There are a few individual performances that Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein speaks of with sheer reverence, a respect and deep appreciation for the artistry on display. One of those instances came in 1984, in a production of The Ballad of Soapy Smith by Michael Weller at the Public Theater. Denis Arndt played the title character, a con man who believes his own con.
Edelstein, then a young director, was stunned by Arndt’s work and pledged that he would work with him someday. It only took 30 years for it to happen.
“My schedule was right. The play was right. His schedule was right. It all came together,” Arndt said.
Arndt plays the charming drifter Abel Brown in the world premiere of Fireflies by Matthew Barber. He comes to Long Wharf on the heels of a fantastic year, making his Broadway debut opposite Mary Louise Parker in Heisenberg, a performance for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. “What a joy,” he said of his experience working with Parker. “It was all just terrific.”
Arndt is based on the West Coast and has been working in regional theatre, film, and television for decades, an “itinerant arts worker,” by his own description. But, for a bit of time last year, Arndt had a bit of fame.
If you were reading the New York media over the past year, it would seem like Arndt just popped up on the scene. “Almost 50 years – been making a living at it that long,” Arndt said, promptly knocking on wood. “I was kind of a novelty because I was so old. An old guy? What?”
Chatting for a few minutes before rehearsal, Arndt alternately chuckles at and expresses deep appreciation for the turns of the past year. “To receive a nomination, and to join that cadre of great actors, to be among them is a great honor,” he said.
Fireflies gives something to actors of a certain age – truly meaty roles reflecting the complexity of the human experience. “There are fewer and fewer roles and the roles that are there seem to be stereotypical. The old guy just about dying with the oxygen thing carrying his IV stand around with him. It’s kind of terrible. Judges – you can sit behind the bench. The wise old doctor or the patient in the bed dying,” Arndt said.
Fireflies offers something else, something that also isn’t readily associated with old age, a thing that everyone will experience several times over in the course of their lives. “Over the course of this play, a beginning happens,” he said.
Denis Arndt as Abel Brown in ‘Fireflies’ Photo: T. Charles Erickson