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Best-actor Obie goes to Phila. performer

James Sugg, a prolific Philadelphia actor, sound designer, and composer who works with many theaters in the region, won the prestigious Obie Award in New York last night as best actor in an off-Broadway show this season.

James Sugg, a prolific Philadelphia actor, sound designer, and composer who works with many theaters in the region, won the prestigious Obie Award in New York last night for his performance in an off-Broadway show.

Sugg, a 10-year member of Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company, won for his performance in Pig Iron's Chekhov Lizardbrain, a high-concept piece that is, on the surface, about three brothers fighting over an inheritance.

"It's a great honor," Sugg said in his short acceptance speech, in which he thanked the Obie committee for recognizing him, as well as a play "obviously audiences responded to." Chekhov Lizardbrain was a critical success, as well as a box-office hit, in New York when it ran during October at the Ohio Theatre in Manhattan's Soho district.

Pig Iron premiered the show in Philadelphia in 2007, and after reworking about a third of it to give it a sharper focus, took it to New York. Sugg's award is the second Obie involving Pig Iron, which received a special citation in 2005 for Hell Meets Henry Halfway.

This season, Sugg's work has included not only the New York show but music for the Arden Theatre Company's holiday show, James and the Giant Peach, and for the new musical produced by 1812 Productions, Cherry Bomb. Additionally, he scored two 2008 Live Arts Festival shows, Sea of Birds and Oedipus at FDR. His Obie comes in the midst of Pig Iron rehearsals for Welcome to Yuba City, in which he'll perform at this year's festival.

As an actor, Sugg - tall, lanky, with a mop of at-times wild, dark hair - tends to play roles at the extreme. "It's been a journey with James, in the sense that I'm often asking him to do stuff he's never done before," said Dan Rothenberg, one of Pig Iron's three artistic heads and director of Chekhov Lizardbrain.

"I bully him. And he protests he doesn't know how to do it, he's not very good at it - and then he'll come up with something brilliant."

Pig Iron colleagues were with Sugg last night at Webster Hall as his win was announced. He learned of it over the weekend, when they told him in order to make sure he'd be at the ceremony. Sugg was originally scheduled to be in Chicago yesterday, exploring a Pig Iron collaboration with a company there, for an all-male Pirates of Penzance.

"It's a thrilling night," he said in a short phone conversation minutes after accepting the award, one of 12 awards for the best Off-Broadway performances. Sugg noted that he'd left New York 11 years ago, and "coming back to the heart of Off-Broadway, it's really thrilling - it feels like a haven and like we've found an audience here. Somehow, it made sense tonight, the work we're doing."

Sugg, 40, will reprise his performance in Chekhov Lizardbrain in Philadelphia in December. The play, like many Pig Iron productions, is a collaborative enterprise among the members who created it. Sugg plays Dmitri, the protagonist; he builds a bizarre character who replays his memories, constantly re-ornamenting them to fit his comfort. Dmitri creates the titular Chekhov Lizardbrain as an alter ego, piecing together Dmitri's memories.

Sugg grew up in Saudi Arabia, where his mother worked as a librarian for Aramco, the petroleum company, and attended boarding school on Long Island. Rothenberg and Jeff Sugg - James' younger brother, now a New York theater designer - were putting on Jesus Christ Superstar at Swarthmore College when Rothenberg first met James in the mid-'90s, "this guy I found to be an unbelievable pompous ass, me at the ripe old age of 19 and him 23 or 24," Rothenberg recalled. "He was there playing the piano, singing the songs, not even part of the production."

In 1996 Sugg, a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory in vocal performance, showed up at one of Pig Iron's earliest creations in New York. He eventually moved to Philadelphia to work with the company. A decade ago, he performed in Gentlemen Volunteers, playing three instruments and providing sound effects. His work led to the first of his four Barrymore Awards - the Philadelphia theater awards - for sound design. He also has won the Haas Award at the Barrymores, a $10,000 grant for emerging theater artists.

"He is so incredibly inventive - he throws himself into his work with real joy and courage," said Terrence J. Nolen, producing artistic director of the Arden Theatre, after learning last night of Sugg's Obie. Sugg has played in a half-dozen Arden productions and has designed the sound for 10 of Arden's projects. His wild-eyed 2007 portrayal of Charles Guiteau, assassin of President James Garfield, was particularly memorable as he sang his way to the gallows.

"Because he wears so many hats and has so many talents," Nolen said, "he has a really strong understanding of the whole picture."

The Obies - the Off-Broadway Theatre Awards - are given by the weekly Village Voice newspaper. Recipients are chosen by critics and theater artists, who announce the winners but do not reveal nominations.