2014 Best Actor in a Play Nominee Interview: David Berti as Roy Cohn in The Umbrella's "Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches"

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews.

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Photo by Kippy Goldfarb

Photo by Kippy Goldfarb

David Berti packed a heavy punch as the spit-fire, unsympathetic Roy Cohn in both Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika.  However, he impressed because of his sensitivity and vulernability in Cohn's journey as a person and character.  David is nominated for 2014 Best Actor in a Play for Part I: Millennium Approaches, and we couldn't be happier to interview him.  In his Nominee Interview, David describes his rehearsal process and approach to Roy Cohn, his understanding and appreciation for the Greater Boston community theatre, and even in what period of history that he would choose to live!

David, please introduce yourself to our readers.

I was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts at St. Lukes Hospital 61 (yikes!) years ago.  I came to Boston in 1971 to attend Boston University School for the Arts.  I fell in love with this area and I never left.  I’m married to a wonderful and talented director, Donnie Baillargeon.  We live in Waltham.  My day job is as the Registrar at New England Law Boston.

What do you believe that Angels in America is about? How does Roy Cohn fit into this epic story?

Someone once told me that there are two motivators in life – love and fear.  Angels is about both.  I’m of an age to remember vividly what it was like in the early 1980s, when AIDS first reared its ugly head.  I remember the fear we all felt, that we’d be the next ones to catch it and die.  But that was nothing compared to the fear that the country felt – gay men became pariahs.  One of my friends was hospitalized with AIDS very early in the crisis, and he told me that the kitchen staff at the hospital refused to enter his room at meal time, even wearing a mask.  He said that they would put his tray on the floor and slide it over to him.  “Angels” captures that fear  -- in Louis’ inability to stay with Prior once Prior’s AIDS is full-blown; in Roy’s utter denial that he has AIDS.  But there is also great love – Belize’s love for his friend, Prior, for example.  That’s the way it was back then.  We took care of each other because we knew that no one else would.  My friends and I drew closer as the crisis worsened.

As for Roy, he’s the perfect example of some of the men that I knew back then – they were motivated by both love and fear.  In Roy’s case, there was his love of power and his fear that his homosexuality would be made public.  For all his bravado, Roy was just a scared little boy at his core.

What drew you to audition and perform in Angels in America?

I like playing complex characters that have serious flaws – and Roy Cohn was always the #1 role on my bucket list.  He was full of unbridled ego and yet terrible self-loathing.  He was a Jew who had no respect for Jews; a man who slept with men but refused to identify as a gay man, especially after he was diagnosed with AIDS.  He went to his grave swearing that he had liver cancer.  I think he even believed that lie himself.  The challenge of making him a real human being really appealed to me.  I knew that I had to play what was in the script, but I also wanted to give him some humanity.  I didn’t want him to be a caricature.

Two other things drew me to this production: the director, Nancy Curran-Willis, for one.  We had done two previous shows together, and I knew if anyone could do justice to this show, it was her.  Nancy has a strong vision when she directs, but she also collaborates with her actors and expands that vision as rehearsals continue.  An actor can’t ask for more than that from a director. 

And then there were the remarkably talented people I saw at the callback auditions.  I just knew this was going to be something special.

What were some of the challenges of performing in a two-part play with rehearsals over many months?

Living with Roy Cohn for almost a year wasn’t easy.  When I would get home from rehearsals some nights, I behaved like I was shot from a cannon because I was so pumped from Roy’s energy.  Also, at my age, learning Roy’s “boatload” of lines was a true challenge.  One of the many joys of being in the production was working with some of the best actors, tech, and artistic people I have ever known -- and there was not a diva in the bunch (not counting me, of course).  We were together for almost a year and there was never a cross word. We liked and respected each other and we enjoyed being together, offstage as well as onstage. 

When we came back to do Part Two, it was like a reunion of old friends, and we couldn’t wait to get started telling the second half of this important story.  It was a very special experience and one that I doubt will come my way again. 

How do you prepare for a given role during the rehearsal process? Did you do anything differently when preparing to play Roy Cohn?

Playing a real-life character is always somewhat easier because you can find background information on the person in books and all over the internet.  In this case, I read Roy Cohn’s autobiography, which was fascinating.  Learning how the man viewed himself was very helpful to the creation of the role.  He didn’t see himself as a monster, of course; he thought he was a crusader with a mission in life – to identify and destroy the people that he felt were ruining the country.  Communists and homosexuals were at the top of his list.  He was once approached by a group of gay teachers who were suing a school system for dismissing another gay teacher.  Roy listened intently and told them that they had an excellent case.  They asked him to take on the case and he replied that he would be on the other side, fighting to keep the teacher out of a job.  When they asked him why, he said: “Because you people have no business teaching young people.”

What role(s) have you related to the most? Why?

I really had to think about this one – I think that I’ve related to just about every role that I’ve ever played, in some fashion.  It’s so clichéd, but actors use parts of themselves to create every character.  When I played Guido in Nine, it was my Italian heritage;  I was raised with men who behaved as he did.  When I did Man In Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone, it was my love of old movies and theater that surfaced.  As far as Roy goes, I could even relate to him on some level.  As a gay man who was closeted for too many years, I know that kind of fear of being found out.

How do you see community theatre changing?  How is Boston responding to these changes?  What do you think that community theatres can do differently?

The talent in community theater is extraordinary.  The fine productions I have seen in community theater are every bit as professional and polished as many of the Equity productions I have seen.  I do think that community theaters need to get their message out better, but that often costs money, and you also need a PR person willing to take on the task.  It requires a lot of time, and since most people in community theater have day jobs, it can be daunting to take on that role. The one thing we don’t always have is the financial resources of the Boston-based theaters.  We have our “angels” (no pun intended) who support us, but many community theaters rely on ticket sales to finance their next productions.  If we had a few more donations, our productions would benefit greatly.

Tell us a funny audition or performance story.

My first role in community theater was in Company at Vokes Players in Wayland.  I hadn’t done a musical before and on opening night, I was beyond nervous; I was panicked.  In one of the songs, “It’s the Little Things You Do Together”, I had one solo line.  I forget the exact line, but I do remember that when it came my turn to sing, what came out of me sounded something like: “Bff vzz da vcxd hgy tonethr!”  Some sort of gibberish that would have sent Sondheim through the roof.  I was mortified, and when I exited from the scene, I left feeling that I couldn’t go out there again.  But then the absurdity of what I had just done onstage hit me and I started to laugh.  I had to cover my mouth so the audience wouldn’t hear me shrieking with laughter like a crazy person.  

I had my back turned and I suddenly felt the hand of my director on my back, and he said “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.”  He thought I was crying.  When I turned around, I did have tears streaming down my face, and when the director saw that I was hysterical with laughter, he stared at me like I’d lost my mind, and finally said: “You need to pull yourself together before your next entrance.”

What are you currently reading?

An excellent biography of Walt Disney, another complex. difficult man.  There’s no doubt that he was an innovative genius, but he also had a mercurial personality.  He could be magnanimous, petty, supportive and something of a dictator.  Interestingly, like Roy Cohn, he was intensely anti-communist, and in 1947, he went before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named three former animators as communists.  He also accused the Screen Animators Guild of being a communist front.  One doesn’t think of Mickey Mouse’s creator as being a “Red baiter.”

If you could live in one time period, when would it be?  What would you do?

Another great question.  Some friends and I were talking about this the other night, while discussing – what else? – Downton Abbey.   I do love the late 19th century/ early 20th century with the beautiful clothes and manners.  And it was an exciting time for inventions that began to sweep the world – the electric light bulb and telephone, etc.  Still, I do love my modern conveniences (like air conditioning) and when I see old photos of men in Boston in the early 1900s walking around in the heat of August with suits and starched collars, it gives me pause.  If I did live back then, I’d like to think I would be a working actor, though the truth is I’d probably be a law school Registrar!

What is one thing that you would like to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Simply this – there is no question that the theater in Boston is richer and more diverse than ever before.  But the same thing is true of the community theaters in the suburbs.  There are good theaters everywhere that are just a short drive for most people living in the towns and cities outside Boston.  There have been so many outstanding community theater productions, just in the last year.  I urge your Boston readers to find these theaters; I think that they will be pleasantly surprised.