A Perfect Storm
Out actor Mark Capri on bringing ‘the greatest sex scandal in film’to the Alley.
By Don Maines
Hurricane Harvey may have delayed the perfect storm of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton last August, but it will take more than April showers to stop the Alley Theatre’s second attempt to stage a new play about “the greatest sex scandal in film and ancient history.”
“It’s glamorous, it’s full of zingers, it’s about two of the greatest tabloid stars of our time,” says openly gay actor Mark Capri, who plays Rex Harrison, the Oscar winner whose part as Julius Caesar in the 1963 film Cleopatra was upstaged by the Liz & Dick affair.
In the play, says Capri, his character “is not crazy about this. He is a big personality who has a lot of needs, so he doesn’t like getting overshadowed. He’s a lothario himself, very much a ladies’ man.”
Capri, who lives in the Hollywood Hills, flew into Houston last year in time for only one day of rehearsing Cleo before Harvey struck on August 25. As the Alley took stock of its situation, Capri says, “We rehearsed downtown at the Four Seasons Hotel, across from the convention center that was ground-zero for homeless flooded-out people. From our luxurious perch, we watched as Houston pulled its socks up. Nobody can be prepared for such a heartbreaking storm, but once disaster hit, the City of Houston certainly knew what to do.”
The Alley had to postpone the play’s planned fall premiere, but saved a spot for Cleo this month on its huge Hubbard Stage. The play will run April 6–29.
“What better way to ring in spring than with a writer, director, and love affair, all of epic proportions,” says James Black, the Alley’s interim artistic director.
The writer is celebrated author Lawrence Wright, who has penned 10 books, including The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. He also wrote Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, which HBO adapted into a 2015 TV documentary series. This month, Knopf will publish Wright’s new book, a personal history titled God Save Texas.
Wright, a longtime Austin resident, grew up in Dallas, where Capri spent his teenage years as a student at the St. Mark’s School of Texas. Capri went on to Stanford University and then to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
“Playing Rex Harrison is right up my alley,” says Capri, 66. “I was just a kid in 1956 or 1957 when I started listening to the LP of My Fair Lady and wearing the grooves off. I memorized every word. He was my role model.”
Several times in his career, Capri would even portray Harrison’s most famous role, professor Henry Higgins, in California stage productions of My Fair Lady.
Capri won a Theatre World Award when he performed in On Approval at The Roundabout in New York City, and he covered roles on Broadway in Private Lives and Blithe Spirit. He has also appeared in the movies Titanic and The Empire Strikes Back.
Among his many TV roles was a turn as the French master of ceremonies at an international awards show in the episode of Modern Family where Pritchett’s Closets & Blinds finally scores a nomination.
In 2008, Capri married TV writer/producer/show runner Michael Chessler, whose latest credit is the VH1 series Daytime Divas starring Vanessa Williams. The couple married in 2008, before marriage licenses in the Golden State were halted by the passage of Proposition 8. “We have been together a lot longer,” Capri says.
The cast of Cleo, adds Capri, includes two New York actors, two Los Angeles actors, “and one local—Adam Gibbs. He’s just terrific as singer Eddie Fischer.”
Taylor was married to Fischer, and Burton was married to his first wife (and the mother of actress Kate Burton) when Taylor and Burton began their turbulent affair on the set of Cleopatra. “It brought condemnation from the Vatican and the U.S. Congress,” says the Alley’s press material. “It opened the age of paparazzi and tabloid celebrity, ensuring that the names Burton and Taylor would always be associated with the greatest sex scandal in film and ancient history. With lavish sets and costumes, Cleo goes behind the scenes and explores what sparked the sexual revolution in Rome in 1963.”
The director of Cleo is veteran actor Bob Balaban, who is widely known for his performances in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Gosford Park, and multiple films with Christopher Guest, including Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. Balaban directed and produced the long-running off-Broadway play The Exonerated, which won the Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk awards.
Balaban has been assisted by a stage-combat coach, H. Russ Brown, who is the head of theater at the College of the Mainland in Texas City.
“Being a story about the love triangle between Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor, I was brought in to choreograph a couple of slaps and a punch or two in scenes where the volatile relationships are brought to a boil,” Brown says. “I’m also choreographing some intimacy movement that involves two people in a passionate embrace, gracefully navigating from a standing position to a more horizontal one. It’s a really fun, funny, and fascinating show.”
When: April 6–29
Where: The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave.
This article appears in the April 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.