By Naomi Serviss / New York City
When Adam Grupper checks in for work as the understudy for Nathan Lane in Pictures from Home, he knows he probably won’t go on.
And he’s A-OK with that.
The master actor, clocking in his 13th Broadway production, wouldn’t want to disappoint a theater crowd that’s coughed up mega bucks to watch Lane do Lane, as opposed to seeing an unfamiliar thespian in his stead, regardless of how wowing that lesser-known may be.
On the other hand, New York theater insiders may recognize Grupper’s name (and immense talent) from decades honing his craft. Maybe you’ve caught him in a Broadway blockbuster or two like: My Fair Lady, Guys & Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, The Addams Family, The Wild Party, Wicked or Into the Woods.
Check your Playbills!
These days, Grupper (pronounced GREW-per) is gratefully keeping company with his fellow standbys, as well as the irrepressible Nathan Lane, who plays patriarch Irv Sultan, Tony-winning Danny Burstein, performing as Larry Sultan and Zoë Wanamaker as Jean Sultan.
Pictures from Home opened February 9th at the (infamous) Studio 54, culled from Larry Sultan’s award-winning photo memoir published in 1992. Try to find a copy of that edition!
For 10 years Larry (Burstein) regularly bunked with his California folks to capture them in intimate portraiture. Writ large. Larry hoped to churn the mundane into transcendent art, and succeeded beyond even Irv’s dreams.
His father (Lane), a successful career salesman, is baffled by his progeny's endless undertaking. He vents his spleen colorfully and at high volume. Larry gives as good as he gets. Bickering and challenging each other is the family’s M.O.
This complicated domestic dramedy has been skillfully adapted for the stage
by Sharr White and craftily directed by Bartlett Sher.
Grupper and I recently sat down for a chat to unpack what it means to be a Broadway understudy (or standby).
We both sipped tea (Earl Gray for him, mint for me) at Friedman’s Restaurant in the Theater District’s Edison Hotel. Before it was Friedman’s, the non-descript joint was known as, “that restaurant in the Edison Hotel,” or affectionately among theater folk as “the Polish Tea Room.” It boasted a soup-to-nuts menu, specializing in deli, soup and comfort breakfast food (waffles, pancakes and the like).
It’s also a well-known “secret” shortcut from West 46th to West 47th streets, sometimes clogged with hotel guests. Long been traversed by post-matinee actors who want a closeby quick bite or change of (backstage) scenery.
I interviewed Grupper in 1995 (!) for a story on his role in a revival of Guys & Dolls (Benny Southstreet).
We then met over matzo ball soup (him) and tea (mint) for me.
Why was he so drawn to the spot?
“I used to love going there after a Wednesday matinee, a two-show day, to get a generous bowl of steaming hot matzo-ball soup with crackers,” he recalled. “Some days I’d go for seconds! It was my default place to go when I wanted a bowl of comfort.”
At the time of our earlier interview, Grupper was about to embark on a trip of his lifetime: a four-and-a-half-month journey through Southeast Asia.
“One month each in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, three weeks in Nepal, and side trips to Hong Kong and Singapore,” he recalled.
The exultant traveler treasures a memento from a little shop in Bali. “It’s kind of a stress figure that’s small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.”
“To me it perfectly represented that state of anxiety when you are so fearful that you retreat into yourself; metaphorically curling yourself into a protective ball. It occurred to me that holding it in my hand was a perfect way to physicalize containing and controlling anxiety as I prepared for a performance backstage in my dressing room.”
“Turns out, that’s exactly what its purpose is! It’s designed to be a meditative figure. By touching and rubbing its back you release your negative feelings out of your mind and body and into the figure.”
Grupper relies on his Bali souvenir to ease stress before a show. “Mine has been burnished and worn down from all the years I’ve held it backstage. I’ve rubbed its smooth back with my thumb, tossed it rhythmically from hand to hand, and then gently kissed it before I hit the stage,” he said.
During the pandemic, Grupper was fortunate to have an audiobook-reading career that has kept (and continues to keep) him challenged and occupied.
He records in a small studio in his Brooklyn home and is always in demand, thanks to a deep, pitch-perfect register.
His kids returned home from college when Covid shut the world down. They thoroughly relished family time, despite the unfortunate circumstances.
Grupper rehearses or reads lines with his fellow understudies and watches two performances from the audience every week. Although he hasn’t yet subbed for Lane, he knows that might change in a heartbeat.
He’s internalized Irv’s part and as a consummate pro, could pinch-hit on instant notice. “There’s a great advantage to being a standby,” he said. “It’s a steady job and I’m grateful to be working.”
“Almost like being in battle. Hours of boredom punctuated by intense stress.
“Seriously, everything is fantastic,” said the gifted audiobook reader and movie actor (Spirited; Trophy Kids).
“One of the redeeming things about the play is Irv’s got this Socratic dialogue going on with his son, about art, life, what it means to be a parent, everything important in life.”
Irv is a blustery force, prone to outbursts and endless arguing with his son and Jean. Nathan Lane is a perfect foil to Larry. He’s exhausting to watch on stage, and the role garners pathos and at times, comic relief.
After all, it is Nathan Lane.
When Grupper’s not performing, he’s in his dressing room, fruitfully filling his time. “These days I’ve been doing my taxes,” he laughed.
Grupper made a conscious choice at the onset of his career not to aim for celebrity. “I’m a journeyman, not someone well known or a star. Just a consistently working actor in New York.”
A yeoman actor who chose family over chasing fame and heady starring roles. His two college-aged children, Phoebe and Harry, did not catch the acting bug and he’s fine with that. Grupper’s wife Maxine Resnick is a successful real estate broker.
Grupper and his fellow standbys have had unusual, very special rehearsal experiences. “We all arrived for work about ten days into the stars’ rehearsal period,” he recalled. “Within three days all three were out because of illness.”
“Rather than postpone rehearsals until the stars recovered, our director (Bart Sher) elected to continue rehearsing the show with us three,” he said.
“It was a privilege to work directly with Bart and get his insights into the characters and their complex relationships,” Grupper continued. “Generally, whenever you cover in a show, you rehearse separately from the regular performers.” The stage manager attends understudy rehearsals.
“Those rehearsals generally don’t even get scheduled until well after a show has completed its main rehearsal process, finished previews and fully opened! “To be invited early on to be part of the initial rehearsal process was a treat for us,” he said.
Grupper’s goal as a cover is to inspire confidence.
“There’s always anxiety when a regular performer is out of a show, especially the first time they’re absent,” he said. Grupper subbed for Danny Burstein’s Tevye 44 times in the 2015 Fiddler on the Roof revival. They’ve been pals for decades.
The audience doesn’t always approve, either. “With astronomical Broadway ticket prices, patrons worry, ‘Will I still get my money’s worth?’ “For the regular cast member there’s concern they’ll be saddled with someone who needs to be propped up onstage because they don’t know their lines, lyrics, blocking or choreography.
“As a cover, my job is to say to everyone, ‘Don’t worry. I’m here. I’ve got this. To let people know both onstage and in the audience, that I am fully prepared and they can expect me to provide a fully-realized performance, consistent with both the director’s vision and with what they expect to see under normal circumstances,” Grupper explained.
“Experienced theater audiences love seeing a cover shine and show their worth. “Maybe they’ll see a star in the making.” Once in a while, understudies become bona fide stars. Anthony Hopkins, Shirley MacLaine and Bernadette Peters broke into the business that way covering featured actors. And wise regular cast members relish having new energy when a cover hits the stage..
As Grupper knows from experience, “Having a cover perform can be theater magic!”
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com