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Seth Numrich
Yosemite at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

by Wayman Wong

Seth Numrich
The puppets might've been the mane attention for some at War Horse, but Seth Numrich supplied the sensitive soul of Albert and gave the Tony-winning play its humanity and heart. One of theater's most promising young actors, the Juilliard grad gave such a moving performance that he earned Theatre World's Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence. Before that, Numrich (pronounced NOOM-rick), who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, made his Broadway debut as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, opposite Al Pacino.

We first saw him play a troubled gay teen in Daniel Talbott's Slipping at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Now he's back at this Off-Broadway venue in a new Talbott show, Yosemite (now extended to March 3). Numrich portrays Jake, one of three siblings sent into the snowy Sierra Nevada woods to bury a dead infant. Joe Dziemianowicz, N.Y. Daily News critic, compares the stark drama to Sam Shepard's Buried Child.

I caught up with Numrich, 25, who discussed why Yosemite is no walk in the park; what he thinks of the Oscar-nominated movie of War Horse, and what it was like to work with Pacino on Broadway.

Wayman Wong:  How you describe Yosemite? And what drew you to it?

Seth Numrich:  It's a family drama that's really dark, and it deals with loss and grief. And I'm digging a hole in the ground for 90 minutes. (Laughs.) As Daniel describes it, this family is drowning in misery and despair, and they're trying to get their heads above water. Daniel, who's one of my closest friends, told me he'd written the part with me in mind, and I was really honored, even though it couldn't get any more different [than me]. For instance, I have a very loving and wonderful family that's so supportive. I also feel the play is about poverty in a lot of ways.

WW:  You're a member of Artists Striving to End Poverty ( Tell us about that.

SN:  Yes, I've worked a lot in Florida and New York, up in Washington Heights. It's a medical facility for young people living with HIV and AIDS. I think all of them were born with the virus and have had complications since birth. They feel like outcasts and are angry at society. I think a lot about that when I work on parts like this.

WW:  Have you ever dealt with poverty firsthand like the characters in Yosemite?

SN:  At their level, fortunately, no. Growing up, we weren't wealthy, but my dad was an artist and my mom was a nurse, so we got by. It's funny. In the play, our characters dream about going to Disneyland and it's a big goal. And my brother and I were dead-set on going to Disney World. When I was 11 or 12, my family finally saved up enough money. We could afford to get to Florida and get into the park, but we brought a suitcase of ramen noodles, which they also talk about in the play, and that's what we mostly ate when we were there.

WW:  Yosemite is your first play since War Horse. Did you get to see the movie?

SN:  Yeah, it was bizarre watching the same story I was [performing] every night, but I had such a terrific time. Jeremy Irvine, the kid playing Albert, was wonderful. The film also took a lot of the same lines from the play, so I got to watch him do them, but it was so kind of small and subtle. That exemplified the difference between theater and film. He could be so internal and yet you saw what he was thinking. They got up close to all the characters, which I loved. But there's something so special about that play onstage, having the horses being what they are. It requires the audience to participate in that imaginary world, to buy the puppets as animals. It's so magical.

WW:  Speaking of movies, you just made your feature film debut in Private Romeo. You play the lead in this reinterpretation of Shakespeare's classic. Now it's a love story between two male high-school military cadets.

SN:  We shot it almost two years ago and we shot it in 14 days, It was fast and furious. But it was a lot of fun and a really interesting experiment. When I was at Juilliard, I did a production of Shakespeare's R&J, which was done with four guys. And I played Romeo in that, too. It was young men using that language to express themselves and their sexuality and coming of age. It was cool trying to figure out how to put that on film.

WW:  And your "Juliet" in the movie was Matt Doyle, who played Billy in War Horse.

SN:  Private Romeo was our first time working together, which was a lotta fun. And that happened at the same time we were both auditioning for "War Horse." It was totally random and we've become such close friends.

WW:  Did playing Romeo opposite a guy give you any interesting insights?

SN:  It was still first and foremost a love story. Alan Brown, the director, said he didn't set out to make a "gay film." It was just about young people coming to terms with who they were. I never thought twice about it being about a guy and a guy. I'm lucky I grew up in a family where that didn't matter. I always had role models of all different types of orientation, so I've never felt uncomfortable about it. Matt and I developed a rapport as artists.

WW:  And what was it liking doing Shakespeare with Al Pacino?

SN:  Amazing. The whole cast and experience was incredible. As a young actor, it was so inspiring having Al at the helm. It was my first time on Broadway. And he was warm and generous, as an artist and as a person. He's 100% committed. Especially as a 70-year-old actor still doing Shakespeare. Al was always exploring and changing. And he was kind. He'd come out with us to the bar and hang out and talk about his past.

WW:  Finally, what are working on after Yosemite?

SN:  Daniel [Talbott] and Rising Phoenix Repertory, of which I'm a member, are doing a project called Cino Nights at Jimmy's, a bar on Seventh St. Playwrights are given free rein to write a play for that space, get actors together and put it up for a night. It's named after [Off-Off-Broadway legend] Joe Cino. One day I was talking to Al about this, and he said, "Oh, yeah. I remember him. I used to perform at Caffe Cino in the 1960s and 1970s." And it just hit me. It was amazing to think that the stuff that me and my friends are doing for no money and just for the love of theater, is how Al got his start. It's funny. Whenever he talks about his experiences, he'd almost always talks about his theater work. He's made so many great movies, but I think he believes his real work was on the stage. It's so cool to see him come back to theater. He's an incredible force onstage.

Yosemite plays through March 3 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, NYC;

(Wong edits entertainment at the New York Daily News and is an award-winning playwright.)

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