by Patrick B. McGuigan
Two icons of the Oklahoma City theater scene will mark a notable benchmark in the next few weeks. For the 42nd time in theatrical careers spanning five decades each, Jonathan Beck Reed and Donald L. Jordan are working together.
Their collaborations began in the late 1970s in “My Three Angels” while both were students at Oklahoma City University. The following spring both were cast in “Winnie-the-Pooh.” Jordan played the title character, while Reed was the classic curmudgeon, Eyore.
Jordan explains, “This was the first of many performances echoing real life – in which I am the cuddly and loveable teddy bear, while Jon is the ornery old guy everyone else is trying to cheer up.”
As if to make the point, Reed remembered immediately that another early play in which they both appeared was Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.”, the modern retelling of the story of the Old Testament prophet: “I played the devil, while Don was God.”
After graduation, they followed separate tracks but wound up working together frequently. Don went to the Dallas Theatre Center, then to local Lyric productions, while Jon from 1983-1995 had a New York City address. Broadway became his base for a variety of roles, including a couple of turns as the title character in Edmond Rostand’s “Cyranno de Bergerac.”
Like many long-time friends – or, for that matter, an old married couple – the pair of performers often finish each other’s sentences, or quickly point out something the other has forgotten.
Reed told The City Sentinel his favorite roles of all time included Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” multiple parts in “Little Me,” the lead in “Music Man,” last year’s “The Normal Heart,” and more than one time as Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady.”
Don reflected on his favorite parts, listing the “Tuna” roles, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” “The Brighton Beach Memoirs,” and parts in “Cotton Patch Gospel.” The latter is a blue grass musical version of the Gospel of Matthew, and the last work Harry Chapin composed before his death. He told The City Sentinel, “I’m the son of a minister. In some ways, I guess the seed didn’t fall too far from the tree.”
Each fellow took more time to think things over, when asked to list their personal favorite among the other’s acting ventures.
After a bit, Reed said, “I think one of Don’s best roles was in ‘My Three Angels,’ when we met back in college. I was absolutely delighted to meet him and work with him, and we’ve been friends ever since.” He also said Jordan was effective as “The KATT” – a radio mascot who performed at Oklahoma City 89ers baseball games, “back in the day.”
Don said Jon’s best part over the years has been his interpretations of Tevye, “both for his technical virtuousity and on the merits of the interpretation.” That sparked Reed to comment that he loves the Tevye role so much, throwing himself into the part each time, because the character is so different from his own personality.
Naturally, the pair of professional actors – both members of the Actors Equity Association, nationally celebrating its 100th anniversary this year – have had their share of on-stage screwups or technical challenges across the years. There was the time Jordan, dressed as Pooh Bear, was in at the wheel, driving the entire cast, including Reed as Eyore, to an elementary school performance of “Eyore’s Birthday,” a sequel story in the “Pooh” series. Don – remember, dressed as the bear – fell asleep at the wheel. The vehicle began to leave the road – but happily, no one was the worse for wear before Jordan woke up.
Reed once was responsible for pulling Jordan into an unexpected part in the traveling troupe for “42nd Street,” after a performer, furious with a director, quit the show just days before opening night. Jordan got the part and did fine.
A mutual favored memory was in a play when they worked with … a live rooster on stage. The creature was a fine performer, Jordan insists, but alas, his part required him to be prepared (offstage) for a fine feast, which the performers consumed in front of the audience.
Things took an interesting turn, requiring multiple ad libs, when the actual rooster, ensconsed just off-stage in its case, began to crow repeatedly, as if it were the break of dawn – rather than early in the second act after his on-stage demise.
Inevitably, both have become not only proficient on-stage, but also knowledgable players in the business side of theater. Jordan runs CityRep (The City Reperatory Theatre), and Reed plays many formal and informal roles in live performance ventures.
Much like journalists in the age of “convergence” (a time wherein scribes and reporters have become photographers, page designers and videographers, among other things), Jordan said his career has made him “a jack of all trades, and perhaps master of none” – what was long ago deemed “integration of ability” among actors.
On the same issue, Reed reflected he learned early, as a child performer for the old Mummers group, “to really act, not just be cheesy. Learn the script and learn your lines, be focused on telling a story to the audience.” Reed said he learned the business through observation, beginning with that childhood work between the ages of 8 and 13.
As for “Greater Tuna” – an acclaimed comedy in which the two men will play all the roles, both male and female – Jordan says, “This play is considered a comedy elsewhere, but in Texas and Oklahoma we all understand that it’s really more like a documentary.” Jordan has spent his life in the neighboring states – Sooner and Lone Star. He is a proud “Texihoman” who ardently advocates for each, “save for one Saturday each fall, when I am scrupulously neutral.”
Reed loves the “Tuna” plays, among other reasons, for the audience: “Each time we perform it, there are always a large number of people who tell me they never, ever go to the theater, except for the ‘Tuna’ plays.” Then, after a recent performance, Reed recalls, “Tuna” co-author Jaston Williams told him, “I am amazed at how relevant it is, and how much fun, after all these years.”
This Jordan-Reed, or Reed-Jordan, joint effort will be a lively and entertaining moment in Oklahoma City theatre history – not to mention quite a bit of fun. The story is an uproarious, sometimes ribald, and ultimately affectionate send-up of life in small town Texas, or maybe that’s western Texihoma.
“Greater Tuna,” by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, runs May 31-June 16 at the Freede Little Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall in downtown Oklahoma City, May 31-June 16. For information or tickets, telephone 405-297-2264 or 848-3761, or visit www.cityrep.com.
Yep, the boys are back in town. They never really left, for which we are grateful.
Reed and Laurel, in tribute to Jon and Don: They’re still crazy, after all these years.
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