“On the Aisle with Larry” 27 March 2021

 “On the Aisle with Larry”

 

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since the New York theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, in this column Larry reports on shows you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo. 

I saw and loved the original production over 20 years ago off Broadway of Becky Mode’s Fully Committed but missed it’s Broadway incarnation starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson. The original actor was great (who he was, I don’t remember) and I’m sure Ferguson was wonderful, too. Now, the George Street Playhouse is streaming the play, featuring Maulik Pancholy as a man who works the reservations desk at a hot-hot-hot Manhattan restaurant, the kind of joint that’s booked (i.e., “fully committed”) weeks in advance. In addition to himself, he does the voices of hordes of desperate people who simply must have a table tonight as well as singularly unhelpful members of the restaurant’s staff.

 

Pancholy is enjoyable as he juggles all the callers. He reminded me of the order dept. clerks at Samuel French when I was there – just as frazzled. But he’s not particularly funny. This is not so much because of him, but because of the medium in which the play is presented – Zoomed dramas are OK on Zoom, but comedies fall flat for lack of a live audience. www.overture.plus/Play/WatchVideo/bb30d421-f017-49c4-a9c9-6a56a7d01142

Soon, God willing and the creek don’t rise, Zoomed theatre will be an unpleasant memory as it recedes into the distant past. To which I say, good riddance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

 

                                                                                      — George F. Will

 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 23 March 2021

                                                                                          “On the Aisle with Larry” 

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since the New York theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, in this column Larry reports on shows you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo. 

Mr. Parent by Melinda Lopez, produced by TheatreWorks Hartford, is billed as a reading but it has more of the feel of a Zoomed play, albeit with one character, a gay Boston high school teacher and actor, played with great aplomb by Maurice Emmanuel. Actually, I think Emmanuel plays himself as he tells of his teaching and life adventures, speaking with anguish about the racism he experiences almost on a daily basis. He’s sassy, funny and heartbreaking.

I highly recommend this. You can stream it at www.streamevents.io/player/patronmanager/00D37000000IycoEAC!b4541036619fafac/FBA345EF9D1D6211 Access code: FBA345EF9D1D6211

Adjust the Procedure by Jake Shore is a meeting between 4 administrators at an unnamed NYC college, zoomed because the college is shut down due to the pandemic. The play might have been more dramatic had it actually been staged but here, it’s just four talking heads who discuss various issues caused by the pandemic. The play is best when the discussion becomes heated; but overall, it’s static and not very dramatic, like most Zoomed plays. https://www.stellartickets.com/o/spin-cycle–2/events/adjust-the-procedure/occurrences/cc582b8b-9349-4147-aab3-e0ec903e0c8f

Do you know about Broadway HD? I recommend it highly. You can subscribe for less than $9/month., $100/year and is well worth it. You can watch classic plays such as the  landmark 1973 production of A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN starring Colleen Dewhurst, Jason Robards and Ed Flanders, the original production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN and the recent production of PRESENT LAUGHTER, featuring Kevin Kline’s Tony Award-winning performance as Garry Essendine, and classic musicals and recent hits such as AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and KINKY BOOTS. They have just added the Broadway musical Allegiance to their lineup. This is a musical about an unlikely subject: the forced removal after the Pearl Harbor attack and subsequent declaration of war against Japan of Japanese American citizens (Nisei) from their homes and businesses. The book, by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo (who also wrote the music and lyrics) and Lorenzo Thione is based on the true story of George Takei (he of “Star Trek” fame) and his family. Takei also acts in the show, as the elderly version of the character based on himself and his own grandfather. Although Takei is rather wooden, there are fine performances here, most notably from Telly Leung as Sammy, based on Takie as a young man, Leo Salonga as Kei, the ghost of Sammy’s sister. Kuo’s score is lovely, and Stafford Arima’s direction is just right.

 

When I saw the show on Broadway, I felt that although the story of the Nisei has oft been told, this show personalized it, and I found it quite moving. As I watch this streamed version, it had an additional poignancy as a rise in violence against Asian Americans has been very much in the news of late, caused by inflammatory, racist and untrue statements about the Coronavirus made by our incompetent former president, He Who Must Not Be Named (like Lord Voldemort).

In view of All of the Above, don’t miss Allegiance. www.broadwayhd.com.

Sir Miles Malleson was a playwright, translator of Molière and character actor, both in the West End and on film. He wrote 10 plays, 9 of which were produced in the West End and on Broadway. Unfaithfully Yours, written in 1933, lay unproduced until it was staged by the Mint Theatre by their Artistic Director, Jonathan Bank. I didn’t see their production onstage, but it’s now being streamed so I just finished watching it. It’s easy to see why this is apparently the world premiere of the play. No one would touch it in 1933 as its subject is what used to be called “free love: but is now called “polyamory.” A rather contentious writer named Stephen (a rather annoying Max von Essen) can’t write because he is full of anger at everyone. His wife of 8 years, Anne, suggests that maybe what he needs is to have an affair. The return of her friend Diana, a recent widow who has been living abroad, creates the perfect opportunity. I can imagine West End managers in 1933 thinking, “Oh, I don’t think so, Miles.” Well, Diana thinks this is a cracking good idea, and the affair begins. Predictably, it does not end well.

Although billed as a comedy, I didn’t find the play particularly funny; but, as with all Mint productions, the cast and staging, by Jonathan Bank, are first-rate. Particular good are the women, Mikaela Izquierdo as Diana and Elisabeth Gray as Anne. (Stream it at www.minttheater.org/streaming-series/?tab=yoursunfaithfully

 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

       — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 25 February 2021

 “On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, used to bring you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in the New York theatre; but since the New York theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, in this column Larry reports on Falling Stars, Little Wars, Katie Roche, Bad Dates and School Girls; or, the Mean African Girls Play, which you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo. 

In Falling Stars, an actor walks into an antique shop in London and discovers a stack of old sheet music of songs from the 1920s, which inspires him to sing, joined by a snazzily-dressed woman who comes out of the shadows. I am a sucker for great old songs, and there are several of them in this revue, by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Irving Berlin, Vincent Youmans, Buddy de Silva and several others. There is some narration between songs, including a reminder that these are songs from an era when the world had emerged from two crises: the Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic. The performers, Peter Polycarpou and Sally Ann Triplet, are pretty good though not great. If you feel like hearing some wonderful old songs over the course of a little under an hour, click here: www.broadwayondemand.com

In Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars, guess who’s coming to dinner? None other than Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie. Guess where? The home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I am unsure if Gert and Alice are still in Paris or have decamped elsewhere, sure that another World War is coming. Be that as it may, the conversation is lively but that’s all this play is – conversation. The only conflict in it is between Stein and Hellman. Stein hates her (which made me wonder, when then did she invite her?) and insists upon addressing her as “Lilly Ann.” To spice things up, Hellman has brought along a writer Stein has never heard of: Dorothy Parker. Also in the mix: a young American woman who has come to ask Stein for money to help Jews escape the Nazis, and a younger French woman, a victim of sexual abuse and a Jew as well, who Stein and Toklas have taken in and who works for them as housekeeper, maid and general factotum. They, and Agatha Christie, are the most interesting characters. Stein and Hellman are Merely Cranky and Parker, Merely Weird, with little of Dorothy Parker’s legendary caustic wit (at least as played by Debbie Chazen).

Unlike Falling Stars, this is a zoomed production (lower case, as it’s actually on a Zoom clone called Vimeo). The Biggest Name in the cast is West End star Juliet Stevenson, who is wonderfully cranky as Lillian Hellman. Catherine Russell, as Toklas, employs an artificial way of speaking which I found rather grating, a word which also may be used to describe Linda Bassett’s Gertrude Stein. She’s believably Jewish, unlike Kathy Bates’ Stein in Woody Allen’s exquisite film, “Midnight in Paris,” but Bates has all of Stein’s generosity and kindness, which Bassett lacks. For all I know, Bassett ’s portrayal is more accurate, but I much preferred Bates’. Sophie Thompson is delightfully dotty as Agatha Christie, but the two most compelling performances are by Sarah Solemani as the American Freedom fighter trying to save the Jews and Natasha Karp as the housekeeper.

You can stream this by going to https://vimeo.com/474581834. By now, though, aren’t you awfully tired of zoomed theatre? I know I am.

 

 

Lately, the Mint Theatre Co. has been streaming productions of recent vintage, and I have reported on several of them. Their latest is Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche. Deevy was an Irish dramatist in the 1930s whose plays were regularly done by the Abbey Theatre. Then Yeats stepped down as its Artistic Director, and the new management passed on this play, which so disappointed its author that she stopped writing stage plays and focused on radio drama. I don’t think the play was ever done in Ireland, but it was produced on Broadway in 1937, where it was considered to be a comedy, which mystifies me but there you have it.

Anyway, the indefatigable Jonathan Bank, the Mint’s Artistic Director, unearthed the work of this forgotten playwright and has been doing fine productions of some of her other plays, finally getting around to Katie Roche. The eponymous character is a young woman who is a live-in housekeeper to a woman whose middle-aged brother, a successful Dublin businessman, has decided he wants to marry her. Her choice is between him and a local lad her age, but with “limited prospects.” She marries Stanislaus, the brother, and proceeds to make him miserable.

While the play itself is, well, just OK, Bank’s production shines as usual. Wrenn Schmidt manages to make you care about the rather self-centered Katie, and Patrick Fitzgerald is stodgy with being boring as Stanislaus. Like everything done by the Mint, this is well worth a stream: go the www.minttheater.org to find out how.

 

The excellent George Street Playhouse is streaming a production of Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates, a one-woman play wherein a divorced single mother prepares in her bedroom for various dates, and then come back later to tell us about them. She has a particularly hard time finding a pair of shoes which fit as well deciding which of the 600 pairs of shoes she owns would go with the outfit she wants to wear. Occasionally, she calls her girlfriend to vent. I am reminded of a pertinent tip in a list of Tips for Women I once had: If you have a problem which you can’t figure out how to solve, bring it to us and we will help you. Don’t ask us to listen to you vent on and on about your feelings about the problem – that’s what your girlfriends are for. Andrèa Burns is delightful as Our Heroine, who works her way up to be the manager of a restaurant run by some shady Romanians and almost finds herself afoul of the law. Fortunately, one of her bad dates turns out to be a lawyer who gets her out of this jam. To stream this fine production, go to www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.

I was not able to catch the acclaimed production at MCC in NYC of School Girls; or, the Mean African Girls Play. I jumped at the chance to stream a production of the play by Theatre Squared. I am very glad I did.

The play is set in a girls’ school in Ghana, but the dynamic there is much like in any American high school. There is the Queen Bee, her acolytes and a new girl who arrives to upend this dynamic. In other words, this is something of an African riff on our “Mean Girls.” Paulina, is the Queen Bee. She’s Miss Popularity and the other girls aspire to be like her. The girls are awaiting the arrival of a talent scout for the Miss Ghana pageant, and everyone assumes that Paulina has the best chance at being selected; until, that is, the arrival of a new student, Ericka, whose father owns a local cocoa company but who up to now has been living in some place called “Ohio.” Paulina immediately perceives Ericka as a threat, not only to her dominance over the other girls but also to her selection as the local girl to appear in the pageant, primarily because Ericka’s skin is so light in color that she could pass for white, so she undertakes a campaign to get Ericka in trouble. It had never occurred to me that even in Africa a woman with light skin would be considered more beautiful than one whose skin is dark. How this all works out is the gist of this short play.

When the streaming begins, the Artistic Director of Theatre Squared gives a speech thanking all his donors, of which there are many. Then, the camera takes us into the building, up to the box office to get our ticket and then into the theatre. Why, it’s almost like a live theatre experience; though without a cell phone speech, of course. Then, we watch the play in the best seat in the house. I found this very clever and am amazed that nobody had thought of this, at least in my experience with streamed plays.

As for the production, it is first rate. The director, Vickie Washington, has cast the play beautifully and the ensemble is just perfect, with standouts being Makha Mthembu as Paulina and Amira Danan as Ericka.

Stream this by going to www.theatre2.org. 

 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will

 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 23 January 2021

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since New York Theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, Larry is reporting on plays you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo. 

Readers of this column know that I always have nice things to say about productions by the Mint Theatre Co. Well, I try to find nice things to say about everything I see, why is why I am such a terrible theatre critic; but particularly, ones I see at the Mint, because I believe strongly in their mission: to discover and revive plays buried in the dustbin of theatre history which do not deserve to be so lost. Ours is a throwaway culture – here today, gone tomorrow – but this is no more so than the theatre and, of course its plays. The Mint specializes in plays from the first half of the 20th Century, before I was born; but I can think of scores of plays I saw which were hot then but not now. I can think of many wonderful plays I saw at the Humana Festival which didn’t go much beyond Louisville. I have written about these in a chapter on the Humana Festival in my memoir, 200 Times a Year, and plan to write another chapter on all my forgotten faves once I finish the two chapters I am working on now.

The Mint has been generously streaming video recordings of recent, before the pandemic, productions. You can view the latest one, Lillian Hellman’s Days to Come, by going to: https://minttheater.org/streaming-series/?tab=howtowatch

I wasn’t able to see the Mint’s three previous streamed productions in their theatre  but, as it happens, I did see Days to Come. The play has much in common with the last Mint production I streamed, Miles Malleson’s Conflict. Both plays have a central female character torn between her loyalty to her class and her awakening sense of social injustice. It takes place during the Great Depression in an Ohio factory town. The workers are on strike for higher wages and the factory’s owner, Andrew Rodman, in whose home much of the play takes place, is trying to break the strike. He’s a nice enough sort of fellow, not the snarling epitome of evil one might expect from Hellman, who at that time was flirting with the Communist Party. He hires a gangster who specializes in union-busting, but he looks the other way regarding this thug’s methods. Rodman’s wife Julia, the central character, is a bored woman looking for action. She finds it in the shape of union organizer Leo Whalen, her husband’s arch-enemy.

As usual with Mint productions, the acting is terrific. My faves were Janie Brookshire as Julie, Roderick Hill as Leo and Dan Daily as the union-buster. Daily, a stalwart of the late, lamented Pearl Theatre, who shone there in Shaw and Shakespeare, is in my opinion one of our finest classical actors, the heir apparent to the late Philip Bosco. If we had a healthy classical theatre, he would be much in demand.

The reviews for this production when it first played were generally negative. I was flabbergasted when I read them. Do check out this streamed version. It is well worth it.

By the way, I signed up for Broadway HD, a streaming service with a wonderful repertoire of plays, musicals, classics, even films of plays. They have all 37 of the BBC Shakespeare plays. They have the original production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN with Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, and they have the show that made a young, unknown actor from Australia named Hugh Jackman a star, at least in London– Trevor Nunn’s wonderful production of OKLAHOMA. I started out with the famous 1973 production of A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, which I had the good luck to see on Opening Night during my first trip to New York. and which restored this forgotten play to its rightful place in our national dramatic repertory. Then, I moved on to the Broadway musical AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, which has some of the greatest dancing I have ever seen. Ballet stars Robert Fairchild and Jeanne Cope are not only great dancers, they are also Broadway caliber actors and singers. They are, in a word, sublime.

I am now halfway through the RSC’s landmark production of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, which took Broadway by storm in 1981.

It’s every bit as fabulous as you may have heard, with a heroic performance by Roger Rees in the title role and a heart-rending one by David Threlfall as the cripple, Smike; with great ensemble work by what seems to be a Cast of Thousands. I doubt if we will ever see its like again in our Incredible Shrinking Theatre.

 

Finally, Broadway Cares has a campaign going to raise sorely needed money to help theatre people in dire need because of this awful pandemic, for food, housing and medical assistance. Now that you have made all your political contributions to help defeat Trump and Trumpism, I can think of no more worthy a cause. Here’s a link to make a contribution: https://donate.broadwaycares.org/give/140654/#!/donation/checkout

 

 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

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January 2020 Column

 “On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since New York Theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, in this column Larry reports on streamed plays: CONFLICT, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, RUSSIAN TROLL FARM, and the films of THE PROM and MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. 

What a dreadful year 2020 was! No live theatre since early March. It’s possible that the theatres will reopen in May, but my guess this won’t be until September, as that is Dr. Fauci’s recommendation. I check Playbill.com daily to see if there is any news.

So, I have been streaming interesting productions, some of them via ZOOM (which, I hope, will be a thing of the past – the sooner the better). The problem with these is they are here today, gone tomorrow, and this is tomorrow. Ah, well – better this than nothing.

The invaluable Mint Theatre Co. has been streaming productions from before the pandemic hit. Their latest was Miles Malleson’s Conflict, which was one of the best productions of the many fine productions I have seen (in this case, streamed) at the Mint over the years. Malleson was an actor and translator, best known for his translations of Molière, so one might assume that Conflict would be a comedy, but it turned out to be a drama (from 1924).

The play takes place in the home of a wealthy aristocrat, Lord Bellington. A young man, Sir Ronald Clive, also wealthy, is courting his daughter, Lady Dare Bellington, who is resisting marry him because she is waiting for something unknown and wonderful to happen to her. This arrives in the person of Tom Smith, an impoverished schoolmate of Sir Ronald who hopes to borrow money from him. To get him to go away, Sir Ronald gives him a considerable amount of money. Tom uses this to get back on his feet. He joins the Labour Party and stands for Parliament. His opponent? Sir Ronald. Whereas Sir Ronald is a fatuous Tory, Tom is a firebrand champion of the working class, sort of a much younger Bernie Sanders. He inspires Lady Dare, who decides to turn her back on her class and marry him. The central character, Lady Dare, is a wonderful role and Jessie Shelton was a delight in it, matched by the impassioned Jeremy Beck as Tom.

The parallels between England in 1924 and our fractious time couldn’t be clearer and, once again, the Mint has exhumed a play most worthy of exhumation. Jenn Thompson’s direction was pitch-perfect as were the set by John McDermott and the costumes by Martha Hally.

The great actor Jefferson Mays scored a triumph in a solo performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. His was one of the most brilliant performances I have ever had the joy to see. Dickens often did readings of his classic novel. Were he to see what Mays and his director Michael Arden have done to bring it to life, I am sure he would be as astonished as I was. The multimedia projections by Lucy Mackinnon were amazing, as was the lighting by Ben Stanton and the sound design by Joshua D. Reid.

I hope, I pray, that this will become as annual event at Christmas.

I am not a fan of Zoom Theatre, which usually is a poor replacement for Real Theatre, but I have been zooming anyway, starved for the real thing. The best of these was Russian Troll Farm, by Sarah Trancher, from Theatre Works Hartford, about five Russians in an imagining of what the disinformation dept. Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg must be like, attempting to subvert the 2016 election in the U.S. After much amusing office banter of a general nature, Masha (who has just been transferred from the Fake News Department and the cynical manager, Nikolai, send out a string of tweets about a network of tunnels (bogus, of course) starting from beneath Disneyland, leading to the Mexican border, which are being used by Hillary Clinton’s nefarious minions as a conduit for her pedophile ring. Gancher managed to make this amusing and horrifying at the same time.

Director Elizabeth Williamson, helped by her co-director Jared Mezzocci, who did the multi-media design, managed to create the illusion that all five characters were in the same room better than any Zoomed play I have seen, and all the actors were first-rate.

Ordinarily, I don’t write about films but I am making an exception for two you can stream on Netflix, versions of two Broadway shows – The Prom and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

I loved The Prom when I saw it on Broadway but the film is just as good, maybe better. It’s about a narcissistic crew of Broadway actors who bomb in a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. They decide to look for a cause in order to rehabilitate their shattered reputations. They find one when they hear about a teenage girl in a small town in Indiana who has been denied permission to bring her girlfriend to her senior prom. They mission out to Indiana to lead a charge against the small-minded locals; but it is girl herself who manages to win the day (well, the night).

The cast includes Meryl Streep as a self-obsessed diva named Didi, James Corden as trés gay Barry, her co-star on the awful Eleanor: the Musical and Andrew Rannells as an out of work actor who’s been making ends meet as a bartender. Nicole Kidman shines as a chorine who has been trapped in the chorus of Chicago for 20 years. Kerry Washington is their nemesis, Mrs. Greene, the head of the local P.T.A. whose daughter, unbeknownst to her, is the mystery girlfriend. Asks Mrs. Greene, “Who are you people?” To which Rannells replies, “We’re liberals from Broadway!” Jo Ann Pellman is wonderful as the teenager who just wants to bring her girlfriend to the prom. Casey Nicholaw, who directed and choreographed the Broadway production, has here done just the dances – and they are fabulous, much better than what I saw on Broadway.

The Prom is wildly funny, but it also packs a powerful emotional punch. If you subscribe to Netflix, don’t miss it.

Also a don’t-miss: George C. Wolfe’s brilliant film of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which features stellar performances by Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and the late Chadwick Bozeman as the horn player in her backup group. Both are certain Oscar contenders.

By the way. I recently signed up for Broadway HD, where I can stream Real Theatre. Their offerings are phenomenal – plays, musicals, classics up the yin-yang. I started out with A Moon for the Misbegotten, which I saw during my visit to NYC as a tourist at Christmas-New Year’s 1973-4. This acclaimed production, directed by José Quintero, starring Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst and Ed Flanders, restored O’Neill’s great play to our national dramatic repertory. I managed to score a pair of tickets on the day of performance, which turned out to be Opening Night. This was the Olden Days, so the curtain was at 6:30. All the critics were there, but the only ones I recognized were the TV people, such as Pia Lindstrom and Ed Sullivan. Sullivan had two seats, one for himself and one for his coat. He had orange hair. I have since seen the play 4 times – but my first time is still the best, and one of the best “revivals” I have seen in a lifetime at the theatre.

Then, I moved on to An American in Paris, which I loved when I saw it on Broadway, starring Leanne Cope, a British ballet star, and Robert Fairchild, at the time a Principal Dancer with the New York City Ballet. I expected their dancing to be great; but it turned out they both are fine actors and terrific singers. The entire production is sublime.

 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

 

                                                                                      — George F. Will

 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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200 Times a Year; My Life at the theatre — Dramatis Personae

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

 

While there is no live theatre because of the pandemic, I shall be posting chapters as I write them from a book I am working on about my experiences in the New York theatre. Here’s my latest.

Over the course of my many years in New York, I met a lot of cool people, as well as a few oddballs. I have written about some of them in my chapter on Samuel French, but there are many more.

When I was the Editor at Samuel French, I used to get a lot of walk-ins, mostly actors looking for help in finding a scene to work on in class or a new monologue to use for auditions. Sometimes, playwrights would drop by and ask if I would read their work. Several years ago, I was called out to the reception area, and there stood a nattily dressed elderly gentleman who was about the best-looking geezer I had ever seen, with a full head of silvery white hair. He looked rather like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., only shorter. “May I help you,” I said. “Mr. Harbison?” he asked. “Yes.” “My name is Guido Nadzo.” I was flabbergasted. “The Guido Nadzo?” I blurted out. “Yes,” he said. “I see you have heard of me.”

The name “Guido Nadzo” is something of a jokey footnote in Broadway theatre history. As the story goes, when George S. Kaufman was casting The Royal Family, which he co-wrote with Edna Ferber and which he directed, he travelled out of town (to Philadelphia, I think) to see a play featuring a young actor named Guido Nadzo, who had been recommended to him for the “juvenile role,” which is what they called the young man who was not the lead in those days. Supposedly, he sent the following telegram back to New York: “Guido Nadzo was nadzo guido.” When the story got around, young Guido Nadzo found himself such a joke that he had to give up acting. And here before me stood that very same Guido Nadzo.

Mr. Nadzo had written a play and asked if I would read it. I said I would be glad to, of course. Then, I couldn’t resist. I asked him about the story. He chuckled and told me that it was completely untrue. When the story started circulating, Kaufman contacted him and told him that he never sent such a telegram. Furthermore, he told everyone in the business that the story was untrue, even though he did not cast Nadzo in the play. Guido Nadzo continued his acting career until the onset of World War II, when he joined the Office of Strategic Services, serving there until the war’s end, at which time he decided he liked this line of work and remained — in his words – in “government service” until he retired. After the war, the O.S.S. became the Central Intelligence Agency. In other words, Guido Nadzo spent the second half of his working life as a C.I.A. spy.

We had a very pleasant chat. I have forgotten what Mr. Nadzo’s play was about, or even if it was any good; but I’d like to set the record straight about this strange myth.

Sometime in the early 1980s, I was sitting in my office one day when a guy from the Order Dept. came in to tell me that there was a woman who wanted to see me. I went out to the reception area and there she was. She appeared to be in her 50s, heavily made up, elegantly dressed, with dark brown, curly hair. “You wanted to see me?” I asked. “Mr. Harbison?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. She stretched out her hand and said in a thick Italian accent, “I am a-Gina Lollobrigida.”

You may be too young to know the name, but not me. Gina Lollobrigida was an Italian film star in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, foreign film actors were hot in Hollywood. Of particular interest to Hollywood were extraordinarily beautiful women, often referred to as “Sex Goddesses,” and Ms. Lollobrigida was one of the most beautiful. She came over here at pretty much the same time as another Italian Sex Goddess, Sophia Loren, and became just as big a star. She starred in several American films, such as “Solomon and Sheba” with Yul Brynner and “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell.” She was Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo. And there she was, standing before me.

I managed to stammer, “What can I do for you?” She told me that a Broadway producer named Harry Rigby who had recently produced SUGAR BABIES, a huge hit starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, was looking for a play for her. Apparently, he had suggested that she come to see me, as even then I was known in the biz as a guy who knew a lot of plays. I immediately thought of Tennessee Williams’ THE ROSE TATTOO, as the lead character, Serafina, is Italian. Politely, she shot that idea down. The reason? Williams wrote the play for his longtime friend Anna Magnani. Although she got cold feet and didn’t do it on Broadway (the role was played instead by Maureen Stapleton) she starred in the film version, which was one of her most famous roles. No Italian actress would dare go up against La Magnani. It would be like an American actor daring to appear in an iconic Brando role, such as Terry Molloy in “On the Waterfront.” Side note: a stage version of this film was presented on Broadway, with highly regarded young actor Ron Eldard in the Brando role, and this pretty much derailed his career, even though he was quite good. See, he was Not Brando.

I suggested a few other plays to her (I have forgotten what they were) and asked a guy in the Order Dept. to pull them. I offered to give them to her, but she insisted on  paying for them. Then, we had a nice chat. She was absolutely charming and very intelligent. I asked her if she was still acting; but she said, no, she was now a highly sought-after photojournalist and a successful sculptor. I asked, was she worried about returning to acting after so many years? “Absolute-a-not!” she replied. She left with her scripts. I never saw her again.

While I was writing this chapter, I found out from Peter Hagan, an old friend and colleague who was an agent before he became the President of Dramatists Play Service, that his client, the great set designer John Lee Beatty, whom he still represents, was actually hired by Harry Rigby to design the set for THE ROSE TATTOO, to star Miss Lollobrigida, to be directed by John (“Joey”) Tillinger — so she must have changed her mind and did decide to do the play. The plan was to open out of town, play a couple of other venues and then open on Broadway. Then, she told the team that she had hired a top Italian fashion designer to design her costumes (which was common in the Italian theatre, apparently). Mr. Beatty told me that these were completely inappropriate for the American South, let alone the character; and, anyway, a costume designer had already been hired. Miss Lollobrigida was adamant that they must use her designer’s costumes. When they told her “no way” she ditched the production. What a shame. I think she would have been brilliant. She’s still alive, and will turn 94 this year (2021).

Shortly thereafter, Harry Rigby died – so that was that.

As I mentioned, when I was at Samuel French, I used to get a lot of people who came in to ask for my help, and I was always glad to drop whatever I was doing, go out to the bookstore and sit down with them. Mostly, these were young women looking for a new scene or a monologue; and I was usually able to come up with something for them.

Sometimes, they had recently arrived in New York and they just wanted my advice about what to do next. Someone had told them, “Go see Larry at Samuel French.” As the years went by, I often got what I came to call “The Look,” which betrayed their suspicion about why I was spending so much time with them. It was like a thought bubble in a cartoon, attached to their head. They were thinking, “Does this geezer think he has a shot with me?” Once, I asked a young actress not to give me “The Look.” She asked, “What look?” “This look,” I replied, imitating it, and said, “And I know what you were thinking.” “What was I thinking?” she asked. I said, “You were thinking, does this geezer think he has a shot with me?” She thought about this for a moment and said, “I was thinking that.” “Look,” I said. “I don’t want anything from you; I just want to help you.” Then I saw another thought bubble containing, “That’s a relief!” I expect most of them gave up eventually, it being practically impossible to establish an acting career in New York unless you have an agent, which few of them did.

A few times, though, I had walk-ins who beat the overwhelming odds and became Famous. Ellen Barkin came in once, just in from wherever she came from. I forget what she wanted, but we had a lovely chat. In about 1980, another cute young actress came in, fresh out of Carnegie-Mellon, from which she had received an M.F.A. She had long, blondish-brownish hair and spoke with a distinctive southern accent, as she grew up in Georgia. We hit it off and I began inviting her to join me at the theatre. One play I remember taking her to was BABY WITH THE BATHWATER, in the old Playwrights Horizons upstairs studio theatre. Chris Durang, the playwright, was there and I introduced her to him. She was amazed that she was meeting such a famous playwright. I have a story about Chris and this play, in my chapter on Samuel French. As the play was rather short, afterwards we moseyed over to the Hotel Algonquin for a drink in their cozy lounge. While we were sitting there, Morton Gottlieb came in. Morty was a Broadway producer whose hits included ENTER LAUGHING (which made a star of Alan Arkin), SLEUTH, SAME TIME NEXT YEAR (with Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin) and two other Bernard Slade hit comedies, ROMANTIC COMEDY (which starred Anthony Perkins and Mia Farrow) and TRIBUTE (starring Jack Lemmon). I asked Morty to join us and he readily agreed. I doubt if my young friend had ever heard of him, but she was flabbergasted to find herself having a drink with a Famous Broadway Producer. By this time, I was kinda sweet on her and thought, “This is gonna be my night!” but, alas no.

At the time, I was still trying to get something going as a director, and she did several readings for me. She was the greatest I have even seen at a cold reading. With no rehearsal even, she was always fabulous. Many years later, I was at the Humana Festival and a casting director reminded me that I had recommended her for a role she was having difficulty casting. She was amazing in the play, BATTERY by Daniel Therriault, and this was her first New York acting credit.

Many years later, I happened to sit next to Morty Gottlieb at the theatre one night. He told me he had retired from producing – not because he couldn’t raise money anymore but because of the difficulty of getting a star willing to commit to 6 months on Broadway. I asked him, “Mr. Gottlieb, do you remember coming into the Hotel Algonquin one night after the theatre many years ago and joining me for a drink?” He thought for a moment and replied, “Sure! You were there with some cute young actress. Whatever happened to her?” To which I replied: “That cute young actress, Mr. Gottlieb, was Holly Hunter.”

After she went on to film stardom, I lost track of Holly. More than thirty years later, she acted in a production by the New Group of David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES. I waited for her afterwards and when she finally came out, I went up to her and said, “Holly, it’s a Blast from the Past!” She didn’t recognize me after all those years so I added, “It’s Larry, from Samuel French.” She lit up. “Oh my God, Larry! I haven’t seen you in years.” Well, Holly,” said I. “You’ve been busy.”

Before Samuel French, I worked for Robert Whitehead and Roger Stevens who, at the time, were producing Preston Jones’ A TEXAS TRILOGY; plus, Katharine Hepburn touring around in A MATTER OF GRAVITY. I was the receptionist and general office factotum. One day, Mr. Whitehead asked me to read a script for him which an old friend named Chester Erskine had sent him. It was called THE KING’S FAVORITE and was about King Edward II of England. It was really well-written but required a very large cast and obviously wasn’t something that could be produced on Broadway. Mr. Whitehead asked me to compose a letter from him to Mr. Erskine; in his words, “a nice note,” which I did. I decided to write him myself to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play. He replied, thanking me, and we began a correspondence. After several months, he wrote to tell me he was going to be in New York and would like to meet me. We set up a date and time, and he invited me over to his digs, where he and his wife were staying.

I arrived for our appointment, to a townhouse in E. 49th Street. I rang the bell. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman with an Irish accent named Nora, the housekeeper. I told her my name and she replied that Mr. Erskine expected me and was upstairs in the parlor. I went upstairs and met Mr. Erskine, an elderly gentleman in a tweed sport coat and tie (it may have been an ascot), who shook my hand, invited me to sit down and asked if I would join him for tea. I said I would, so he asked Nora to bring us tea.

We talked about his play, and he was surprised that I was so knowledgeable about Edward II. I told him that I had been in a production of Brecht’s EDWARD II while I was in grad school and, as is my wont, had read a lot about the King, his notorious relationship with Piers Gaveston and his deposition and horrible murder. Meanwhile, I started to notice that there were a lot of Katharine Hepburn memorabilia in the parlor, such as a photo of her with Laurence Olivier taken during the filming of “Love Among the Ruins” and a Giacometti sculpture of her. I remarked, “You must be a big fan of Katharine Hepburn.” “Oh yes,” he replied. “She’s been one of my dearest friends for many years. As a matter of fact, this is her house.” Imagine the look on my face when he told me that! Miss Hepburn was out on the road with A MATTER OF GRAVITY and had invited Chester and his wife Sally to house-sit.

Well, we hit it off and started to meet every week for lunch, during which he told me stories about himself. In the 1920’s and 30s, he had been a Broadway producer and director. He acted in the first play in the Golden Theatre, rehearsing it in the downstairs lounge. In 1930, he directed THE LAST MILE, a prison drama by John Wexler, produced by Herman Shumlin, which made a star of Spencer Tracy. In 1934, he decided he wanted to make a film, which was problematic because there were no indie films at the time as the Hollywood studios owned all the movie theatres, so there was nowhere to show them. The only one in New York they didn’t own was Radio City Music Hall. Chester bought the film rights to a drama called MIDNIGHT which didn’t succeed on Broadway but which he thought would make a good film. Chester asked an actor friend of his, who at the time was playing juvenile roles (you know, the kind of character who walks through the French doors in whites and asks, “Tennis, anyone?”) to play the “heavy,” a gangster, to which he replied, “Are you crazy, Chester? Nobody would believe me as a heavy, I’m a juvenile.” Chester said, “You’re a good actor, and a good actor can play anything.” The guy accepted the challenge and they made the film (In case you’re interested, you can watch the film on You Tube). which played a week or two at Radio City, and he so impressed people in the theatre that he was cast as the heavy, an escaped criminal named Duke Mantee, in a new play by Maxwell Anderson called THE PETRIFIED FOREST. The play was a hit in 1935, at the Broadhurst Theatre, and he was a sensation. Hollywood put him under contract and he never did another play. The film version of the play made him a movie star. His name was Humphrey Bogart.

I went to the Library of the Performing Arts and looked all this up. It was all true.

In the 1950s, Chester went into television production; but by the time I met him in 1976, he was retired.

Chester was close friends not only with Kate but with Gar and Ruth (Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon) and Spence (as in Tracy). He told me that Kate and Gar had had a huge falling out when Kanin published Tracy and Hepburn, in which he revealed for the first time that the relationship between Kate and Spence was not exactly merely a professional one. They lived together for years, but Tracy couldn’t get a divorce because he was a Catholic. They were together when he died. Hepburn never spoke to Kanin again.

One afternoon, we were sitting in the parlor when I noticed a copy of Ruth Gordon’s latest autobiography, My Life, on the table next to Chester’s chair. I asked him if he had read it yet. He had, and offered to lend it to me. I asked him if he was mentioned in the book. He was, several times. Then he thought for a moment and said, “You know, I think I am the only man mentioned in the book that Ruthie never slept with.”

Shortly thereafter, Miss Hepburn’s tour finished up and Chester and Sally returned to their home in Santa Monica. We corresponded for a while but then he passed away and I never saw him again.

I met several more cool people when we were at the “old place,” in 45th St, such as Paul Green, who stopped by several times. He had been a successful Broadway playwright in the 1930s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for IN ABRAHAM’S BOSOM, before he started writing outdoor historical pageants such as THE LOST COLONY and THE STEPHEN FOSTER STORY, both of which are still performed every year. Mr. Green was an elderly, soft-spoken Southern gentleman, surprised that I knew who he was.

The Dramatists Guild used to hold an annual party in May for every member who had had a play produced that season, and they invited a few industry people such as myself as well as old-time playwrights. I met the aforementioned Gar and Ruth, Robert Anderson wife, the actress Theresa Wright (well, he introduced her to me as his wife, but I think they were divorced by that point) and several others. Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize for TEA AND SYMPATHY. He also coined the now-famous phrase, “You can make a killing in the theatre but you can’t make a living.” Miss Wright was a film star in the 30s and 40s, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in “Mrs. Miniver.” One year, I saw an elderly man sitting by himself, off to the side. Since nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him, I went over to him and introduced myself. His name was Marc Connelly, and he was surprised that I knew who he was. Mr. Connelly was George S. Kaufman’s first collaborator, and together they wrote DULCY, MERTON OF THE MOVIES and BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK. In 1930, he won the Pulitzer Prize for THE GREEN PASTURES, which was set in Heaven and featured an all-black cast. It toured for years and made Richard B. Harrison, who played God (called in the play “De Lawd”) famous. He was also a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. He told me some stories about Kaufman and the other Round Table members, all of which I have forgotten. I asked him if he was still writing plays; but no, he hadn’t written anything in years. He still saw every Broadway show, though, missioning in from New Jersey where he lived, but he told me he always left at the intermission because he just didn’t enjoy them, the theatre having changed so much since his day. He was a charming fellow; but I thought to myself, “This guy’s an Old Fart. I hope to God I never become one of those.” Later in this book I’m going to have a chapter on Old Fart-ism.

While Samuel French was still at the Old Place a strange little man, a playwright named Bruce Millholland, used to drop by from time to time, usually to see if we had any money for him. He was a legendary moocher, notorious for crashing parties to get free food. He probably had a room in a flophouse. He had long white hair and the way he dressed was very eccentric. One day, he showed up all in emerald green, wearing green plastic shoes and large, thick glasses with green frames which made him look somewhat bug-eyed. He looked like a giant frog. I always enjoyed talking to Bruce, because he was very witty in a catty sort of way. In the 1920s and 30s, there was a guy at Samuel French who used to function as an agent, representing Bruce’s plays, none of which ever went anywhere except for one called NAPOLEON OF BROADWAY, which he managed to get optioned by George Abbott and Philip Dunning, who hired Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who had written THE FRONT PAGE) to rewrite it. This became TWENTIETH CENTURY, a Broadway hit at the Broadhurst Theatre during the 1932-1933 season, which Mr. Abbott directed, running for 152 performances. In those days, a play which ran 152 performances was a hit. It would run five or six months, until late spring, then close because there was no air conditioning then, and go out on tour. I guess audiences on the road didn’t mind sweltering. The play was made into a very successful film which starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Since Bruce wrote the original play, he received a tiny percentage of the royalties which, somehow, he lived on for the rest of his life. The play was revived in 1952, at the ANTA Theatre (which is now the August Wilson), and near the end of his life (which is when I first met him), he hit the jackpot when the musical version, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, opened on Broadway in 1978 at the St. James Theatre and became a hit, running for over a year. Bruce died in 1991, aged 88.

Samuel French moved to the New Place (in W. 25th St.) in 1984, and the young actresses kept coming in. There were several acting schools and studios in the area. There was a woman who had a studio nearby where she worked with models who wanted to get into acting, and she would lead a group of them in from time to time and ask me to help them find scenes and monologues. For some reason they were all tall, very beautiful blondes, Jorge Ibbott, who worked in the Order Dept. for many years, called them the “Swedish Bikini Team.” He would come into my office, salute, and announce, “Sir, the Swedish Bikini Team has arrived!”

As I said, most of the young people who came in to see me were women; but occasionally, I got a guy. One was a muscular, very Italian fellow who had a thick Brooklyn accent. I gave him a couple of monologues which I used to call “monologues for Vinnies.” “Lemme show you something,” he said, and he rolled up his sleeve. He had “Vinnie” tattooed on his arm. Another was a very cute blonde man. I spent several minutes with him, and noticed that Peter LaBeck (a colleague whom I called “Lurch”) was lurking in the Order Dept., observing me. When I finished up, Lurch said, “He was attractive.” “Oh, come on, Peter,” I said. He asked, “Do you think he was a Club Member?” I told this story to my sister, who is a lesbian, and she said, “We call them family.”

Sometimes, Famous People came in to talk to me. I had a couple of sessions with Ron Howard. Ron is a very friendly, unassuming man, and we always had a delightful chat. The second time he came in, he was looking for monologues for his daughter, who was auditioning for college theatre programs. She later became a pretty successful film actress – Dallas Bryce Howard. Robert Uhrich came in once, looking for the script of THE MUSIC MAN, a revival of which was running on Broadway, because he had been asked to go into the show when the star, Craig Bierko, left. I had to tell him that the show was handled by Tams-Witmark, which didn’t sell their libretti but rented them, so we didn’t have a copy. We had a nice chat about “Lonesome Dove,” in which he played the horse thief Jake Spoon. He never did THE MUSIC MAN.

I met Twiggy once. She had been a super model (before that term was coined) in the 1960s, epitomizing the term “mod.” She was appearing in a musical revue of songs by Noël Coward called IF LOVE WERE ALL at the time and she wanted some plays to read. She bought them using her credit card which had her real name on it: Lesley Hornby. She’s now Dame Lesley Hornby and is 71 years old. Hard to believe.

The British actor and director Roger Rees came in often. He had shot to fame in the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s NICHOLAS NICKLEBY; and at the time I met him, he was the Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He was always looking for scripts to consider for production there. Roger was quite the wag, very funny. The Festival had recently opened a small theatre named after its late founder, Nikos Psacharapoulos, called the Nikos. Roger cracked, “Maybe when I die, they’ll name a theatre after me. They could call it the ‘Roger’.” To “Roger” is a British slang verb for sex as in, “I rogered her.” One time, he regaled me with stories about “corpsing” in the British theatre, a term for the common practice of an actor trying to make a fellow actor lose it and break character. He was pretty knowledgeable about plays, but he often asked my opinion of some of them which interested him. After he left Williamstown he co-wrote and co-directed PETER AND THE STARCATCHER and starred in the musicals A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE and Kander and Ebb’s musical version of the Dürrenmatt play THE VISIT, alongside Chita Rivera. During the run, he developed cancer and died very quickly. I’m still waiting for Williamstown to honor him; if not with a theatre then perhaps with a lobby or rehearsal hall, called the “Roger.”

John Davidson stopped by once to talk with me. He brought his bike up to our bookstore. You may not remember him, but in the 1960s he was a TV star, a tall, handsome man with a beautiful singing voice. He was appearing on Broadway in the stage version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein film musical, “State Fair.” He looked exactly like he did in the 60s, but with gray-flecked hair. He wanted to do a one-man play about Thoreau, so he wanted to read other monodramas. I talked to him for quite a while, recommending several and told him my opinions about what makes a good one-man play. He looked down and asked, “How come you know all this?” I knew that he was a Denison alum. Denison was my alma mater Kenyon’s arch revival. They always beat us in football; we always trounced them in swimming. Denison was in a dry county, so the students had no access to liquor. Mr. Hayes, who ran our local grocery store, had no problem selling alcohol to underage Kenyon students, so our frat parties were well-lubricated. The problem was, Kenyon was all-male, so we needed women. Guys would get in their cars and drive over to nearby Denison, pull up in front of the sororities, and yell to the girls coming and going, “Hey girls, party at Kenyon tonight. Anyone wanna go?” In two shakes, they had a full car. The Denison guys hated us. My reply to Davidson’s question when he asked me how I knew so much was, “’Cause I went to Kenyon.” He replied, matter of factly, “I went to Denison.” “I know,” I said. He thought about this, realized I was kidding him, and then gave me a “that’s a good one” big smile. I have never heard that he actually did a one-man Thoreau play, but he had his own theatre in Branson, Missouri, where he was probably making too much money entertaining all the geezers who trekked to Branson.

Sometimes, instead of people stopping by, they would call me up. I would answer the phone, “Lawrence Harbison.” One time, the voice on the other end said, “Mr. Harbison, this is Jon Voight. I’m an actor?” Me: “I know who you are, Mr. Voight. What can I do for you?” He said, “Well, my daughter is a student at N.Y.U. and she’s playing Nina in THE SEA GULL. I was wondering if you could recommend some research materials for her.” Konstantin Stanislavski directed the original production and later he published a journal he kept during rehearsals entitled, “The Sea Gull Log.” I told Voight about that and recommended that she read a good biography of the playwright, because I was pretty sure that Chekhov based Nina on a real girl. Voight thanked me profusely and then we hung up. I found out the name of his daughter a few years later. She was Angelina Jolie.

Another time, I answered a call in my usual way and heard a shakey, geezer voice on the other end: “Mr. Harbison, this is Buddy Ebsen.” Holy moly, it was Jed Clampett! We talked a bit about “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Adventures of Davy Crockett,” in which he had played Davy’s sidekick, Georgie Russell, who said things like, “Give ‘em what fer, Davy!” He had written a play and asked if I would read it. “Of course I would,” I told him, so a few days later his play arrived. The author’s name was Christian Ebsen, which was Buddy’s given name. It was a beautifully written play about an army camp during the Civil War, but it had a gazillion characters, all male, so there was nothing we could do with it. I had to return it to him. A short while later, he died.

One time, I got a call from a woman who identified herself as “Goldie Hawn.” I almost said, “Who is this really?” because her voice was that of a middle-aged Jewish matron, nothing like Goldie Hawn. She wanted recommendations for plays with strong dramatic scenes for a young man, because her son was auditioning for the Actor’s Studio and they expected wannabes to come in with a scene. One time, a woman called me needing help to find a scene for the same reason. In order to better assist her, I asked who her scene partner was. “Stephen Lang,” She said. Again, holy moly! In my humble opinion, Stephen Lang is one of our greatest actors, both in film and on stage. Although he has had a pretty successful career, playing major roles in the films “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “Gettysburg” and “Avatar,” he never became the star he should have been. Anyway, I hope she got in. Back to “Goldie”: She was being driven around Manhattan, and I asked her to give me a half hour to pull some plays for her. Then, I asked her if I could have an autographed picture for a fraternity brother, Randy Giarraputo, who was nuts about her back in the day. I chose ten or so plays, and a half hour later her driver came to the counter to purchase them. He handed our clerk an 8 x10 glossy, signed, “To Randy. Thanks for being such a great fan. Goldie Hawn.” I sent this to Randy. Imagine the look on his face when he opened the mailing envelope.

I wrote about Jerry Sterner, Don Nigro and Ken Ludwig in my chapter on Samuel French, but there were many more playwrights with whom I became friendly, such as Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Michael Weller and John Patrick Shanley. I was Donald Margulies’ first agent; Richard Dresser’s and Mark St. Germaine’s as well. I tried for a couple of years to place their plays before hooking them up with real agents who had the time to promote their work; and the rest is history.

I want to reminisce a bit about two lesser-known playwrights, Leonard Melfi and John Ford Noonan. Leonard was a cheerful bear of a man with long, curly, dark brown hair who spoke with a minor stutter. In his youth, in the early 1960s, he had been at the epicenter of the Off Off Broadway movement, along with Lanford Wilson, Jean-Claude Van Italie, John Guare, Sam Shepard, Terrence McNally, Tom Eyen, Doric Wilson, H.M. Koutoukas, Paul Foster and Robert Patrick. Note: all men. There were a few female playwrights then, but it wasn’t until later that they started getting much attention. Several playwrights in the above list managed to move beyond their OOB roots. Leonard never really did, I think largely because his plays were whimsical almost-fairy tales which seemed rather silly to critics, although Theodore Mann of Circle in the Square did commission him, McNally and Van Italie to write three one-acts, which he produced as MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT. Leonard started out mostly with one-acts, the kind which could be produced simply at places like Café La Mama and Café Cino, his best-known being BIRDBATH. He did have a couple of full-length plays produced under mini-contracts later, FANTASIES AT THE FRICK and PORNO STARS AT HOME, but these came and went and are now pretty much forgotten. I lost track of Leonard, then was saddened to learn of his death in 2001 in a S.R.O flophouse. His body went unclaimed for several days and then was misplaced by the hospital staff and wound up being buried in Potter’s Field. When his brother learned of his death, he had Leonard exhumed and buried in Binghamton, his old home town. His was a sad and ignominious end for a man who never lost his child-like wonderment and optimism, even when he was struggling with alcoholism.

John Ford Noonan started out as an actor, appearing in several films such as “Last Stop, Greenwich Village.”  Then Joseph Papp “discovered” him as a playwright, and Papp produced his early play, THE YEAR BOSTON WON THE PENNANT (which featured a then-unknown actor named Roy Scheider in the lead) during his brief tenure at the helm of Lincoln Center Theatre. Subsequently, Papp took a lease on the Booth Theatre and announced a subscription season of 5 new plays, one of which was by Noonan. Also in this season were to be plays by Michael Weller, Thomas Babe, David Rabe and Dennis Reardon. Papp opened with Reardon’s THE LEAF PEOPLE, which was such a critical bomb that he cancelled the rest of the season and refunded the subscribers’ money. In 1979, Noonan had a huge hit Off Broadway WITH A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS SITTING AROUND TALKING at the Astor Place Theatre (where those Blue Men seem to be permanently ensconced), starring Susan Sarandon and Maureen Brennan. In his heyday, he was a large hirsute fellow; but when I got to know him, he had slimmed down considerably. This was around the time he had a modest Off Broadway success with SOME MEN NEED HELP, which starred Treat Williams and Philip Bosco. John often used to call me just to talk. I would answer the phone and I would hear, “Who’s-your- favorite-playwright?” “You, John,” I would reply. “How are you?” “Still sober,” he would reply. John had had a huge problem with alcohol and cocaine. He had received $500,000 for the film rights to A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS SITTING AROUND TALKING and in 6 months it was gone – up his nose. After I left Samuel French, I lost track of John, though I tried to contact him a few years ago on behalf of a Greek friend who wanted to direct a production of A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS in Athens. Even Noonan’s agent, Buddy Thomas at ICM, had lost track of him. I told Buddy to contact Noonan’s brother, the actor Tom Noonan, who told him that he had Power of Attorney, as John was in the Actor’s Home in New Jersey and was non compos mentis. John passed away there in 2018 at the age of 77.

When we are young and just starting out, we are convinced that Fame and Fortune are just around the corner. The ends of Melfi and Noonan are cautionary tales.

 

 

 

 

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200 Times a Year; My Life at the Theatre — the Humana Festival

HUMANA FESTIVAL

 

In 1976 Jon Jory, recently hired Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director, decided that a good way to increase the theatre’s national recognition would be to start an annual new play festival. Problem was, he had no idea how to get plays to produce, so he placed ads in major newspapers all over the country and had his Literary Manager, Elizabeth King, scour these newspapers for reviews. He started out small in 1977 with two plays, one of which had been discovered by King when she read about an Equity Waiver production in Los Angeles. This was THE GIN GAME by DL Coburn. Major critics were invited, including ones from New York. Their reviews of Coburn’s play attracted the attention of Broadway producers, who saw in it a vehicle for two of Broadway’s biggest stars, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. It not only became a hit on Broadway, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Talk about starting off with a bang!

In the 1978 Festival, the theatre produced a play by a local journalist who had written a series of articles about people who had gotten out of prison. Jory saw the potential for a play in these articles and worked with their author to develop it. The author’s name was Marsha Norman. The play was GETTING OUT, which was subsequently produced Off Broadway by the Phoenix Theatre, directed by Jory, with ATL actress Susan Kingsley as Arlene, an ex-con, the older version of Arlie, a troubled young woman who was sentenced to prison (played by Pamela Reed). It was a sensation, and Marsha Norman’s career as a playwright was on its way.

In 1979, the first year Humana, a health insurance company based in Louisville (their building a few blocks away from ATL is one of the most beautiful in Louisville) began sponsoring the Festival, ATL had another hit with a play written by an actress who had given it to a director friend who had worked at Actors Theatre, who gave it to Jory. This, too, attracted Broadway interest. Lester Osterman optioned it and mounted a new production at a regional theatre, directed by Stuart White, one of three co-founders of the fledgling WPA Theatre in New York. This production was not as successful as the one in Louisville, so Osterman decided to try and get an Off Broadway theatre to produce it before taking it to Broadway if the reviews were good enough. All the Off Broadway theatre companies turned it down, so Osterman turned to Gilbert Parker of William Morris, who by that time was representing the author. He called Lynne Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club and told her that if she did it, his client Melvin Bernhardt would be available to direct it. This would be a big deal for MTC, which was not nearly the powerhouse it is today, as Bernhardt had won the Tony Award the previous season for his direction of Hugh Leonard’s DA, so Meadow took it on. It got sensational reviews and Osterman moved it to Broadway. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. The play was CRIMES OF THE HEART, by Beth Henley.

Actors Theatre was on a roll. In 1980, they produced a play by an actor who had worked at the theatre, John Pielmeier, which also went to Broadway and became a huge hit starring Elizabeth Ashley, Amanda Plummer and Geraldine Page, running a year and a half. This was AGNES OF GOD.

In 1981, I received an invitation to attend my first final weekend of the Humana Festival, when you could see all the plays they had opened since late February. Thankfully, my boss at Samuel French, M. Abbott Van Nostrand, decided to send me, God bless him. I saw six full length plays, plus two compendiums of short plays. My first play was EXTREMITIES by William Mastrosimone, quite a start for my first Humana experience! I had seen an earlier Mastrosimone play called THE WOOLGATHERER at Circle Rep, which I got Abbot to publish. It got terrific reviews but for whatever reason didn’t have a commercial transfer. I hadn’t met the playwright until I met him in Louisville. He was a working-class Italian sort from New Jersey who always wore a black beret, which made him look like he should be hanging out at the Deux Magots in the 1920s with Sartre, de Beauvoir and Hemingway. Thus began a long friendship with Bill, which continues to this day. EXTREMITIES was in the Victor Jory Theatre, a “black box” space. For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s a nail-biter about a woman who is almost raped in her home by an intruder. She manages to subdue him and knock him out. When he comes to, he’s in her fireplace. She’s used her brass bedstead to create a kind of cage, and she plans to douse him with gasoline and burn him to death. My seat was in the front row of the middle section. Actress Ellen Barber was (almost) raped a few feet away from me. The play moved to Off Broadway, starring Susan Sarandon, later replaced by Farrah Fawcett, who starred in the film, and had a long run. That year, I also saw Wendy Kesselman’s MY SISTER IN THIS HOUSE, which later was produced by another fledgling Off Broadway theatre, Second Stage, with Elizabeth McGovern and Lisa Banes as two sisters, maids who murder their employer and her daughter. It was based on an actual case, the one on which Jean Genet based THE MAIDS.

I saw many brilliant plays during the years I went to the Humana Festival (35 and counting), but before I write about them, I want to tell you what the Festival experience at the culminating weekend was like, at least in the early days.

You started on Thursday evening, at a dinner party hosted by a board member at his home. They took turns. Every year, there were four or five parties, with plenty of sumptuous food and drink. Present were VIPs from all over the country – indeed, the world. There were Artistic Directors. Literary Managers, critics, publishers, agents and local supporters of the theatre. One year, I found myself at an antebellum plantation house which had been designed by Thomas Jefferson. There were spiffy little cabins on the grounds, all painted white. I asked my host, “Are those what I think they are?” They were originally slave cabins. Another year, I was at a party hosted by the Bingham family in their mansion on high ground above the Ohio River. The Binghams were the wealthiest family in town. They owned and ran the Louisville Courier-Journal.

You started your playgoing on Friday morning at 9 am and saw anywhere from eight to twelve plays over the weekend, the sets of which were all by ATL’s resident designer, Paul Owen. Each night, your last play of the day would end at about 10 pm and then you would head downstairs to the bar/restaurant, operated by the theatre. The actors, many longtime company members, would come out and join us for drinks and merriment. These people became my friends. They were wonderful actors, but just as wonderful people. Unfortunately, the great Susan Kingsley never joined us, I think because she had to get home to her husband and kids, so I never got to know her. Susan started at ATL checking coats. Jory encouraged everyone who worked at the theatre to participate in whatever aspect of the theatre interested them and Susan asked if she could do play readings. She so impressed Jory that he made her a member of his acting company. Susan was a rather plain-looking woman, not “actressy;” but onstage she was riveting, one of the greatest actresses I have seen in a lifetime of playgoing. Sadly, she was killed in a car accident in 1984, on her way to begin rehearsals for that year’s Humana Festival. She was 37. Longtime company member Bob Burrus never joined us either. Bob was a wonderful actor; but if you met him you would never know it. He was a rangy, quiet fellow who looked and sounded like a trail boss on a cattle drive. Think, Curly in “City Slickers.” His performances were always indelible, such as “Mr. One-Eye Deneuve, down from Lecher County Kentucky for the wrasslin’” in Jane Martin’s hilarious CEMENTVILE, a devious horse trainer in Benjie Aerenson’s LIGHTING UP THE TWO YEAR-OLD and Clem, one of three middle aged brothers in “Miz Martin’s” MIDDLE AGED WHITE GUYS, who meet every year on the fourth of July on the site where they won the state baseball championship in high school, which is now a garbage dump, to mourn the death of R.V., the girl they all loved. Clem’s wife shows up to inform him that she is leaving him; but first, she intends to shoot him. She is disarmed, though, by Moon, a soldier of fortune, played by the late, great Leo Burmeister.  “What am I gonna do, Moon?” moans Clem. “My wife left me.” “All wives leave, Clem,” says Moon. “It’s a shit job.” A Messenger from God appears, Elvis in his white jumpsuit, to inform the men that God (who’s a woman) is pissed off at the mess they and their ilk have made of the world, so they must atone by stripping butt-naked and walk all the way to Washington, D.C. carrying signs that say, “We’re Sorry.” This is the final image of the play. The audience went wild.

The bar at the theatre closed at 2 am, then everyone would go over to a nearby dive bar called Zina’s. There, the actors (many of whom were wonderful musicians) would set up and play country and blues music until 4 am. Then, you’d stagger back to your hotel room, get four hours’ sleep and do it all over again the next day. I had to take Monday off every year to recover.

Jon Jory was a wonderful director. He did all the Jane Martin plays. Another memorable one he directed was Wendy Hammond’s JULIE JOHNSON, about a housewife full of despair until she realized the source of that despair: she’s gay. Jon was omnipresent and quite the schmoozer, and I enjoyed our conversations over the years. In 1993, I brought my son Kenyon, who was 13, and Jon chatted with him as a colleague, not a kid. I will always cherish that memory. Your tickets came with a free breakfast buffet on Saturday and Sunday. One year, I was having breakfast with Jon and he asked me, as he asked everyone, what I thought of the Festival. “Well, Jon, I have a complaint to make.” Startled, he asked, “What?” “Well,” I said, “there just aren’t enough plays to see.” He laughed and pointed to a fellow sitting at a table across the room. “That’s Paul Owen, our set designer. Go over and say that to him.” Which, of course, I did, much to Paul’s amusement. Paul was the unsung hero of each year’s Festival. His sets were not only amazing, but they could be struck by the apprentices in about 15 minutes and replaced in 15 by another set. I used to enjoy lingering after my play to watch this happen. It was amazing. When Marc Masterson sacked Paul’s Technical Director, he resigned in protest; otherwise, he probably would still be designing sets for ATL. What a loss for Louisville audiences and Humana Festival-goers. In 2017, the Kentucky Fund for the Arts bestowed upon him its Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award. Paul is still alive, semi-retired, although he occasionally designs sets for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

Every year, there was a showcase for the apprentice actors which, even though it was early Sunday morning, was packed. We were given each actor’s picture and resume. Each one did a monologue. One year, I was invited by my alma mater, Kenyon College, to meet with drama majors to discuss what they might do after graduation. I recommended, enthusiastically, ATL’s apprentice program. The next year, an apprentice at ATL did a monologue from a play by Howard Korder and I noticed on his resume that he had gone to Kenyon, so I went over to talk to him after the showcase. “You probably don’t remember me, but you’re the reason why I’m here,” he said. This was Neil Pepe, who is now the Artistic Director of Atlantic Theatre Company in New York.

There was a bookshop and souvenir stand in the lobby of the theatre. The books were scripts of plays that had been produced at previous Humana Festivals, many published by Samuel French because of me.

I saw many wonderful plays at the Humana Festival, several by Jane Martin. The most memorable of these were TALKING WITH and KEELY AND DU. At my first Festival, there was a compendium of short plays, about 10-minutes in duration, the most sensational of which was a monologue called TWIRLER, whose author was Anonymous. The lights came up on a woman in a baton twirler costume holding a baton, played by Lisa Goodman, telling us how she came to twirling but she never became really good until her hand was crushed by a horse named Big Blood Red. She proceeded to tell us that twirling is about far more than we thought. Nobody knows its true significance because it’s disguised in the midst of football. “People think you’re a twit if you twirl,” she says. “But it is God-throwing, spirit fire. You have to grow eyes in your heart to understand its message. There is a meadow outside Green Bay where all the true twirlers converge at the Winter Solstice. They wear white robes and stand in the snow.  Their feet are bare. Then acolytes bring them the batons. They are ebony tons, 3 feet long, with razor blades set in the shafts, and as they twirl, their blood drips in the snow. Red on white, red on white. I have seen the face of God 30 feet up in the twirling batons. You can’t imagine what that’s like.” There was stunned silence. We knew we had experienced not just powerful dramatic writing. We had been in the presence of the Sublime. At the next Festival, TWIRLER reappeared as part of a collection of monologues, TALKING WITH by Jane Martin, a pseudonym. It was unforgettable. The legend of Jane Martin was born. I’ll be doing a separate chapter on “Miz Martin,” in which I will give you my theory as to who she was.

In KEELY AND DU, a woman named Keely has been raped and impregnated by her ex-husband. On her way to an abortion clinic, she was kidnapped by a radical right-to-life group, which then has secreted her in a basement room hundreds of miles away. Their intention is to force her to have the baby. They will cover all her expenses, including raising the kid to the age of 18. Keely is furious, of course. An elderly woman named Du (short for Dorothy) has been assigned to be her companion. In one memorable scene Walter, the leader of the group (played by the great Bob Burrus) shows her the brochures the hand out, which include pictures of aborted fetuses. As she screams at him in rage, he replies calmly,” You do not have the right to your opinion unless you can look at these.” What made the play particularly remarkable was that it did not dismiss the right-to-life group as a bunch of brain-dead idiots. That year, KEELY AND DU was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, losing out to Edward Albee’s THREE TALL WOMEN.

The Humana Festival began to diminish in influence and importance for a number of reasons. One was that the New York Critics started attacking productions which came to NYC from Louisville, such as A WEEKEND NEAR MADISON, TENT MEETING, HUSBANDRY and A PIECE OF MY HEART, all of which had been hits of their Festivals but which failed in New York. I think these cultural ayatollahs were pissed off that the Humana Festival had achieved such a prominent place in the American Theatre without their approval. This meant that nobody wanted to produce a play in New York which had been successful in Louisville, as this was the Kiss of Death, so there were a lot fewer producers there than were in the Festival’s early years. One producer got around this Kiss of Death by optioning a Humana play, mounting a completely different production, taking this first to a regional theatre and then bringing this production in, without mentioning in any of their publicity that the play had premiered at the Humana Festival. In the program, this appeared in very small print. This was Donald Margulies’ DINNER WITH FRIENDS, which came in to the Variety Arts Theatre Off Broadway (sadly, long gone) from the Hartford Stage, winning the Pulitzer Prize.

There were several Humana plays I loved from the Jory era which were never done in NYC, such as AUTUMN ELEGY, ZARA SPOOK AND OTHER LURES and LLOYD’S PRAYER. AUTUMN ELEGY, by Charlene Redick, was about an elderly couple. They are well off financially, but live in a simple cabin in the woods. The wife has to confront the reality of her impending death. At the performance I saw, the Cronyns were sitting near me. Unfortunately, they decided not to do the play in New York. Had they done so this would have become a Very Famous Play. ZARA SPOOK AND OTHER LURES, by Joan Ackerman, was a wild comedy about women at a professional bass fishing tournament near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. LLOYD’S PRAYER, by Kevin Kling, was equally wild. It was about Bob, who was raised by racoons, and an ex-com named Lloyd who sees in him a money-making opportunity. Pitted against Lloyd is the Angel of the Lord, and what ensues is a hilarious tug of war between Lloyd and the Angel, with Bob as the rope. Kling was hilarious as Lloyd, as were Julie Boyd, who had played Keely in KEELY AND DU, as the Angel, and Walter Bobbie as Lloyd. Bobbie later became a top Broadway director. His production of the revival of CHICAGO is still running (or was before the pandemic hit).

Every year, there were several plays like the ones I have mentioned, a few which were OK but not great and, usually, one bomb. Then, Jory decided his theatre had developed a reputation for being too conservative, so he decided to “push the envelope” by doing more to varying degrees experimental plays. For instance, he started bringing in Ann Bogart and her SITI Company. The Bogart event was the annual Bomb of the Festival. Everybody hated it, but not the ATL people. I once had a discussion about Bogart with Michael Bigelow Dixon, ATL’s Literary Manager, “Yes, Larry,” he said. “We all know your opinion of Ann Bogart, but she’s an internationally-recognized avant garde genius.” “Michael,” I replied. “The emperor has no clothes.” So, although there was always one Hit of the Festival, many of the other offerings were, shall we say, unpopular.

Another factor which contributed to the decline of the Humana Festival was that it started to shrink. It’s now down to 4 plays, plus the annual Apprentice compendium. The Festival is also a lot less fun. ATL no longer operates the bar/restaurant downstairs. The company which does opens it for lunch, closes it, reopens for dinner and then closes it at 8 pm. No more hanging out with the actors into the wee hours. No more place to hang out your fellow Festival-goers. By the way, there is no company of actors anymore – everyone is jobbed in. What a bummer.

Sadly, Jory left ATL in 2000 to teach at the University of Washington. His replacements, Mark Masterson and then Les Waters, couldn’t hold a candle to him, so they were another factor in the Festival’s decline. Neither was particularly sociable, compared to the affable Jon Jory. Waters was downright chilly. Masterson did some fine plays, such as THE SCENE and AFTER ASHLEY, but many that I didn’t care for. Waters did few that I liked. To be fair, though, there were some wonderful post-Jory plays, all produced during Masterson’s tenure, which went on to New York, to varying degrees of success (by this time, the New York critics had gotten over their knee-jerk antipathy to Louisville plays), such as Theresa Rebeck’s THE SCENE (produced at Second Stage with Tony Shalhoub, Patricia Heaton and the delicious Anna Camp, a holdover from the Humana cast), OMNIUM GATHERUM by Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros at the Variety Arts, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and AFTER ASHLEY by Gina Gionfriddo, produced by the Vineyard Theatre, directed by Terry Kinney with Kieran Culkin in the cast.

Still, the really exciting plays became fewer and fewer, and few and fewer theatre professionals showed up. All the actors I knew and loved are either retired or dead. And then there’s the barred bar downstairs. I don’t know if I ever will go back. It just makes me sad.

 

For many years, Lawrence Harbison scouted for new plays on behalf of Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others. He has been a free-lance editor for Smith and Kraus, Inc., and Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, for whom he has edited annual anthologies of ten-minute plays and monologues for men and for women, and for several years edited annual New Playwrights and Women Playwrights anthologies. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. Forthcoming anthologies include books of 10-minute plays and monologues by members of the Honor Roll, an advocacy group comprised of women playwrights over 40. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” is a regular feature at www.applausebooks.com as well as on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com).

 

 

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” — The Passing Show

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Over the course of my many years in New York, I met a lot of cool people, as well as a few oddballs. I have written about some of them in my chapter on Samuel French, but there are many more.

When I was the Editor at Samuel French, I used to get a lot of walk-ins, mostly actors looking for help in finding a scene to work on in class or a new monologue to use for auditions. Sometimes, playwrights would drop by and ask if I would read their work. Several years ago, I was called out to the reception area, and there stood a nattily dressed elderly gentleman who was about the best-looking geezer I had ever seen, with a full head of silvery white hair. He looked rather like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., only shorter. “May I help you,” I said. “Mr. Harbison?” he asked. “Yes.” “My name is Guido Nadzo.” I was flabbergasted. “The Guido Nadzo?” I blurted out. “Yes,” he said. “I see you have heard of me.”

The name “Guido Nadzo” is something of a jokey footnote in Broadway theatre history. As the story goes, when George S. Kaufman was casting The Royal Family, which he co-wrote with Edna Ferber and which he directed, he travelled out of town (to Philadelphia, I think) to see a play featuring a young actor named Guido Nadzo, who had been recommended to him for the “juvenile role,” which is what they called the young man who was not the lead in those days. Supposedly, he sent the following telegram back to New York: “Guido Nadzo was nadzo guido.” When the story got around, young Guido Nadzo found himself such a joke that he had to give up acting. And here before me stood that very same Guido Nadzo.

Mr. Nadzo had written a play and asked if I would read it. I said I would be glad to, of course. Then, I couldn’t resist. I asked him about the story. He chuckled and told me that it was completely untrue. When the story started circulating, Kaufman contacted him and told him that he never sent such a telegram. Furthermore, he told everyone in the business that the story was untrue, even though he did not cast Nadzo in the play. Guido Nadzo continued his acting career until the onset of World War II, when he joined the Office of Strategic Services, serving there until the war’s end, at which time he decided he liked this line of work and remained — in his words – in “government service” until he retired. After the war, the O.S.S. became the Central Intelligence Agency. In other words, Guido Nadzo spent the second half of his working life as a C.I.A. spy.

We had a very pleasant chat. I have forgotten what Mr. Nadzo’s play was about, or even if it was any good; but I’d like to set the record straight about this strange myth.

Sometime in the early 1980s, I was sitting in my office one day when a guy from the Order Dept. came in to tell me that there was a woman who wanted to see me. I went out to the reception area and there she was. She appeared to be in her 50s, heavily made up, elegantly dressed, with curly black hair. “You wanted to see me?” I asked. “Mr. Harbison?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. She stretched out her hand and said in a thick Italian accent, “I am a-Gina Lollobrigida.”

You may be too young to know the name, but not me. Gina Lollobrigida was an Italian film star in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, foreign film actors were hot in Hollywood. Of particular interest to Hollywood were extraordinarily beautiful women, often referred to as “Sex Goddesses,” and Ms. Lollobrigida was one of the most beautiful. She came over here at pretty much the same time as another Italian Sex Goddess, Sophia Loren, and became just as big a star. She starred in several American films, such as “Solomon and Sheba” with Yul Brynner and “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell.” She was Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo. And there she was, standing before me.

I managed to stammer, “What can I do for you?” She told me that a Broadway producer named Harry Rigby who had recently produced SUGAR BABIES, a huge hit starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, was looking for a play for her. Apparently, he had suggested that she come to see me, as even then I was known in the biz as a guy who knew a lot of plays. I immediately thought of Tennessee Williams’ THE ROSE TATTOO, as the lead character, Serafina, is Italian. Politely, she shot that idea down. The reason? Williams wrote the play for his longtime friend Anna Magnani. Although she got cold feet and didn’t do it on Broadway (the role was played instead by Maureen Stapleton) she starred in the film version, which was one of her most famous roles. No Italian actress would dare go up against La Magnani. It would be like an American actor daring to appear in an iconic Brando role, such as Terry Molloy in “On the Waterfront.” Side note: a stage version of this film was presented on Broadway, with highly regarded young actor Ron Eldard in the Brando role, and this pretty much derailed his career, even though he was quite good.

I suggested a few other plays to her (I have forgotten what they were) and asked a guy in the Order Dept. to pull them. I offered to give them to her, but she insisted on  paying for them. Then, we had a nice chat. She was absolutely charming and very intelligent. I asked her if she was still acting; but she said, no, she was now a highly sought-after photojournalist and a successful sculptor. I asked, was she worried about returning to acting after so many years? “Absolute-a-not!” she replied. She left with her scripts. I never saw her again.

While I was writing this chapter, I found out from Peter Hagan, an old friend and colleague who was an agent before he became the President of Dramatists Play Service, that his client, the great set designer John Lee Beatty, whom he still represents, was actually hired by Harry Rigby to design the set for THE ROSE TATTOO, to star Miss Lollobrigida, to be directed by John (“Joey”) Tillinger — so she must have changed her mind and did decide to do the play. The plan was to open out of town, play a couple of other venues and then open on Broadway. Then, she told the team that she had hired a top Italian fashion designer to design her costumes (which was common in the Italian theatre, apparently). Mr. Beatty told me that these were completely inappropriate for the American South, let alone the character; and, anyway, a costume designer had already been hired. Miss Lollobrigida was adamant that they must use her designer’s costumes. When they told her “no way” she ditched the production. What a shame. I think she would have been brilliant. She’s still alive, and will turn 93 this year (2020).

Shortly thereafter, Harry Rigby died – so that was that.

As I mentioned, when I was at Samuel French, I used to get a lot of people who came in to ask for my help, and I was always glad to drop whatever I was doing, go out to the bookstore and sit down with them. Mostly, these were young women looking for a new scene or a monologue; and I was usually able to come up with something for them.

Sometimes, they had recently arrived in New York and they just wanted my advice about what to do next. Someone had told them, “Go see Larry at Samuel French.” As the years went by, I often got what I came to call “The Look,” which betrayed their suspicion about why I was spending so much time with them. It was like a thought bubble in a cartoon, attached to their head. They were thinking, “Does this geezer think he has a shot with me?” Once, I asked a young actress not to give me “The Look.” She asked, “What look?” “This look,” I replied, imitating it and said, “And I know what you were thinking.” “What was I thinking?” she asked. “You were thinking, does this geezer think he has a shot with me?” She thought about this for a moment and said. “I was thinking that.” “Look,” I said. “I don’t want anything from you; I just want to help you.” Then I saw another thought bubble containing, “That’s a relief!” I expect most of them gave up eventually, it being practically impossible to establish an acting career in New York unless you have an agent, which few of them did.

A few times, though, I had walk-ins who beat the overwhelming odds and became Famous. Ellen Barkin came in once, just in from wherever she came from. I forget what she wanted, but we had a lovely chat. In about 1980, another cute young actress came in, fresh out of Carnegie-Mellon, from whom she had received an M.F.A. She had long, blondish-brownish hair and spoke with a distinctive southern accent, as she grew up in Georgia. We hit it off and I began inviting her to join me at the theatre. One play I remember taking her to was BABY WITH THE BATHWATER, in the old Playwrights Horizons upstairs studio theatre. Chris Durang, the playwright, was there and I introduced her to him. She was amazed that she was meeting such a famous playwright. I have a story about Chris and this play, but I will save it for later. As the play was rather short, afterwards we moseyed over to the Hotel Algonquin for a drink in their cozy lounge. While we were sitting there, Morton Gottlieb came in. Morty was a Broadway producer whose hits included ENTER LAUGHING (which made a star of Alan Arkin), SLEUTH, SAME TIME NEXT YEAR (with Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin) and two other Bernard Slade hit comedies, ROMANTIC COMEDY (which starred Anthony Perkins and Mia Farrow) and TRIBUTE (starring Jack Lemmon). I asked Morty to join us and he readily agreed. I doubt if my young friend had ever heard of him, but she was flabbergasted to find herself having a drink with a Famous Broadway Producer. By this time, I was kinda sweet on her and thought, “This is gonna be my night!” but, alas no.

At the time, I was still trying to get something going as a director, and she did several readings for me. She was the greatest I have even seen at a cold reading. With no rehearsal even, she was always fabulous. Many years later, I was at the Humana Festival and a casting director reminded me that I had recommended her for a role she was having difficulty casting. She was amazing in the play, BATTERY by Daniel Therriault, and this was her first New York acting credit.

Many years later, I happened to sit next to Morty Gottlieb at the theatre one night. He told me he had retired from producing – not because he couldn’t raise money anymore but because of the difficulty of getting a star willing to commit to 6 months on Broadway. I asked him, “Mr. Gottlieb, do you remember coming into the Hotel Algonquin one night after the theatre many years ago and joining me for a drink?” He thought for a moment and replied, “Sure! You were there with some cute young actress. Whatever happened to her?” To which I replied: “That cute young actress, Mr. Gottlieb, was Holly Hunter.”

After she went on to film stardom, I lost track of Holly. More than thirty years later, she acted in a production by the New Group of David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES. I waited for her afterwards and when she finally came out, I went up to her and said, “Holly, it’s a Blast from the Past!” She didn’t recognize me after all those years so I added, “It’s Larry, from Samuel French.” She lit up. “Oh my God, Larry! I haven’t seen you in years.” Well, Holly,” said I. “You’ve been busy.”

Before Samuel French, I worked for Robert Whitehead and Roger Stevens who, at the time, were producing Preston Jones’ A TEXAS TRILOGY; plus, Katharine Hepburn touring around in A MATTER OF GRAVITY. I was the receptionist and general office factotum. One day, Mr. Whitehead asked me to read a script for him which an old friend named Chester Erskine had sent him. It was called THE KING’S FAVORITE and was about King Edward II of England. It was really well-written but required a very large cast and obviously wasn’t something that could be produced on Broadway. Mr. Whitehead asked me to compose a letter from him to Mr. Erskine; in his words, “a nice note,” which I did. I decided to write him myself to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play. He replied, thanking me, and we began a correspondence. After several months, he wrote to tell me he was going to be in New York and would like to meet me. We set up a date and time, and he invited me over to his digs, where he and his wife were staying.

I arrived for our appointment, to a townhouse in E. 49th Street. I rang the bell. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman with an Irish accent named Nora, the housekeeper. I told her my name and she replied that Mr. Erskine expected me and was upstairs in the parlor. I went upstairs and met Mr. Erskine, an elderly gentleman in a tweed sport coat and tie (it may have been an ascot), who shook my hand, invited me to sit down and asked if I would join him for tea. I said I would, so he asked Nora to bring us tea.

We talked about his play, and he was surprised that I was so knowledgeable about Edward II. I told him that I had been in a production of Brecht’s EDWARD II while I was in grad school and, as is my wont, had read a lot about the King, his notorious relationship with Piers Gaveston and his deposition and horrible murder. Meanwhile, I started to notice that there were a lot of Katharine Hepburn memorabilia in the parlor, such as a photo of her with Laurence Olivier taken during the filming of “Love Among the Ruins” and a Giacometti sculpture of her. I remarked, “You must be a big fan of Katharine Hepburn.” “Oh yes,” he replied. “She’s been one of my dearest friends for many years. As a matter of fact, this is her house.” Imagine the look on my face when he told me that! Miss Hepburn was out on the road with A MATTER OF GRAVITY and had invited Chester and his wife Sally to house-sit.

Well, we hit it off and started to meet every week for lunch, during which he told me stories about himself. In the 1920’s and 30s, he had been a Broadway producer and director. He produced and directed the first play in the Golden Theatre, rehearsing it in the downstairs lounge. In 1930, he directed THE LAST MILE, a prison drama by John Wexler, produced by Herman Shumlin, which made a star of Spencer Tracy. In 1934, he decided he wanted to make a film, which was problematic because there were no indie films at the time as the Hollywood studios owned all the movie theatres, so there was nowhere to show them. The only one in New York they didn’t own was Radio City Music Hall. Chester bought the film rights to a thriller called MIDNIGHT which didn’t succeed on Broadway but which he thought would make a good film. Chester asked an actor friend of his, who at the time was playing juvenile roles (you know, the kind of character who walks through the French doors in whites and asks, “Tennis, anyone?”) to play the “heavy,” a gangster, to which he replied, “Are you crazy, Chester? Nobody would believe me as a heavy, I’m a juvenile.” Chester said, “You’re a good actor, and a good actor can play anything.” The guy accepted the challenge and they made the film (In case you’re interested, you can watch the film on You Tube). which played a week or two at Radio City, and he so impressed people in the theatre that he was cast as the heavy, an escaped criminal named Duke Mantee, in a new play by Maxwell Anderson called THE PETRIFIED FOREST. The play was a hit in 1935, at the Broadhurst Theatre, and he was a sensation. Hollywood put him under contract and he never did another play. The film version of the play made him a movie star. His name was Humphrey Bogart.

I went to the Library of the Performing Arts and looked all this up. It was all true.

In the 1950s, Chester went into television production; but by the time I met him in 1976, he was retired.

Chester was close friends not only with Kate but with Gar and Ruth (Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon) and Spence (as in Tracy). He told me that Kate and Gar had had a huge falling out when Kanin published Tracy and Hepburn, in which he revealed for the first time that the relationship between Kate and Spence was not exactly merely a professional one. They lived together for years, but Tracy couldn’t get a divorce because he was a Catholic. They were together when he died. Hepburn never spoke to Kanin again.

One afternoon, we were sitting in the parlor when I noticed a copy of Ruth Gordon’s latest autobiography, My Life, on the table next to Chester’s chair. I asked him if he had read it yet. He had, and offered to lend it to me. I asked him if he was mentioned in the book. He was, several times. Then he thought for a moment and said, “You know, I think I am the only man mentioned in the book that Ruthie never slept with.”

Shortly thereafter, Miss Hepburn’s tour finished up and Chester and Sally returned to their home in Santa Monica. We corresponded for a while but then he passed away and I never saw him again.

I met several more cool people when we were at the “old place,” in 45th St, such as Paul Green, who stopped by several times. He had been a successful Broadway playwright in the 1930s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for IN ABRAHAM’S BOSOM, before he started writing outdoor historical pageants such as THE LOST COLONY and THE STEPHEN FOSTER STORY, both of which are still performed every year. Mr. Green was an elderly, soft-spoken Southern gentleman, surprised that I knew who he was.

The Dramatists Guild used to hold an annual party in May for every member who had had a play produced that season, and they invited a few industry people such as myself as well as old-time playwrights. I met the aforementioned Gar and Ruth, Robert Anderson and his wife, the actress Theresa Wright and several others. One year, I saw an elderly man sitting by himself, off to the side. Since nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him, I went over to him and introduced myself. His name was Marc Connelly, and he was surprised that I knew who he was. Mr. Connelly was George S. Kaufman’s first collaborator, and together they wrote DULCY, MERTON OF THE MOVIES and BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK. In 1930, he won the Pulitzer Prize for THE GREEN PASTURES, which was set in Heaven and featured an all-black cast. It toured for years and made Richard B. Harrison, who played God (called in the play “De Lawd”) famous. He was also a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. He told me some stories about Kaufman and the other Round Table members, all of which I have forgotten. I asked him if he was still writing plays; but no, he hadn’t written anything in years. He still saw every Broadway show, though, missioning in from New Jersey where he lived, but he told me he always left at the intermission because he just didn’t enjoy them, the theatre having changed so much since his day. He was a charming fellow; but I thought to myself, “This guy’s an Old Fart. I hope to God I never become one of those.” Later in this book I’m going to have a chapter on Old Fart-ism.

While Samuel French was still at the Old Place a strange little man, a playwright named Bruce Millholland. used to drop by from time to time, usually to see if we had any money for him. He was a legendary moocher, notorious for crashing parties to get free food. He probably had a room in a flophouse. He had long white hair and the way he dressed was very eccentric. One day, he showed up all in emerald green, wearing green plastic shoes and large, thick glasses with green frames which made him look somewhat bug-eyed. He looked like a giant frog. I always enjoyed talking to Bruce, because he was very witty in a catty sort of way. In the 1920s and 30s, there was a guy at Samuel French who used to function as an agent, representing Bruce’s plays, none of which ever went anywhere except for one called NAPOLEON OF BROADWAY, which he managed to get optioned by George Abbott and Philip Dunning, who hired Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who had written THE FRONT PAGE) to rewrite it. This became TWENTIETH CENTURY, a Broadway hit at the Broadhurst Theatre during the 1932-1933 season, which Mr. Abbott directed, running for 152 performances. In those days, a play which ran 152 performances was a hit. It would run five or six months, until late spring, then close because there was no air conditioning then, and go out on tour. I guess audiences on the road didn’t mind sweltering. The play was made into a very successful film which starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Since Bruce wrote the original play, he received a tiny percentage of the royalties which, somehow, he lived on for the rest of his life. The play was revived in 1952, at the ANTA Theatre (which is now the August Wilson), and near the end of his life (which is when I first met him), he hit the jackpot when the musical version, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, opened on Broadway in 1978 at the St. James Theatre and became a hit, running for over a year. Bruce died in 1991, aged 88.

After Samuel French moved to the New Place, the young actresses kept coming in. There were several acting schools and studios in the area. A woman had a studio nearby, where she worked with models who wanted to get into acting, and she would lead a group of them in from time to time and ask me to help them find scenes and monologues. For some reason they were all tall, very beautiful blondes, Jorge Ibbott, who worked in the Order Dept. for many years, called them the “Swedish Bikini Team.” He would come into my office, salute, and announce, “Sir, the Swedish Bikini Team has arrived!”

As I said, most of the young people who came in to see me were women; but. Occasionally, I got a guy. One was a muscular, very Italian fellow who had a thick Brooklyn accent. I gave him a couple of monologues which I used to call “monologues for Vinnies.” “Lemme show you something,” he said, and he rolled up his sleeve. He had “Vinnie” tattooed on his arm. Another was a very cute blonde man. I spent several minutes with him, and noticed that Lurch was lurking in the Order Dept., observing me. When I finished up, Lurch said, “He was attractive.” “Oh, come on, Peter,” I said. He asked, “Do you think he was a Club Member?” I told this story to my sister, who is a lesbian, and she said, “We call them family.”

Sometimes, Famous People came in to talk to me. I had a couple of sessions with Ron Howard. Ron is a very friendly, unassuming man, and we always had a delightful chat. The second time he came in, he was looking for monologues for his daughter, who was auditioning for college theatre programs. She later became a pretty successful film actress – Dallas Bryce Howard. Robert Uhrich came in once, looking for the script of THE MUSIC MAN, a revival of which was running on Broadway, because he had been asked to go into the show when the star, Craig Bierko, left. I had to tell him that the show was handled by Tams-Witmark, which didn’t sell their libretti but rented them, so we didn’t have a copy. We had a nice chat about “Lonesome Dove,” in which he played the horse thief Jake Spoon. He never did THE MUSIC MAN.

I met Twiggy once. She had been a super model (before that term was coined) in the 1960s, epitomizing the term “mod.” She was appearing in a musical revue of songs by Noël Coward called IF LOVE WERE ALL at the time and she wanted some plays to read. She bought them using her credit card which had her real name on it: Lesley Hornby. She’s now Dame Lesley Hornby and is 70 years old. Hard to believe.

The British actor and director Roger Rees came in often. He had shot to fame in the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s NICHOLAS NICKLEBY; and at the time I met him, he was the Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He was always looking for scripts to consider for production there. Roger was quite the wag, very funny. The Festival had recently opened a small theatre named after its late founder, Nikos Psacharapoulos, called the Nikos. Roger cracked, “Maybe when I die, they’ll name a theatre after me. They could call it the ‘Roger’.” To “Roger” is a British sex slang verb, as in, “I rogered her.” One time, he regaled me with stories about “corpsing” in the British theatre, a term for the common practice of an actor trying to make a fellow actor lose it and break character. He was pretty knowledgeable about plays, but he often asked my opinion of some of them which interested him. After he left Williamstown he co-wrote and co-directed PETER AND THE STARCATCHER and starred in the musicals A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE and Kander and Ebb’s musical version of the Dürrenmatt play THE VISIT, alongside Chita Rivera. During the run, he developed cancer and died very quickly. I’m still waiting for Williamstown to honor him; if not with a theatre then perhaps with a lobby or rehearsal hall, called the “Roger.”

John Davidson stopped by once to talk with me. He brought his bike up to our bookstore. You may not remember him, but in the 1960s he was a TV star, a tall, handsome man with a beautiful singing voice. He was appearing on Broadway in the stage version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein film musical, “State Fair.” He looked exactly like John Davidson, but with gray-flecked hair. He wanted to do a one-man play about Thoreau, so he wanted to read other monodramas. I talked to him for quite a while, recommending several and told him my opinions about what makes a good one-man play. He looked down and asked, “How come you know all this?” I knew that he was a Denison alum. Denison was my alma mater Kenyon’s arch revival. They always beat us in football; we always trounced them in swimming. Denison was in a dry county, so the students had no access to liquor. Mr. Hayes, who ran our local grocery store, had no problem selling alcohol to underage Kenyon students, so our frat parties were well-lubricated. The problem was, Kenyon was all-male, so we needed women. Guys would get in their cars and drive over to nearby Denison, pull up in front of the sororities, and yell to the girls coming and going, “Hey girls, party at Kenyon tonight. Anyone wanna go?” In two shakes, they had a full car. The Denison guys hated us. My reply to Davidson’s question when he asked me how I knew so much was, “’Cause I went to Kenyon.” He replied, matter of factly, “I went to Denison.” “I know,” I said. He thought about this, realized I was kidding him, and then gave me a “that’s a good one” big smile. I have never heard that he actually did a one-man Thoreau play, but he had his own theatre in Branson, Missouri, where he was probably making too much money entertaining all the geezers who trekked to Branson.

Sometimes, instead of people stopping by, they would call me up. I would answer the phone, “Lawrence Harbison.” One time, the voice on the other end said, “Mr. Harbison, this is Jon Voight. I’m an actor?” Me: “I know who you are, Mr. Voight. What can I do for you?” He said, “Well, my daughter is a student at N.Y.U. and she’s playing Nina in THE SEA GULL. I was wondering if you could recommend some research materials for her.” Konstantin Stanislavski directed the original production and later he published a journal he kept during rehearsals entitled, “The Sea Gull Log.” I told Voight about that and recommended that she read a good biography of the playwright, because I was pretty sure that Chekhov based Nina on a real girl. Voight thanked me profusely and then we hung up. I found out the name of his daughter a few years later. She was Angelina Jolie.

Another time, I answered a call in my usual way and heard a shakey, geezer voice on the other end: “Mr. Harbison, this is Buddy Ebsen.” Holy moly, it was Jed Clampett! We talked a bit about “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Adventures of Davy Crockett,” in which he had played Davy’s sidekick, Georgie Russell, who said things like, “Give ‘em what fer, Davy!” He had written a play and asked if I would read it. “Of course I would,” I told him, so a few days later his play arrived. The author’s name was Christian Ebsen, which was Buddy’s given name. It was a beautifully written play about an army camp during the Civil War, but it had a gazillion characters, all male, so there was nothing we could do with it. I had to return it to him. A short while later, he died.

One time, I got a call from a woman who identified herself as “Goldie Hawn.” I almost said, “Who is this really?” because her voice was that of a middle-aged Jewish matron, nothing like Goldie Hawn. She wanted recommendations for plays with strong dramatic scenes for a young man, because her son was auditioning for the Actor’s Studio and they expected wannabes to come in with a scene. One time, a woman called me needing help to find a scene for the same reason. In order to better assist her, I asked who her scene partner was. “Stephen Lang,” She said. Again, holy moly! In my humble opinion, Stephen Lang is one of our greatest actors, both in film and on stage. Although he has had a pretty successful career, playing major roles in the films “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “Gettysburg” and “Avatar,” he never became the star he should have been. Anyway, I hope she got in. Back to “Goldie:” She was being driven around Manhattan, and I asked her to give me a half hour to pull some plays for her. Then, I asked her if I could have an autographed picture for a fraternity brother, Randy Giarraputo, who was nuts about her back in the day. I chose ten or so plays, and a half hour later her driver came to the counter to purchase them. He handed our clerk an 8 x10 glossy, signed, “To Randy. Thanks for being such a great fan. Goldie Hawn.” I sent this to Randy. Imagine the look on his face when he opened the mailing envelope.

I wrote about Jerry Sterner, Don Nigro and Ken Ludwig in my chapter on Samuel French, but there were many more playwrights with whom I became friendly, such as Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Michael Weller and John Patrick Shanley. I was Donald Margulies’ first agent; Richard Dresser’s and Mark St. Germaine’s as well. I tried for a couple of years to place their plays before hooking them up with real agents who had the time to promote their work; and the rest is history.

I want to reminisce a bit about two lesser-known playwrights, Leonard Melfi and John Ford Noonan. Leonard was a cheerful bear of a man with long, curly, dark brown hair who spoke with a minor stutter. In his youth, in the early 1960s, he had been at the epicenter of the Off Off Broadway movement, along with Lanford Wilson, Jean-Claude Van Italie, John Guare, Sam Shepard, Terrence McNally, Tom Eyen, Doric Wilson, H.M. Koutoukas, Paul Foster and Robert Patrick. Note: all men. There were a few female playwrights then, but it wasn’t until later that they started getting much attention. Several playwrights in the above list managed to move beyond their OOB roots. Leonard never really did, I think largely because his plays were whimsical almost-fairy tales which seemed rather silly to critics, although Theodore Mann of Circle in the Square did commission him, McNally and Van Italie to write three one-acts, which he produced as MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT. Leonard started out mostly with one-acts, the kind which could be produced simply at places like Café La Mama and the Café Cino, his best-known being BIRDBATH. He did have a couple of full-length plays produced under mini-contracts later, FANTASIES AT THE FRICK and PORNO STARS AT HOME, but these came and went and are now pretty much forgotten. I lost track of Leonard, then was saddened to learn of his death in 2001 in a S.R.O flophouse. His body went unclaimed for several days and then was misplaced by the hospital staff and wound up being buried in Potter’s Field. When his brother learned of his death, he had Leonard exhumed and buried in Binghamton, his old home town. His was a sad and ignominious end for a man who never lost his child-like wonderment and optimism, even when he was struggling with alcoholism.

John Ford Noonan started out as an actor, appearing in several films such as “Last Stop, Greenwich Village.”  Then Joseph Papp “discovered” him as a playwright, and Papp produced his early play, THE YEAR BOSTON WON THE PENNANT (which featured a then-unknown actor named Roy Schieder in the lead) during his brief tenure at the helm of Lincoln Center Theatre. Subsequently, Papp took a lease on the Booth Theatre and announced a subscription season of 5 new plays, one of which was by Noonan. Also in this season were to be plays by Michael Weller, Thomas Babe, David Rabe and Dennis Reardon. Papp opened with Reardon’s THE LEAF PEOPLE, which was such a critical bomb that he cancelled the rest of the season and refunded the subscribers’ money. In 1979, Noonan had a huge hit Off Broadway WITH A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS SITTING AROUND TALKING at the Astor Place Theatre (where those Blue Men seem to be permanently ensconced), starring Susan Sarandon and Maureen Brennan. In his heyday, he was a large hirsute fellow; but when I got to know him, he had slimmed down considerably. This was around the time he had a modest Off Broadway success with SOME MEN NEED HELP, which starred Treat Williams and Philip Bosco. John often used to call me just to talk. I would answer the phone and I would hear, “Who’s-your- favorite-playwright?” “You, John,” I would reply. “How are you?” “Still sober,” he would reply. John had had a huge problem with alcohol and cocaine. He had received $500,000 for the film rights to A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS SITTING AROUND TALKING and in 6 months it was gone – up his nose. After I left Samuel French, I lost track of John, though I tried to contact him a few years ago on behalf of a Greek friend who wanted to direct a production of A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS in Athens. Even Noonan’s agent, Buddy Thomas at ICM, had lost track of him. I told the Buddy to contact Noonan’s brother, the actor Tom Noonan, who told him that he had Power of Attorney, as John was in the Actor’s Home in New Jersey and was non compos mentis. John passed away there in 2018 at the age of 77.

When we are young and just starting out, we are convinced that Fame and Fortune are just around the corner. The ends of Melfi and Noonan are cautionary tales.

 

 

 

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 16 July 2020

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since the  New York Theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, in this column Larry reports on plays you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo. 

The Mint has long been one of my favorite theatre companies. Ours is a throwaway culture of “Here today, gone tomorrow,” but Jonathan Bank, the theatre’s Artistic Director, always tries to counteract this by producing long-forgotten gems which didn’t deserve to be resigned to the dustbin of theatre history. You can stream three plays, produced in the past two or three years, and all are worthwhile.

The Fatal Weakness by George Kelly (Grace’s uncle) was a modest success on Broadway in 1947, with one of the great stars of the 30s and 40s, Ina Claire. It’s a beautifully-constructed play about Modern Marriage. Ollie Espenshade, a middle-aged matron, learns to her dismay that her husband, Paul, is having an affair and plans to divorce her. At the same time her daughter, Penny, a pro-feminist, seems totally uninterested in her marriage and is keen on self-fulfillment. Ollie is hurt and shocked at first; but, gradually, she comes to see that being divorced is her path to freedom; whereas Penny decides to try to save her marriage. This is the one flaw in Kelly’s otherwise flawless dramaturgy, because she makes that decision offstage.

All the actors, under Jesse Marchese’s fine-tuned direction, are pitch perfect. Kristin Griffith, long one of our finest actresses, slides from helplessness to empowerment with effortless ease and Victoria Mack is perfect in her inane self-involvement. Sean Patrick Hopkins turns in a touching performance, as her husband, an archetypal Nice Guy who is bewildered by his wife’s behavior, and Cliff Bemis manages to make Ollie’s errant husband, Paul, almost likeable.

Jonathan Bank seems to makes a speciality of unjustly forgotten plays by women; particularly, Irish women. He’s unearthed the complete works of Teresa Deevy, once a leading light of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre before fading into obscurity, and his productions of her plays have more than made the case for her inclusion in the permanent dramatic repertory. His final streamed play, Hazel Ellis’ Women Without Men, deserves to join Ms. Deevy’s august company. It takes place in the teachers’ lounge at an all-girl boarding school, and the teachers are all, to varying degrees, practically basket-cases, constantly bickering with each other. Into their midst comes a young woman named Miss Wade, a new hire on her first job. She starts out with enthusiasm and idealism but quickly finds herself sucked into the constant catfights. Her particular nemesis is the contentious Miss Connor, a middle-aged sourpuss who has spent 20 years working on her magnum opus, a book about ideas of beauty throughout history. Miss Wade has way out of the morass she finds herself in, a quasi-fiance she could marry, but all of the other women are stuck. A crisis is precipitated when someone shreds Miss Connor’s book. Finally, the culprit is revealed. 

Jenn Thompson’s subtle direction is just right, and her cast couldn’t be better. When a director has actresses in her cast of the calibre of Kellie Overbey (Miss Connor) and Mary Bacon (as Miss Strong, who copes with her dead-end life with cynicism), both of whom are perfect, how can she go wrong?

Vicki R. Davis’ lounge set, a room which looks like it hasn’t changed in decades, and Martha Hally’s perfect, doughty costumes are a feast for the eyes.

The third offering from the Mint, Harold Chapin’s The New Morality, is less satisfying than the first two. Like The Fatal Weakness it, too, is about modern marriage; but it seldom says anything trenchant about its subject.

It’s set on a houseboat in the Thames. A wife has made catty comments about a woman her husband has been lavishing attention on, which have been overheard and which spiral out of control, causing repercussions which threaten to alienate all the characters from each other. That’s about it. Jonathan Banks’ production is his usual first-rate job, but he has failed to make a case for the play as worthy of revival.

Finally, I saw a one-woman “play” presented via Zoom called “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies,” written and performed by Jessica Sher. This is a real rarity: a Bette Davis impersonation by a woman. I have never been much of a Bette Davis fan. I find her acting to be rather mannered – as is Ms. Sher’s performance, which is delivered straight into the Zoom lens. Mostly, her stories are about Davis’ fights with the studio system.

If you’re a Bette Davis aficionado you might enjoy this; but as for me, I found it a bumpy ride.

 

Mint Theatre’s Summer Stock Streaming Festival: https://minttheater.org/current-production/production-summer-stock-streaming-festival/. To receive a password, send an email to streaming@minttheater.org with Mint in the subject line.

To view Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies go to www.BetteDavisAintForSissiesTix.com

 

 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 2 July 2020

“On the Aisle with Larry” 2 July 2020

Lawrence Harbison,The Playfixer, usually brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but in this column, Larry shares his thoughts on the Strange New World of streaming theatre.

“I can deal with this. This is a temporary situation.” Ken Jenkins, CHUG

And now, For Something Completely New and Different, I recently had my first experience with Streamed Theatre, a production of Molière’s TARTUFFE, presented online by Molière in the Park in association with Alliance Française. Maybe I will get used to this as I watch more streamed productions as this dreadful pandemic wears on; but I have to say, watching a play on my computer screen just ain’t the same as real theatre.

That said, this production of Molière’s classic about flim-flammery in the name of religion was a good choice in the Era of Trump as evangelical so-called Christians have drunk the Kool-Aid; so much so that a large chunk of them are under the delusion that this repugnant non-Christian is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Lord, have mercy …

Back to this production: before it begins, we get not one but three introductions, one by the director, one by the Artistic Director and one by “Molière.” The first two make now-obligatory statements about how Black lives matter and how racial injustice has to end, etc., and finally “Molière” appears in a period costume, heavily made up and wearing a bright pink wig. My first thought was that he was Randy Rainbow, but I was disabused of this notion quickly as the actor (not credited in the program) was Not Funny, just annoying. When all three speeches were finished, the production began.

What I saw was a handsome interior set, up on my screen for a rather long time as I waited for the actors to enter. They didn’t. Instead, they started popping up in their own separate boxes. It took me a while to get used to this; but, finally, I did and sat back to enjoy the acting by the African American cast (except for Jennifer Mudge as Dorine, the saucy maid, and Raúl Esparza in the title role), which was actually pretty good given the limitations of Zoom. I’m not a fan of cross-gender casting, but I have to admit Samira Wiley was delightful as the deluded father, Orgon. Esparza was more than pretty good – he was terrific. All of the actors handled translator Richard Wilbur’s rhymed couplet verse extremely well.

While the actors do their thing in their boxes, a running chat board is at the right side of my screen, and many viewers use this to post commentary, most of it rather inane. After a while, I ignored this and just focused on the acting.

The whole experience made me more than a little sad, though. As Sir exclaims in THE DRESSER, “What have I been reduced to?”

This just in: TARTUFFE has been extended through 12 July, streaming on https://www.youtube.com/moliereinthepark

 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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