By JOANNE KAUFMAN
For years, the actor Max von Essen had been preparing for the role of apartment owner. When he was cast in an international touring company of “West Side Story” in 1998, he bought an etching at an antiques shop in Vienna. During a stop in Berlin, he bought a page from an old book. Assorted lithographs and sketches were purchased in other European capitals.
“I put them in a file thinking someday I would have a great place and then I’d hang them up,” said Mr. von Essen, a 2015 Tony nominee for his performance as the sexually and occupationally conflicted Henri Baurel in “An American in Paris.” He’s now a star of the Mint Theater’s production of “Yours Unfaithfully,” which runs through Feb. 18.
That Mr. von Essen got that great place was thanks to Anna McNeely, an actress he met in 2003 when they were both appearing in “My Fair Lady” at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. Ms. McNeely, a veteran Broadway hand, and her husband had recently put their two-bedroom Hell’s Kitchen duplex on the market. But because the apartment, a walk-up, is in a Housing Development Fund Corporation building, there are strict income caps for prospective shareholders. Further, residents are required to help out with cleaning and maintenance.
“They were having trouble finding the right person,” said Mr. von Essen, who saw the apartment and pronounced it amazing — “the spiral stairs and the two floors made it seem like a small house” — but beyond his means.
A year later, Ms. McNeely’s husband, Steve Roland, phoned Mr. von Essen, who was renting in Astoria. Wonder of wonders, the co-op was still available.
“They’d had one or two people fall through, and Steve mentioned a lower figure and said: ‘How about this? Can you afford this?’ Steve was a firefighter, and he was really pulling for me once he knew who my dad was,” said Mr. von Essen, the youngest child of Thomas Von Essen, the New York City Fire Department commissioner during 9/11. “And the co-op board was pulling for me. It was like, ‘Let’s see if we can get Max in here.’
“And my father said: ‘Max, we’ll help you out. You can’t pass up this opportunity,’” continued Mr. von Essen, who respectfully declined to give his age. “We made it happen.”
Since moving in 12 years ago, he has made changes as his bank account has allowed. A leading role in the 2009 national tour of the musical “Xanadu” paid for repairs to the oak floors and for a kitchen renovation that included raising the ceiling and losing some walls.
“An American in Paris” funded an upgrade to the two bathrooms, where you will now see the bits and bobs of the art Mr. von Essen had been gathering so assiduously. He is the subject of one sketch, as he appeared in “An American in Paris”; his likeness was captured by Andrea Selby, an artist who did on-site illustrations during rehearsals and performances.
Mr. von Essen learned the importance of waiting for the reviews before pulling out the checkbook when he was cast in the 2002 Broadway musical “Dance of the Vampire” and promptly traded in his upright piano for a cherry wood Schumann baby grand. The show closed after 56 performances. “I’m glad I didn’t get a Steinway,” he said with a rueful laugh. Never mind the bad association. Mr. von Essen unreservedly loves the piano, which sits near the window and anchors the living room. He even gave it a nickname, Rosie, a tribute to Rosemary Clooney.
Atop the Schumann is a Lalique lion, a cherished gift from old friends, one of several members of the animal kingdom represented in the apartment. When he was cast in “An American in Paris” as the scion of a successful textile manufacturer in postwar France, Mr. von Essen did some research and learned that wealthy French families of the period liked to collect taxidermy.
“I decided I should get a piece of it, and I found something on eBay and fell in love with it,” he said. The object of his affection, a stuffed bird, now sits on a skinny glass-topped side table. Meanwhile, Mr. von Essen’s partner, Daniel Rowan, an actor, became similarly enthusiastic about a stuffed fox he bought at a vintage store in Dallas; it’s perched under the stairs. And at holiday time, out comes the bearskin rug, complete with bear’s head.
Visitors may be less unnerved by the animal paintings — one of a fox, one of an owl — commissioned by the couple from the Brooklyn-based artist Paul Richard. “‘American in Paris’ was a great thing for me,” said Mr. von Essen, whose long gig gave him the means to buy decorative objects, including a small painting by Thomas W. Shields of a woman at a piano. “Years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. I would have thought, ‘Oh, I need a couch.’”
He’s got a couch. It’s store-bought, unlike much of the furniture that surrounds it. For Mr. von Essen, this is about thinking green and saving green. But it’s also about the pleasure he derives from owning things that have a history: the pair of nailhead-studded leather easy chairs that had been in his parents’ bedroom; the silver-framed mirror that he inherited from his maternal grandparents; the bureau he got on eBay; the midcentury sideboard he found on Craigslist.
But it would be hard to compete with the provenance of the simple wood classroom chair in the master bedroom. Mr. von Essen’s father rescued it 40 years ago from a small fire at a vacant school in the South Bronx. “My dad had it in his office and then it was in our basement, and I said, ‘Dad, that chair. I really love that chair. Can I have it?’” If he would promise to take care of it, absolutely, said his father. He promised.
If Mr. von Essen ever makes it really big, his plans include an apartment with a terrace — and a building with an elevator. “Living in a walk-up keeps me in shape,” he said. “But I think my knees may only have 10 more years.”