Actor Larry O'Dwyer finally has come home to Baltimore, a place where he never actually lived.
For the past 14 years, O'Dwyer has performed regularly at Center Stage, which has allowed him to sample the city's offbeat delights. The actor is a regular at City Cafe and haunts the antique shops in Hampden. He makes it a point to visit the American Visionary Art Museum at least twice a year, seeming to feel a kinship with the self-taught, outsider artists showcased in the galleries.
Indeed, some of the objects decorating O'Dwyer's digs in Mount Vernon - the helmet made from buttons and twine, the puppet of the Frog Princess that the actor has used to entertain kids in hospitals - could have been taken from AVAM's display cases.
"Larry is the oldest, wisest, most wonderful child I know," says Doug Wright, a playwright who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, and who has been a close friend of O'Dwyer's for more than three decades. "He's also probably the single most spectacular repertory actor this country has. It's unfortunate that he's been so unsung."
Baltimore theater lovers have long thought of O'Dwyer as one of their own, and two months ago, he made it official. He packed up his collection of antique toys, left Dallas, moved into an apartment within walking distance of Center Stage, and adopted a cat. He also immediately began rehearsals for John Ford's bloody, 17th-century revenge tragedy, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. In the show, opening Wednesday at Center Stage, O'Dwyer plays a friar who delivers a graphic lecture on hell to a woman involved in an incestuous relationship.
The role of a holy man might seem out of character for the decidedly irreverent actor, but it's merely the most recent in a string of unorthodox castings. In 1997, Irene Lewis, Center Stage's artistic director, persuaded the senior citizen to take the role of Puck - complete with red high-top sneakers and a Mohawk hairdo - in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Five years later, he performed the role of Tootles, one of Peter Pan 's Lost Boys.
"That's why I love working with Irene," O'Dwyer says. "She's always finding new ways to reinvent me on stage."
O'Dwyer's range is immense. He is adept at commedia dell'arte - a form of Italian improvisational theater from the 16th century - and a longtime friend in the business describes him as one of the foremost U.S. interpreters of Moliere.
"If this man were living 150 years ago," says actress Pamela Payton-Wright, "he'd be a household name all over the world."
At least three famous playwrights have been inspired to create roles for the actor: Pulitzer Prize winners Doug Wright and Beth Henley, and James Duff, best known for his hit TNT television series, The Closer.
When Wright was penning his acclaimed play, Quills, he never considered anyone other than O'Dwyer for the central part.
"The role of the Marquis de Sade calls for every theatrical trick in the book," Wright says - "language that at turns is off-color and classical, grotesque hyperbole and malevolent wit. Larry is the only one I know whose arsenal is that large."
O'Dwyer grew up in Washington as part of an eccentric Irish family, and as a child, he showed promise in multiple art forms. He began painting in the fourth grade, a hobby he continues to this day.
What O'Dwyer seems to like creating the most are stylized figures outlined in black that he likens to "primitive children."
His beings share a common look: Their eyes are wide open and twice as large as normal. But their mouths are small and scratched out, virtually nonexistent. It's tempting to wonder: If painting is a form of autobiography, what do O'Dwyer's canvasses reveal about the artist?
"I've been given the gift of comedy, but I'm a very dark person," he says. "The stage is so important to me because I'm happy there."
After graduating from college, O'Dwyer embarked upon the peripatetic life of an actor. He lived for several years in Los Angeles. For four years, in the late 1970s, he was head of Bennington College's Drama Department. But the place he stayed the longest was Dallas, where, in 1961, he was a founding member of a troupe called Theatre Three, which, nearly five decades later, continues to thrive.
More than a dozen years ago, Payton-Wright caught O'Dwyer in Dallas, performing two Moliere plays back to back. "My jaw dropped," she says. "I knew that I was in the presence of something great. He revealed himself without holding anything back - the good or the bad."
The next time she was cast in a Center Stage production, Payton-Wright began raving to Lewis about the brilliant comic actor she'd discovered. Lewis hired O'Dwyer sight unseen to perform in a 1995 production of Don Juan.
"Every since then, I've incorporated Larry into shows whenever I can," Lewis says. "He is fearless, he aims to always be truthful on stage, and he creates signature, one-of-a-kind portrayals."
Talk to O'Dwyer for even a few moments, and it becomes apparent that he is a complicated mix of contradictions. Like many performers, he craves approbation and is deeply sensitive to its perceived absence. Something he says a lot: "They loved me there" or "She loves me very much."
But he can't seem to resist playing the provocateur, and his pranks are legendary.
"He's absolutely wild when it comes to bureaucracies," Lewis says.
"He had to call the phone company, and it got so convoluted - 'Press one, press two' - that he got the operator and asked him to put through the transaction for him. He claimed to have no fingers. He said, 'I called you with a stick in my mouth.' "
This form of mischief is harmless. But when the actor was younger, some capers had overtones of needling authority.
During a performance in Dallas the 1970s, Doug Wright says, the actor became frustrated at his fellow performers, whom he judged to be inept, and at some female audience members who were talking loudly during the show. As he was exiting the stage, he flashed the women.
The actor also was accused in Texas publications of improvising material not previously approved by his directors. This is a charge that hurts O'Dwyer. He says it was wildly exaggerated, and Lewis says it's never been an issue at Center Stage.
"He likes a very creative atmosphere in rehearsal, and he likes to be trusted," she says. "I leave him alone for the most part and let him experiment. Almost always, he comes full circle and ends up with something brilliant."
The actor has turned down some potentially career-making opportunities. He was invited to perform Quills in New York, but turned down the role because he couldn't afford to live temporarily in New York on the then-standard wage of $200 a week. Not only was a Quills a big hit, in 2000 it was made into an award-winning film staring Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade.
Lewis similarly recalls O'Dwyer blithely turning down an audition for a television series, while other actors urged him: "Larry! At least ask what they're paying!"
By his own admission, O'Dwyer isn't good at the cold readings often required to land television roles. But there may be something else at work - friends say O'Dwyer is better at his craft than at his career. Though he has been in the acting business for half a century, he's never bothered to get an agent.
"He's so much in love with the work itself, that he's sometimes oblivious to the trappings," Wright says. "He's an artist, not a politician, and sometimes, being successful requires that you be both."
O'Dwyer himself says: "There is nothing I regret in any way about my career. There's nothing that I want more right now than to be close to Center Stage and working with Irene."
During his time away from the stage, O'Dwyer relaxes by knitting his trademark 15-foot scarves. (A selection will be auctioned off at Center Stage's silent auction in May.) He's also likely to switch on MTV, and he startles younger performers by chatting knowledgeably about heavy-metal music.
"I might be 72, but I still have to stay plugged in," he says. "I have to know what hip-hop is, and I have to know what Beyonce is singing."
if you go
'Tis Pity She's a Whore runs through April 5 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Show times: 8 p.m Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $10-$60. 410-332-0033 or centerstage.org.