Nathan Detroit, Roy Cohn, Philip Gellburg... You'd think from the roles he plays that Henry Goodman was the archetypal New York Jew. But the star of the RNT's `Guys and Dolls' was born an East End barrow-boy. Typecast? He thinks not. By Paul Taylor
Even if you have pored over his CV, it still comes as a shock. To meet the actor Henry Goodman and discover that he speaks with an East- End-tinged London accent is a bit like catching up with Jimmy Durante and finding that, off camera, he talks in broad Mummerset.

Brought up in Whitechapel and claiming that he "learnt more about theatre in Petticoat Lane market than I ever did at Rada", this 40-something English actor looks in the mirror and staring back at him is a face that casting directors have tended, in the past few years, to see as one thing: New York Jew. But it's not, of course, merely a quirk of physiognomy that has landed him a string of mouth-wateringly meaty parts in contemporary American classics - from Arthur Miller's Broken Glass to Tony Kushner's Angels in America; from City of Angels to Stephen Sondheim's Assassins - and helped him produce a body of work that can rank beside any, in this period, on the English stage.

There's his extraordinary skill at projecting a wiry, worry-driven intensity, giving his performances a physical dynamism that reminds you that he started off in street theatre and mime and that one of his tutors at Rada was Steven Berkoff (a piece of whose Decadence he did as his RSC audition and whose Kvetch he much later played in the West End). Then there's the authenticity of the accent that my most hard-bittenly critical New York friends concede is indistinguishable from the real thing.

Goodman enters a qualification here, though. "Part of me thinks I could have achieved the same level if it had been French, Swiss or anything. That's why it was so nice when Hysteria came up [the Terry Johnson intellectual farce in which he played the dying Freud]. OK, he was German, but it's slowly coming back round to English..." He agrees, however, that something in him is released by playing American parts - "in the sense that it's a very front-footed culture".

I meet him just as he takes up occupation of the star dressing-room at the National, where he opens next week as Nathan Detroit in Richard Eyre's production of Guys and Dolls. As there's been no time yet to personalise things, the room has that cramped, slightly desolating air of the sort of campus accommodation that might make a new student cry on his first day of term. I keep half expecting a knock at the door and a "friendly" visit from a duffel-coated leading light of the Christian Union. Belying this bleakness, Goodman sits on the other side of the single bed, exuding geniality and a marked sense of relief that, after the soul-ringing arduousness of some of his recent parts, he's now in a role he can have some light- hearted fun with. Even if it is another American.

On some obscure level, I find myself feeling slightly bereaved and betrayed by this show of ease. I realise, as we are talking, that for me - and clearly for a large number of other people, too - Henry Goodman in his more familiar compulsive, tensely fretting, self-hating Jewish stage-mode, acts rather like I feel. He possesses the capacity that Simon Russell Beale has to make an audience identify en masse with characters who might seem too rebarbatively oddball or misfit or marginal to excite this degree of fellow-feeling. Maybe, in the breast of a certain type of English gentile - smart, ambitious, but ill at ease and educated out of his class - an old-style New York Jew is lodged like a platonic alter ego. This could be why Alan Bennett feels such a kinship with Kafka who, in Bennett's writing, takes on distinct traits of a New York (as opposed to Czech) Jew. And it could be why a part of me evidently wants to keep Goodman in the gilded ghetto of this style of role.

So, even though I adore Guys and Dolls and Goodman valiantly endeavours to talk about the pleasure of being in it, I realise that I keep manoeuvring the conversation back to anxieties and frustrations. And, on the level of his career and where he would like it to go, I find, in time, that my interviewee does not entirely disappoint me.

Half seriously, half fancifully, I suggest early on that, if ordered to do so at gunpoint, you could claim a thematic link between Nathan Detroit and many of the other American roles Goodman has taken. After all, in a very playful sense - his being 14 years the fiance of a woman he keeps wriggling out of marrying - this charming Broadway no-good is "in denial".

Which is a syndrome suffered to a rabid degree by, say, Roy Cohn, the real-life homophobic homosexual, anti-Semitic Jew and diabolically corrupt lawyer in Angels in America who refuses to accept that he is dying of Aids because "Aids is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer." It's there, too, in Gellburg, the little real estate dealer who is so desperate to be taken for one of the goyim, in the 1930s New York world of Arthur Miller's Broken Glass, that his wife, subconsciously and paralysingly, begins to equate him with Hitler.

Goodman has got there way ahead of me on this one. He agrees that a connection exists and that Nathan - who organises the crap game and is, therefore, the engine of the entire musical - is "under pressure from all these gangsters with guns, who, if they don't get a game, would shoot him - there's no question". But he also rightly points out that "Loesser's musical is a fable and there's a beautiful innocence about it". So, one of the ways Nathan deals with the pressure of "being macho and one of the guys in a guys-and-dolls culture is to say `OK, sue me - sod it, I give up, whaddya gonna do' - which is rather winning".

The production, he acknowledges, is itself under a certain pressure in that Eyre's first foray into Guys and Dolls (at the National in the early Eighties) achieved a legendary status and there are bound to be invidious, no-win comparisons from buffs and nostalgists. Goodman is also appealingly open about being slightly miffed that Nathan doesn't have more songs. "Sam Levine, who did this part when the show opened on Broadway in the Fifties, was a wonderful personality and a great comedian, but he couldn't sing, so they cut several of his numbers." Goodman says that he "tried to twist Richard's arm right up his back" to reinstate them, but the director insisted that they weren't dramatically necessary.

Certainly, Nathan Detroit doesn't have a knock-'em-dead number like the one Goodman was given in his Olivier Award-winning performance in Sondheim's Assassins. As Charles Guiteau, the man who shot dead President Garfield, Goodman got to do a dementedly optimistic cakewalk up the scaffold, still singing of the US as the land of opportunity, where "You can be sad / Or you can be President", until the hangman pulled the trapdoor lever.

In his reality-denying, un-derailable self-conviction, Guiteau reminds me, I remark, of Roy Cohn. By this stage, understandably, Goodman senses that I'm determined to find a common thread in his roles. I do this not to suggest that he's a predictable actor. He's not: in terms of range and experience (which includes nine years teaching and acting in South Africa, where he'd followed his wife), he's one of the most versatile performers around. But I just wondered, well, if he ever wished these top American dramatists would give him a break and stop writing parts that cry out for his stage energy and drive?

"The only area where I have a frustration is that I don't want to be limited," declares Goodman. "Now, it's no depressing limitation to be limited to Roy Cohn or Guiteau or Nathan Detroit."

On the other hand, the great Shakespearian roles for which he feels "incredibly ready" beckon, but would depend on casting directors who would not, as some did in the past, advise him to get a nose job. I tell him the rumour that Kathryn Hunter, with whom he has worked, is scheduled to play King Lear for Helena Kaut-Howson in the new year. "That's the kind of plasticity of thinking I love," he says and reveals that he has had talks with Hunter, her Complicite colleague Marcello Magni and director Katie Mitchell about joining forces and (I assume) forging a new language for the classics in which it would be a bonus to look as Goodman and Hunter do.

Meanwhile, he's busy strengthening his clout. There's an upcoming movie version of Broken Glass that, by all accounts, reduced New York audiences to tears. And when he's finished Guys and Dolls he starts filming a "post- watershed, rather mature" BBC comedy series, specially written for him, "about a couple who have split up some years earlier and now re-discover their relationship".

So, one way or another, the days before we see his Timon and Shylock and Leontes may be seriously numbered. "What I'm interested in saying," says Goodman, "is `Ya ain't seen nothin' yet'".

`Guy and Dolls': now previewing, opens Tuesday, Olivier Theatre, RNT, London SE1. Booking: 0171-928 2252