Father disfigure

John Glover connects to his inner patriarch for The Marriage of Bette and Boo.

FITS LIKE A GLOVER The well-tailored actor, right, attends a wedding.

FITS LIKE A GLOVER The well-tailored actor, right, attends a wedding. Photograph: Joan Marcus

John Glover’s been thinking a lot about fathers lately. Call it an occupational hazard. He just ended a seven-year run as Lex Luthor’s evil dad, Lionel, on the CW series Smallville—in dramatic fashion: “He pushed me out my 40-story office window,” Glover recounts cheerfully. “It was a great way to have your son kill you.” And now the admired character actor is returning to the stage, again as a parent who’s no candidate for Father of the Year.

Glover, a jaunty and youthful 63-year-old who recently gave diverse and meticulous performances in John Robin Baitz’s drama The Paris Letter and the quirky musical The Drowsy Chaperone, won’t say a word against Karl Hudlocke, the acerbic alcoholic he plays in Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo, now being revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Even though Karl incessantly bullies wife Soot (Julie Hagerty) and daughter-in-law Bette (Kate Jennings Grant)—who gives birth to a litter of stillborn babies—Glover defended him after a recent rehearsal.

“I think Chris [Durang] is exploring what gets passed down to us from our parents and grandparents,” Glover says about the caustic 1985 comedy, which follows its title characters’ miserable marriage and how that misalliance marred their surviving child, Matt. “Can we make certain decisions about who we are, or do we just say, ‘I have to be this way because that’s how my parents taught me to be’? Karl is just trying to survive and help his son. That’s how I gotta look at it.”

“Thou shall not judge thy character” is a maxim that has served Glover well throughout a long and eclectic career, in which he’s brought rapturous glee to a swarm of unsavory and off-balance figures. That’s something he learned when director Fred Zinnemann cast him as a drunken lout in the 1977 Oscar-nominated film Julia. “[Zinnemann] explained to me that my character considers himself a very noble figure, and it was the first time I understood that to get into the characters you play, you can’t judge them. So Karl’s a good man. Maybe everybody doesn’t see him that way.”

Director Walter Bobbie certainly views Glover—who won a Tony Award as diametrically opposite gay twins in Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1995—as an integral part of the production. “John brings a wonderful, cynical sense of humor to an edgy part,” Bobbie says. “When you cast him, you get a whole worldview. In his soul he’s a real character actor.”

Although Glover’s worked extensively in film and TV for the past two decades, he’s also stayed faithful to the stage. And yet, he has never before appeared in one of Durang’s dark and crazy works (even if the two were “elevator buddies” in the ’80s, when they lived in the same West End Avenue building). As someone trying to understand his own family, Glover relates to fellow only child Durang’s attempts to make sense of the past. “Matt tries to figure out if he’s going to make the same mistakes as his parents, and I think that’s why this play seems so resonant with me,” Glover muses. “Both my parents’ families didn’t speak about things, so my cousins and I are now trying to figure out what happened to us. We’re learning to communicate, because we’re not used to doing that.”

Named after his father, who died in 2002, Glover is fortunate to have had his parents’ support when he decided to become an actor instead of an English teacher, for which he’d enrolled in college in Maryland: “You didn’t pay any tuition if you were going to become a teacher, so I asked my dad if he’d pay the tuition so that I didn’t have to. The thought of it terrified me. I didn’t know how I could stand in front of a classroom and talk for six hours a day and impart knowledge to anybody.”

Somehow, though, Glover has become a first-rate raconteur, equally enthusiastic when talking about his summer-stock days at Virginia’s Barter Theatre, his Emmy-nominated turn as an AIDS patient in the telefilm An Early Frost or his stint as a dastardly kidnapper on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow. The actor hopes that Prospero and Lear are in his future, “though I still feel like Marchbanks,” he says, alluding to the young poet in Shaw’s Candida. “That’s what I’m coming to realize, thanks to my dad. He was in his eighties, but he still felt like he was a 20-year-old.”

The Marriage of Bette and Boo is at the Laura Pels Theatre.