Why Jonathan Groff Is Our Best Stage Ingenue

Many of the young actors landing leading roles on the New York stage nowadays are of the silver-screen breed, stars with blockbusters to their names and guaranteed audience pull. For the most part, they play their Hamlets and Violas and Alan Strangs better than expected, which is saying neither very little nor very much. The mediums are different enough that those who give the greatest movie performances often appear too milquetoast for the Great White Way. Still, of the Anne Hathaways and Katie Holmes and Julia Stiles, the critics agree: they handle their roles "with neither distinction nor embarrassment"; they give "solid, committed" performances. They're occasionally charming; they're always quite safe.

Not so with Jonathan Groff. He's the cherubic actor with that dangerous energy who earned a Tony nomination as Spring Awakening's Melchior and who wowed audiences last summer as Claude in The Public's production of Hair, one of the more exuberant pieces of live performance that's been mounted in recent years (on the night I saw it—as, I'm sure, on most others—the audience, swept away by the young cast's enthusiasm, thronged the stage to dance and sing around the kids as they took their bows). Groff has few screen credits to speak of: a turn in the FX pilot Pretty Handsome, a cameo as music promoter Michael Lang in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock. But he's among the most memorable and electrifying ingénues in the theater today.

Turns out, Groff's Claude, bursting with teenage desire and defiance of the powers that be, is an appropriate lead-in to his latest role as Dionysus, in the current Shakespeare in the Park production of The Bacchae. After all, the adolescent Dionysus is rebellion par excellence. The son of Zeus and Semele, princess of Thebes, he has come disguised as a stranger from the East to confront his mother's people and force them to acknowledge his divinity, which they vigorously deny. To taunt the Thebans, Dionysus causes their women to go mad and take to the hills in ecstasy. The ladies clothe themselves in wild skins and they make milk, wine and honey flow from the rocks and ground. They suckle wolf cubs and rip lowing cattle apart with their bare hands to eat the raw flesh; at night, they lie with strangers or with the god himself, as initiation into his mysteries.

Strange stuff—and that's not getting to the part about the mother who beheads and quarters her son. By midway through the play, Dionysus can start to sound less like James Dean and more like Jeffrey Dahmer. But Groff manages to transform his vindictive god of chaos into an alluring, irresistible trickster. Maybe it's his hyacinth curls; maybe it's the hint of baby fat still lingering around his cheeks; maybe it's his impish smile. It's definitely the costume-black leather jacket, scuffed-up jeans, plain white tee, the classic attire with an attitude. It's also definitely his stare, his smoldering, astonishing stare, which he trains on the play's ultimate power that be, the Theban prince Pentheus (played pitch-perfectly by Anthony Mackie) with an intensity that makes the audience murmur and thrill. They've been murmuring and thrilling, in fact, since Groff appeared in the very first minutes of the play to give Dionysus' opening monologue. Whenever he's absent from the stage—and when his shadow starts looming from the sidelines, a primordial force soon to appear—one can't focus on the proper action at hand. We, like the Bacchants, ache to see the god.

On one recent night, as the action drew to a close and as Dionysus banished the Theban rulers to wander in miserable exile, distant lightning crackled above the Delacorte's open theater-in-the-round. Perhaps it was coincidence. Or perhaps it was the elements growling their applause for Groff's primal, charismatic turn as thunder's godhead son.