Groff, Putting the “Nice” in Dionysus

Photo: Steve Mack/FilmMagic

The plan had been a night of drunken excess with Jonathan Groff, who’s about to play vengeful, acknowledge-me-as-a-god-or-I-will-
drive-your-women-insane Dionysus in The Bacchae at the Delacorte. Except that, at Xai Xai, a midtown wine bar of his choosing, he hesitated when I suggested ordering an entire bottle. And when the Malbec arrived, Groff merely sipped. Then, an hour later, still nursing that first pour, Groff choked while attempting a bacchanalian gulp. “Actually, I don’t drink that much,” he finally admitted. This is shocking: an unapologetically sober person playing the greatest enabler in history?

You could blame his parents. His father’s side of the family is Mennonite, and Groff grew up in a part of Pennsylvania that was “cornfield, my house, cornfield.” “My parents never drink,” he says. “I remember there would be a beer in our fridge from, like, three years ago from some party they’d had.” His school year was consumed with regional theater. Summers were spent mucking horse stalls (his father is a horse trainer) and hucking bales of hay.

When Groff first moved to the city, his Laundromat occupied the space where we’re now drinking. He got drunk for the first time waiting tables at the Chelsea Grill on Ninth Avenue. “I had a little bit of ten different kinds of wine. And I remember feeling really dizzy and going home and falling asleep. That’s pretty much all that happened,” he says. Apparently not much more has gone down since then.

Though he’s avoided being typecast as wholesome, Groff often does play the idealist: Melchior Gabor, advocate of love and sexual liberation, in Spring Awakening; Claude, who believed that God believes in Claude, in Hair; Michael Lang, the 24-year-old concert promoter in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, out August 28. Dionysus is a stretch, and purposefully so: Groff wanted to play a character who’s “not so moral.” He mentioned this to the Public Theater, and next thing he knew, he was the deity of frat houses everywhere. “As Jonathan, I’m not a bad boy at all, which is why Dionysus is so fun,” Groff says, clearly excited. “I’m a god, so anything goes. I get to seduce people. I drive all the women in the town crazy—all my aunts who deny the divinity of my birth. And then Pentheus won’t worship me, so in my own sick, twisted way, I convince him to dress as a woman and go to the hill to see all the women that I drove crazy. And they end up ripping his body to shreds. I know, I’m evil!” Then he sips.

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Groff, Putting the “Nice” in Dionysus