NEW YORK – For decades, John Noble told no one, not even his wife, of the career he dreamed of having when he was 20-something and unknown, living in his native South Australia.
He wanted to work in the West End, act in a great movie and make it to Broadway — a set of goals ridiculously out of reach, he said, for a “kid from the country.”
“Such an arrogant, conceited thing to even — oh, I’m blushing here,” the actor said at his temporary New York apartment. Noble, 65, covered his reddened cheeks with his palms and laughed.
Noble, who for five seasons starred as scientist Walter Bishop on J.J. Abrams’s science-fiction series “Fringe” and now plays the sin-eater Henry Parish on Fox’s supernatural mystery “Sleepy Hollow,” is in town to make his American stage debut. He’s playing the publisher and patriarch Isaac Geldhart in a revival of Jon Robin Baitz’s 1990 drama, “The Substance of Fire,” which opened last Sunday at Second Stage.
That’s off-Broadway, so Goal No. 3 is still standing. But Noble crossed the other two off long ago: the first in 1986, when he directed David Williamson’s “Sons of Cain” in London’s West End; the second in 2003 with Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” in which he plays Denethor, the mad ruler of Gondor.
It was, though, for long stretches, a slow-release career.
“You’ve got to take these toddling steps and keep plowing on in good faith,” Noble said. “And I think you also have to reinvent yourself.”
Playing Denethor, he said, elevated him, after rounds of auditions in a global casting process, to an international career. “I got to know them all very well later, the casting people, and they said, ‘No one knew who you were. But they kept saying, Go back to that bloke from Australia.’”
To hear Baitz tell it, there is a similar element of surprise in casting Noble as Isaac, a role the playwright wrote for his frequent collaborator, Ron Rifkin. Baitz said he feels an “almost curatorial delight” in introducing Noble to the New York theatrical community.
“I keep saying to other theater people, ‘Now there’s this great actor for you to think about: John Noble,’” said Baitz, 52. “I feel like the godchild of Swifty Lazar and Joe Papp.”
“The Substance of Fire” tells the story of a widowed Holocaust survivor who loses his grip on his company, his family and his mind. Directed by Daniel Sullivan, it opened at Playwrights Horizons in 1991 then moved to the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center the following year. Rifkin collected accolades for his portrayal of Isaac, a genteel intellectual whose refusal to bend with the times pits him against his grown children. Baitz became wary of remounting the play.
“Unless you have the right Isaac, it doesn’t seem like there’s much point in doing it,” said Baitz, who had a Broadway success with “Other Desert Cities” two seasons ago. “I spent 24 years sort of saying, ‘Oh, no, I don’t really want to try it right now.’ That seemed, finally, to be an echo of Isaac’s own intransigence.”
Trip Cullman (“Murder Ballad”) wanted to direct a New York revival, Baitz said, but the casting problem remained. When Ken Olin – a “Sleepy Hollow” producer who had been a producer of “Brothers & Sisters,” the TV series Baitz created – suggested Noble, “a sort of light-bulb eureka moment happened.”
Baitz already knew the actor’s work from “Fringe” and saw in it, he said, “a combination of boldness and intelligence — and also a kind of pain.”
The tone of the revival is very different from the original, he said, with Noble’s leonine quality “highlighting the pathos of a man crumbling and his family’s powerlessness to do anything about it.”
Cullman’s production features Halley Feiffer, Daniel Eric Gold and Carter Hudson as Isaac’s children and Charlayne Woodard as a social worker who pays a visit.
For Cullman, 39, never having seen Noble onstage was cause for significant uncertainty: “I loved John from seeing him in movies and on television, but I had kind of no idea what he was going to be all about when we got him on a stage. It was a bit of a leap of faith, to be completely honest. And it was a leap of faith that paid off incredibly.”
Critics seemed to agree. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times praised Noble’s “elegant rendering” of Isaac in a “beautifully judged performance.”