The actor Stephen Payne first shuffled through the stage door of a Broadway theater more than 30 years ago. He was there to move a piano. The stage manager asked him to roll the piano toward a back corner, and as he crossed the stage, he recalled, “it was dreamlike.”
“It was like walking through honey, the atmosphere seemed so thick,” Mr. Payne said. “Every particle of dust — and there was plenty of dust — took on a life and a magic.”
In that moment, he knew what he wanted. “Before I die,” he remembered thinking, “there’s only one thing I really care about: I’d just love to own a part on Broadway.”
Well, he got his wish, just short of his — “don’t say it!” he said — 70th birthday. On opening night, it was his name in the program for Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men,” his photo, his bio. Mr. Payne plays Ed, the straight white father of three straight white sons.
Yes, this is a Cinderella story, though it should be said that Mr. Payne, who met for lunch on a recent weekday, doesn’t look like Cinderella. Sitting in a comfortably shabby trattoria near the West Village apartment he shares with his wife and daughter, he was craggier, more rough-hewn, with a star-shaped dimple on his right cheek, a sweep of silver hair and a short, scraggly beard. (“He’s kind of more like the Marlboro Man than someone that you expect to see playing Falstaff,” his director, Anna D. Shapiro, said.)
He hasn’t smoked in years, though he still has a smoker’s rasp, and his green checked shirt clashed gruffly with the tablecloths. He pushed some salad around a plate as he drank a coffee.
Born in Liverpool, England, and raised in rural Pennsylvania and Florida, Mr. Payne completed a tour of duty in Vietnam before weathering “some kind of a nervous breakdown or whatever,” he said, and enrolling in junior college for visual art. A few years later, he drove a Dodge van to New York and rented an apartment on Ludlow Street, where he moved pianos by day and self-medicated by night.
One day, sometime in the early ’80s, a woman saw him sitting out on St. Marks Place and asked him if he wanted to act in a movie. “I knew nothing,” he said, “but I knew the excitement of it, the heat that came from the camera.”
That led to other small movies. Then some plays, a little training, a TV guest spot here and there, and still piano moving. Somehow he landed an agent. Along the way, Mr. Payne promised himself that he’d never do extra or understudy work. “I just found it so frustrating to be so close to the heat, and not be a part of it,” he said.
But when he read “August: Osage County,” directed by Ms. Shapiro, he signed on. He rarely went onstage, but he bought a house with the money that not acting earned. And a Harley Davidson. More understudy roles followed. More nights spent standing at the back of the theater, so close to the honey, so close to the heat, just watching.
When he did get to go on, he’d try to play the role just as the named actor had. “If you start changing blocking or trying to get cute when you’re out there, expressing yourself — no,” he said. “It’s not something that understudies — it’s not one of their perks.”
“There’s no glory attendant,” he said.
At first, Ed in “Straight White Men” was one more understudy gig. (By this time, Mr. Payne had become a reliable understudy for Ms. Shapiro. “She knew that I wouldn’t get in the way,” he said.) But Tom Skerritt left the show in what Ms. Shapiro, described as “a sad and amicable parting,” citing stamina issues. And then his replacement, Denis Arndt, brought in just before previews began, left, too.
At the first preview, there was Mr. Payne onstage, wearing Ed’s sweaters, dancing Ed’s dances, keeping the part warm. He hadn’t had any real rehearsal. He’d only run the play twice. He’d never had the luxury of conversations with the playwright or director.
But “because he’s a longtime understudy and he’s a badass and he doesn’t complain and he’s hardworking and honorable,” Ms. Shapiro said, he did it anyway. And he did it without the hope that he’d ever win the role.
“I was way past the whole mythology of the understudy getting the part,” Mr. Payne said.
Ms. Shapiro was in talks with other actors to replace him. But Ms. Lee, as well as Armie Hammer, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider, the actors who play Ed’s sons, came to her and told her that they wanted Mr. Payne to have the role — for keeps.
Sure, a name would have been nice, but as Ms. Shapiro said, speaking by telephone from Chicago, the play “had enough names.” And do all-star casts ever work anyway? “Once the decision got made it just it felt inevitable,” she said.
“We had a few different dads,” Mr. Hammer said. “But Stephen is our perfect choice.”
One night, after a preview, they all crowded into Mr. Payne’s dressing room to give him the good news. At first Mr. Payne thought he was being fired, but then Ms. Shapiro told him he had the role and “the boys” brought out cigars. Mr. Payne wept.
He wept again as he told the story weeks later: “It was embarrassing. Even after they left, I wept in the dressing room for an hour.”
Mr. Charles, who plays his middle son, broke down, too. “Seeing how much the role meant to him made me realize just how lucky we are to get to do this work,” he said.
What’s funny is that Mr. Payne doesn’t think he’s right for Ed. He plays edgy characters, outsider characters, not retired engineers who wear L.L. Bean sweaters. Mr. Payne shuddered even pronouncing “L.L. Bean.” He’s still searching for Ed’s motivations.
But, as Ms. Lee wrote in an email, from the moment Mr. Payne first acted opposite the actors playing his sons, “They just seemed like a family.” (And no, Mr. Payne won’t admit to having a favorite stage child. I tried.)
So his wish has been granted. Is it as good as he’d hoped? “Yes,” he said. “Greater joy I have never had. Maybe when my daughter was born or you know, when I got married. But yeah.”
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