the plot forward. The Promenade is one of the sweetest houses I've ever played.

He adds, "I was thrilled the other day when Joe referred to me as a 'New York actor.' I took that as a very high compliment. And I intend to do more. Lots more. There's nothing better than playing to a live audience!"

Caulfield reports that the original aspiration for Tryst "was to go in for names and to be done on Broadway. Some that have come up are Kevin Bacon and Helen Bonham Carter. It's ended up being Campbell and Caulfield uptown, but we won't disappoint you. Tryst's become quite a sensual piece."

He adds, "Joe's taken this rather conventional type thriller with the handsome bounder and the vulnerable wallflower and given it quite a jolt. and we're kicking the crap out of these roles. We're aiming this show for the matinee ladies and the midnight men!"

[END]

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Key Subjects: 
Maxwell Caulfield, Tryst, Amelia Campbell, Grease, John Mills, Juliet Mills, Promenade Theater
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Date: 
April 2006
Subtitle: 
Maxwell Caulfield Takes on Tryst