Besides winning an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1984 for his portrayal of Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, F. Murray Abraham's long and distinguished career includes unforgettable performances in plays like Angels in America, Waiting for Godot, and the original Broadway production of Terrence McNally's The Ritz, to name just a few. You can currently catch the magnetic actor on stage in a trio of one act plays by Ethan Coen called Almost an Evening. The three short works explore existentialism, religion and homicide with Coen's trademark idiosyncratic humor, and Abraham's boffo third act performance of a splenetic God Who Judges is alone worth the cost of admission. Almost an Evening continues at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street through June 1st, following a sold out run at The Atlantic Theater Company. Ticket prices vary.
Have you ever played God before? There are certain characters who consider themselves God-like and I’ve played a lot of those. I think most of the great roles revolve around that kind of egocentricity. For example, there’s never been more than one Macbeth or one Hamlet or one Oedipus or Cyrano. In a sense, they create themselves and that’s kind of God-like. But any artist who calls himself or herself an artist is pretending to be God. You don’t have to be a believer; you can be an atheist. But to put yourself in the position of being a creator is a God-like position. And that’s what every artist does. That’s a long answer but yeah, I’ve played God before.
One of your favorite roles is Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; in fact you wrote a book about that character. But he doesn’t completely fall into that egocentric category does he? He’s full of pride but he’s very generous and I think essentially he has a terrific sense of humility. But in terms of the world within which he lives he is definitely ‘the Man.’
What makes that role so appealing to you? Ah, well, it’s from where I come from. My family’s blue collar: steel workers and coal miners. My father was a mechanic. Bottom’s a man of the earth and essential to that play; he’s the connection to the play for the audience. I love him a lot. He’s very unashamed and completely whole. He makes no apologies and is a positive character, which is really what I love about him. He really believes in the world; not only the world in the present but the world as it can be.
The character you’re playing in Almost in Evening doesn’t have such a high view of the world; one of your roles is the God Who Judges, and he is disgusted with humanity. What you’re speaking to is a very serious problem in this violent world we’re living in now. There is a fundamentalism that describes so many religions; Judaism, Islam, Christianity. And this God that I play speaks to that kind of basic, ‘my way or the highway’ zealotry. It’s a disaster, unfortunately. There’s no room for any kind of negotiation or variance and it’s definitely a man’s world. I mean, God help the women in this old time religion. I mean, really. People talk about the Muslims treating their women badly; what about Orthodox Jews? They don’t treat them any better. And Christians; they talk about women being in fealty to the man. They’re all basically the same in that regard: Women are second class citizens. I don’t know why these religions pick on each other so much; in fact they all kind of treat very basic fundamental beliefs the same way. The men are the boss and if you don’t believe the way I dictate then you’re going to go to hell. They all say the same thing. It’s very interesting, no?
Yes, and I think that’s why the laughs in your God scene in Almost an Evening are so big, because it’s letting people have comedic relief with a very volatile, timely subject. I feel the same way. I’m disappointed that critics generally did not make your observation just now because that’s a very serious concern, don’t you think?
Absolutely. It’s very current. And the night I went the audience was roaring with laughter during your scene and I think it’s partly because we desperately need to step back for a second and laugh at what’s going on right now with religious fundamentalism. Exactly. How do you explain that ignorance? I don’t mean to say it any kind of pandering way, but if you consider the word ignorance literally How do you ignore reality? It seems to me that the situation we find ourselves in today because of fundamental interpretations of religions has steered us into violence, which is what most religions suggest they are against.
The point is that it’s not true. If Christians really practiced what Christ suggests, which I believe is great and revolutionary, and if people really followed the tenets of Mohammad, which embraces many religious ideas But they’re not. I don’t quite know if people who are suffering because of religions still cling to their religions; I don’t quite understand that. It’s possible they don’t want to think for themselves. It’s possible they prefer to give over their responsibilities as thinking sentient human beings to some powers that be, to relinquish their responsibilities to their children, their families, their future. Instead of demanding change from politicians - and religious leaders are politicians, by the way, in case you’ve forgotten. These politicians are sending Americans’ families to die in war but they refuse to send their own children, and it’s bullshit.
Have any strictly religious audience members objected to the play? [Laughs] Well, there are some who don’t laugh but we haven’t had anyone walk out yet. But there are people who sit there with there hands folded with angry looks on their faces and you could speculate that they are maybe religious people.
But the play isn’t really saying anything bad about the essential virtues of any religion and it’s not really specific about any religion, is it? Well, I’m not sure you’re right about that. Early on I do suggest that the Old Testament isn’t just for the Jews, it’s for everybody. That really speaks to what we’re discussing; my character, the God Who Judges, is saying that this is the true religion, this is for everybody. How dare he say that? The Aborigines in Australia were there 20,000 years ago, long before the Old Testament! How can the Jews speak for them? You mean there was no God until the Jews appeared? What about the Aborigines? That’s crazy! That’s what’s causing these problems. What these fundamentalists are saying is that my way is the only way. What about the atheists in this world? America is not a Christian country; that has nothing to do with the Constitution. One of the reasons America happened to come into being was for the sake of religious freedom! Anyway.
I absolutely agree. This is a very serious thing with me, obviously. And I think that’s one of the reasons I can do the role well. And it’s also written so well. Ethan is a very smart man and people are laughing precisely because of what you said; they recognize the ridiculousness of this fundamentalism. And it’s very well written.
How involved was Ethan in the production? He was very involved, as much as he just sat there and was supportive. I think there are only two other writers in my longish career like that. Ray Bradbury was the first, who was so supportive. And Terrance McNally. He sat there and enjoyed it. They took notes but they were never intrusive. That’s unusual. A lot of writers sit there and frown and get angry. Ethan is absolutely supportive of actors. That’s not very common.
Really? Really. I would not say that if I didn’t believe it; I wouldn’t say anything about him at all. I’m telling you the truth: he and his brother both really like actors and I’m sorry to say it’s not very common.
Their films are always impeccably cast. Yeah, exactly. People just simply love to work for them.
Speaking of casting, weren’t you supposed to be in the current revival of The American Dream and The Sandbox? I was scheduled to do it with Edward [Albee] but I just simply couldn’t do one more play without making some money. You know, I’m only making about $425 a week here and I have some big expenses. Very big. And I have to make some movie money. I had done three plays in a row and I had to beg off so I could do a movie. He was very understanding and we’re friends but I simply couldn’t. I’m leaving shortly to do another movie; I have to do these movies to support this theater habit.
So you’re an actor with this incredible reputation and a body of work that speaks for itself, here you are in an Off Broadway play with a famous writer and incredible cast, and you’re being paid peanuts. Has the pay scale just gotten worse and worse over the years? Yeah, it has. It’s just one of those things. But working people across America have been paid less and less over the years. And while that’s happening we have these heads of corporations who are destroying corporations while making billions of dollars. What’s going on? Is this democracy? Something’s wrong here. It’s bullshit, man. It’s got to stop. It’s got to change. I don’t know who or what that change is but we have to do something. I mean, the idea that you believe - as the God I play believes - that you are the only source of truth and integrity and reality, then that gives you the right to torture people and do any damn thing you want because you’re above the law. That’s what the Nazis did; they said it was there divine right. And we’re behaving like Nazis. That’s not America, that’s not the America my two brothers died for in defense of their country. It’s bullshit.
Were they in Vietnam? One brother was, the other brother died in a stupid accident in the Army. My wife’s brother also died in a stupid accident in the Army. Both of us lost all our brothers. It’s wrong because it accomplished nothing except more money for all the arms manufacturers. I’m talking old talk; I mean you know all this. It sounds like crap but you know it’s true.
Absolutely. Do you get involved in any activism? I march, I do speeches. I’m sure these jerks in the CIA and the FBI have me in their files. How boring for them, to have to listen to my conversations. They’re probably listening to this conversation. How dull! I’m against war! I mean, come on! I’ve got friends in the FBI too, by the way.
Is that a fact? I do. Nice people. That’s not the point. The point is the powers that be have got to be kicked out on their ass. People like the God I portray in Almost an Evening have got to be given a lesson in humanity. It’s not just your way, man. There are other opinions. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? I go back to the Aborigines in Australia. I’ve spent some time there; I really like it a lot. I travel a lot. It would be a wonderful thing if everybody could travel and see how other people live. But the point is that if their culture has been there for over 20,000 years, how dare any Western religion dream that they are the true religion. That’s a difficult one for people to swallow.
Sure is. [Laughs] They’re going to kick me out of the church. I’m deeply religious, by the way. I really am.
What faith are you? Oh, I’ve attended many churches. I grew up as an orthodox Christian and I was an alter boy. I love the Society of Friends, the Quakers. I attended their meetings for almost 15 years. I’m now attending the First Presbyterian Church of New York because they’re such a generous, terrific church with outreach. They reach out to old people, to homeless, to A.A., to cross-dressers; it’s truly a church of the teachings of Christ. Religion is essential to my life.
What’s up next for you? This coming Tuesday we won’t perform the show because I’m going to be at Madison Square Garden to introduce a film I made in Italy; Carnera: The Walking Mountain. I do a lot of films in Italy; at least on a year. So we’re going to present a world premiere at the Garden about this great Italian world boxing champion in the ‘30s, the Ambling Alp, Primo Carnera. I play his manager. And then after Almost an Evening I’m going to be going to Romania to do an epic film about Barbarossa; Frederick the II. It’s a terrific story.