Zoren: Actor with big TV credits had to re-invent himself during pandemic (2023)

Dwayne Alistair Thomas defines what it means to be a working actor.

Since the pandemic, he has learned to be a working and multi-disciplined artist.

This week, Thomas opens onstage in Inis Nua Theatre’s production of “Hymn” by Lolita Chakrabarti at Philadelphia’s Louis Bluver Theatre in the Drake Hotel.

For his entire career as an actor, Thomas has divided his time between regional productions like “Hymn” and guest appearances on television series.

His face is recognizable from roles on “The Americans,” “Blue Bloods,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “The Knick,” and “We Own This City” among others.

He was considered for an Emmy for his performance on “The Americans.”

Appearing on national television has its allure, but Thomas balances his time on the small screen with roles in the theater.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Thomas found both sources of acting suddenly shut down.

Though much of television and all of theater was in abeyance and waiting to return to production, Thomas, in a telephone conversation held while he was on a break from “Hymn’s” dress tech, said he still had to eat, pay rent, and satisfy his creativity.

He couldn’t act, so he took to writing. He now has three published novels.

His play, “The West Philly Meeting” was produced last year by Theatre in the X.

He also composed and recorded music and directed a pair of movies and other sketches that can be viewed on YouTube.

Today, with theater and television opportunities returning, Thomas says he enjoys his diversity as an artist, found new freedom in various forms of expression, and strives to carve out a life that includes all of the arts in which he’s made headway.

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Besides all of Thomas’s achievements, you have to feel regard for someone whose cover shot on his website home page is a T-shirt that reads, “STEP 1: Stop Killing Each Other.”

“Branching out has been a blessing,” Thomas says. “When I was just focused on acting, I was able to build a career, but acting is like the girl that doesn’t love you all the time.

“There’s busy periods, and there’s lulls. There’s being on a television sound stage with lead actors from television shows and being on stage when you’re the lead.

“Then comes a pandemic that stops all you’re doing, and you have to figure out how you’re going to live as a person who needs food and shelter and as an artist.

“I was forced to find a balance, and when I was, the balance came naturally. I wrote my first play when I was age 12 in Brooklyn. I have always enjoyed making music. When life demanded I make adjustments, I found out I could do more than act. I didn’t realize until I necessity made me jump into different arenas. Now I’m focused on what I’m doing at a given time, but I have new ways to express myself and experience in film, writing, and composing that allows me to go further and explore more in those fields.”

In “Hymn,” Thomas plays a character who is looking for how he can contribute in life. He feels guilty because he hasn’t yet found his way.

“I was drawn to the play because it tells a human story that transcends race, gender, or types. There is no politics, no issues, just the emotion found in having to negotiate life and make decisions. The drama comes from that.”

In his work, Thomas is inspired by innovators like Miles Davis.

He quotes Davis saying, “Sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself,” as he considers what to write and finds his voice.

“I work to see the world as it is and think about what I can do to make it better. Then I realize it starts with me. I have to be better in terms of being more compassionate towards others.”

Odenkirk not lucky with ‘Lucky Hank’

Bob Odenkirk has his surly, disgruntled, curmudgeon act down as the sardonic, disenchanted acclaimed novelist stuck teaching writing at a mediocre small-town Pennsylvania college in AMC’s “Lucky Hank.”

Odenkirk ranks as one of the best and most versatile actors working in television today.

He built Saul Goodman into one of the most memorable and important characters in “Breaking Bad.”

He compounded his creativity and ingenuity to make Saul, or Jimmy McGill, one of the greatest television characters of all time in “Better Call Saul.” He was equally inventive and endlessly entertaining on the “Mr. Show” with David Cross.

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Odenkirk’s gift is to flesh out a character to give him dimension and to make any script sound like a gem of its genre.

The man just knows how to convey humanity and wring comedy and pathos from any given scene.

Odenkirk has his work cut out for him in “Lucky Hank.”

Based on the novel “Straight Man” by Richard Russo, also set in a small Pennsylvania college town, Odenkirk’s Hank Devereaux is supposed to be the perceptive and unamused recognizer of a city, university, and situations that are one big cosmic joke perpetrated to frustrate him.

Odenkirk takes the hint and does what he can with Hank, but unlike in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” “Lucky Hank” has no momentum.

It depicts a man who is stuck, both in a place he doesn’t like and his own attitude, rather than someone who is on the move, making things happen, and seeing what he can glean from the chaos around him.

“Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” were dynamic shows.

Zoren: Actor with big TV credits had to re-invent himself during pandemic (1)

Odenkirk’s work with Cross rendered top-notch sketch comedy and improvisation.

“Lucky Hank” is static. It plunks Hank, and therefore Odenkirk, in a dull place, gives him a perpetual bad mood and takes that premise nowhere.

Not even when plot twists about university politics, spoiled students who expect to be coddled instead of instructed, and Hank’s dismissive yet meddling father are sprung.

Hank is a character with nowhere to go.

Worse, the annoyances with which he has to deal, are fundamentally uninteresting. As a viewer, I see no reason to take a stake in arguments about university tenure or differences in teaching techniques.

I find few characters attractive, finding refuge only in Mireille Enos as Hank’s long-suffering, more wittily sarcastic wife.

Hank’s faculty colleagues, dopey students, daughter and doofus of a husband, and bothersome father create no traction.

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With the possible exception of Hank’s austere mother, they tend to be boring with problems that elicit few, if any, reason for anyone watching to care about them.

Worse, “Lucky Hank” can’t even turn a situation like state legislators holding back funds for employing tenured faculty into an issue that gets anyone talking or, again, caring.

Gibes at education, people’s foibles, and the feeling of running in place fall flat. They’re noted and forgotten.

Hank himself doesn’t have enough facets. Odenkirk tries for variety.

You see Hank relax momentarily when a meeting with another, more successful author goes well. Mostly, though, Hank has one stance, one mood, and one way to regard the world.

One is not enough.

Especially when incidents happen you don’t believe, such as a driver refusing to move a storage pod that blocks Hank’s garage that has his car in it or the outburst that earns Hank notoriety at his school.

I hope for Bob Odenkirk’s sake, “Lucky Hank” finds a direction and ways for Hank to be something more than irritable and crabby.

I think, for my sake, the series gets one more chance: the episode that premieres this week, before I give up on it and rely on “The Night Agent,” “Poker Face” and “Vera” to entertain me.

Overreacting to Phillies’ start

Panic about the Philadelphia Phillies and their horrendous 2023 start became so comic and so overwhelming, it drove me from WIP (94.1 FM), the station that carries Phillies games, several times last week.

The funniest and most irritating comment came from 6 p.m. host Jack Fritz on Friday when he said, sincerely and with dramatic emphasis that this was a “World Series or bust” year.

Hold your horses, Jack.

The season on Friday was a week’s worth of baseball.

Zoren: Actor with big TV credits had to re-invent himself during pandemic (2)

If last year, when no one expected a World Series appearance, not even while the Phils were playing the Atlanta Braves, proved anything, it’s that momentum from a good streak that can take you to surprising places.

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Of course, now that the Phillies are contending National League champs and mostly composed of World Series veterans, the stakes and expectations are higher. It’s a little soon to be so desperate and dire when more than 150 games are yet to be played.

The goal every year should be to win a pennant.

It makes me laugh when pundits on sports shows spout that only a championship or a World Series/Super Bowl ring matters.

They are important and a sign of success.

Perspective says only one team each year can be the ultimate champion. Only two teams compete for the honor of that title. It is silly to negate a strong season like the Phillies, the Eagles, and the Union and the Sixers are having if they don’t take home the main prize.

Last year’s championship games were disappointing locally.

Rather than grumble about three teams competing for their sport’s crown and falling short, we should appreciate that no other city can boast the success Philadelphia athletes had in 2022-23.

2008 and 2017 are more satisfying than 2022, but the Phillies’ run was exhilarating, and the Eagles and Union were an unending source of pride. Hurrah to all three.

It’s never “World Series or bust.”

I prefer to relax and enjoy a competitive season in which pennants and rings are the cherries on top of an already scrumptious cake.

Fortunately, Tom Kelly followed Fritz and presented matters on a more even, logical keel.

Kelly, later in his program, discussed, at a producer’s prompting, if Pitbull’s “Celebrate” should be played at Citizens Bank Park after Phillies wins or whether a song more related to Philadelphia should replace it.

The producer cited Frank Sinatra’s cover of “New York, New York,” played after the Yankees wins as an example.

The producer also said, “ ‘New York, New York’ by Frank Sinatra,” which it isn’t. It’s by the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb for Liza Minnelli, who recorded it before Frank, sang it in the 1977 movie of the same title, and doesn’t muff the lyrics as Frank does.

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I liked the producer’s idea but not his choice of Philadelphia song — Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” — which I believe was written at the behest of another sports franchise, the Philadelphia Freedom, in a short-lived professional tennis league and possibly commissioned by Billie Jean King.

Maybe WIP or the Phillies should sponsor a contest for someone to write a strong, singable Philadelphia song in the Kander and Ebb tradition. How about one in street-corner doo-wop?

Until then, a banjo rendition of “Golden Slippers” or the “Bandstand” theme song with Barry Manilow’s lyrics might suffice.


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