With all due respect to Miles, the casting switcheroo is a special treat for New Yorkers, who have not seen Lester nearly enough over the course of his three-decade career on the stage and screen. It feels incredible that he is just now making his Broadway debut, though he has popped up on smaller local stages: as Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl’s “As You Like It” back in 1991 and 1994, as that moody Scandi prince in a Peter Brook production of “Hamlet” that transferred from London in 2001, or as the real-life 19th-century actor Ira Aldridge in “Red Velvet” (written by Lolita Chakrabarti, Lester’s wife).
No matter how good those productions were, they did not turn him into a New York marquee name. Lester good-naturedly pointed out that when he is recognized here, it’s usually because of a pair of screen performances that go back 20 or so years: as a movie star dating Tracee Ellis Ross’s character in the TV series “Girlfriends” and as a presidential-campaign operative in the Mike Nichols film “Primary Colors.”
It’s another story back home, where the Birmingham-born commander of the Order of the British Empire has had lauded turns as Henry V and Othello, and received an Olivier Award in 1996 for his performance as Bobby in “Company,” also directed by Mendes — because, yes, Lester can sing and dance, too.
He has also done the requisite television work, spending, for example, seven seasons on the comic caper “Hustle” as Mickey Rocks, the charming leader of a merry band of con artists.
That show’s creator, Tony Jordan, was looking for someone along the lines of George Clooney in “Ocean’s Eleven” to play Mickey. Those are tough designer shoes to fill, but Lester’s ability to embody nonchalant, beguiling poise turned out to a perfect fit for a smooth criminal.
“Before creating the show I’d read 20 books on confidence tricks,” Jordan wrote in an email. “I should be the hardest person to con, but I know that if Adrian’s Mickey had tried to sell me shares in a recently discovered gold mine in Arizona, I’d have invested heavily.”
For Lester, the part was catnip because it actually was many parts. “The reason why I stayed with this character is that every episode, he pretends to be someone else,” he said. “You knew who he was inside, but you watched him become something else in front of you. And that,” he said, snapping his fingers for emphasis, “was just gold dust for me. I loved it.”