“On the Aisle with Larry,” 27 November 2021

 

From my chapter, “Gone but Not Forgotten: Theatre Folk,” in my memoir, 200 Times a Year; My Life In, At and Around the Theatre

If you are reading this, you know by now that Stephen Sondheim has passed away. Instead of writing Yet Another obituary, I would like to tell you about the many times his musicals touched, and influenced, my life.

In 1973, at Christmas/New Year’s, I came to New York as a tourist, accompanied by my wife, Paula. We stayed at the Hotel Piccadilly, a tourist-class hotel in W. 45th Street (alas, torn down to make way for the Marriott Marquis Monstrosity). In those days, out-of-towners purchased tickets in advance by sending a check and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to a theatre’s box office. Tickets were around twelve to fifteen dollars – astounding, I know, but true. My wife and I poured over the ads in the NY Times’ Sunday Arts & Leisure section, selected our dates and sent in our checks several weeks ahead of time. One by one, the SASEs came back with our tickets.

That Christmas, my wife had given me the original cast album of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, so we selected this as our first show. It was at the Shubert Theatre. It had opened the previous spring but, much to our delight, the original cast was still in it: Len Cariou, Glynnis Johns, Patricia Elliot, Hermione Gingold, et al. It was directed by Harold Prince, who I had heard of but of whom I knew relatively little. I knew more about Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist, because I had seen local productions of WEST SIDE STORY and COMPANY and, when I was a teenager, had been in a production of GYPSY, which made me fall in love with the theatre. I shall never forget hearing that glorious overture for the first time; also, seeing the strippers. Hubba-hubba!

I was a grad student in Theatre at the University of Michigan, which did almost exclusively classics by Shakespeare, Shaw, etc. and had a pipsqueak’s attitude towards the commercial theatre. After the Overture, the curtain at the Shubert Theatre went up, and in five minutes I was hooked, entranced by the exquisite songs (all in ¾ time), wonderful performances and Prince’s staging. We decided to do the whole Broadway nine yards and went over to Sardi’s for dinner figuring, where else to conclude our first Broadway evening? We were seated upstairs because, of course, that’s where they stick the tourists; but this was fine with us. We were at the legendary Sardi’s, surrounded by all the wonderful caricatures of Famous People we only knew from TV or movies but who, for the Broadway community, were friends and colleagues. I said to my wife, “Paula, I have to get here and find some way to be a part of this.” We moved to New York a year and a half later. After kicking around for a while, I finally found my niche at Samuel French, where for many years I was responsible for the firm’s publication of hundreds of plays and musicals. No Sondheim shows, though: his were all handled by our competitor, Music Theatre International.

The more I learned about Sondheim, and the more I heard his songs, I came to realize that he was our greatest lyricist since Cole Porter and, certainly one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century. His lyrics, even the more complex ones, were always perfectly rhymed. No sloppy false rhymes for Mr. Sondheim. He was also one of the theatre’s greatest innovators.

Paula and I saw the Opening Night of PACIFIC OVERTURES at the Winter Garden Theatre and then, sans Paula, I saw every show of his thereafter; three SWEENEY TODDs (the original production with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, the first revival (which started at the York Theatre when it was on the Upper East side, with Bob Gunton as a most memorable Sweeney and which then moved to Circle in The Square), and John Doyle’s pared down, eccentric production with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone in which all the performers accompanied themselves on musical instruments (LuPone played the tuba). The original remains the best I have seen.

My all-time favorite is FOLLIES, which I have seen three times: two Broadway revivals and the National Theatre’s production which I saw in a large movie theatre. All were great, but I have a particular fondness for the second revival, which starred Bernadette Peters, Danny Burstein and the late Jan Maxwell, with Jane Houdyshell belting out a memorable “Broadway Baby” and Elaine Page giving a wonderful rendition of “I’m Still Here.”

My least favorite was ASSASSINS. I saw the original production at Playwrights Horizons with Victor Garber as Booth, Terry Mann as Leon Czolgosz, Jonathan Hadary as Charles Guiteau, Annie Golden as Squeaky Fromme and Jace Alexander as Lee Harvey Oswald. In this original, Oswald went to the Texas Schoolbook Depository building to kill himself. Booth emerged from the boxes, handed him a rifle and said, “Instead of shooting yourself, why don’t you shoot the President?” As someone who lived through the Kennedy assassination, I was outraged. When the Roundabout revived the show at Studio 54, Sondheim and James Lapine changed the ending, making it less offensive.

Of the many revivals I was privileged to see, the best were Jerry Saks’ revival of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (which was the first show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics), starring Nathan Lane as Pseudolus, (I still laugh when I think of Zaks’ staging of the opening number, “Comedy Tonight);” A production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC with Catherine Zeta-Jones, perfect as Desireé, and Angela Lansbury as Madame Arnfeldt, also delightful; two productions of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, one by the Roundabout at Studio 54 and the other at the Hudson Theatre. Both made me appreciate more Sondheim’s extraordinary examination of the art of making art, much more than I did when I saw the original production, first at Playwrights Horizons (ACT I only), with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. I have become a theatre geezer. You know you’re a theatre geezer when you start seeing revivals – and you saw the original production.

Well, I could go on and on about having been blessed to see all Sondheim’s shows; but mention must be made of what a kind and generous man he was, legendary for showing up at what must have been hundreds of workshops and small productions, mentoring a younger generation of composers and lyricists. You can see this on full display in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s exquisite film, “Tick, Tick, BOOM.” Bradley Whitford does an amazing Sondheim impersonation, eccentric mannerisms and all. Sondheim’s astute and kind words gave Larson the encouragement to go on after a workshop of his futuristic sci-fi musical at Playwrights Horizons failed to attract any production interest. By the way, that’s actually Sondheim’s voice on Larson’s answering machine.

All in all, I doubt if we shall see Sondheim’s like again.

 

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“On the Aisle with Larry 11/12/21. “Gone But Not Forgotten: Theatres and Theatre Companies”

From my memoir, 200 Times a Year; My Life In, At and Around the Theatre 

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

Theatres and Theatre Companies

At the end of the 2016-2017 season, the sad news came that the Pearl Theatre Co., along-time Off Broadway stalwart, was folding, a victim primarily of the skyrocketing rents plaguing anyone who tries to do business in New York City. Founded in 1984 by Shepard Sobel and his actress wife Joanne Camp, the Pearl specialized in solid productions of classic plays with minimal directorial intrusion, which made the Pearl seem increasingly quaint in these Ivo van Hove and Sam Gold times, which are more about the director’s take on a play than the play itself.

For most of its time with us, the Pearl was in residence at Theatre 80, a shabby but cozy theatre in St. Mark’s Place. When they lost that space in 2007, then moved uptown to Stage II at the City Center, and then to the theatre in W. 42nd St. built by Signature Theatre, vacated by them when they built the spectacular Signature Center a block east.

What was unique about the Pearl is that they employed a company of actors. There have been other companies who had acting companies, such as Atlantic, Circle Rep, the Jean Cocteau and Irish Rep, but mostly these were basically pools from which casts could be drawn. The Pearl had an actual acting company, and if one went there a lot over the years, as I did, these actors began to seem like old friends — fine actors such as Sean McCall, Dan Daily, Chris Mixon, Carol Schultz, Jolly Abraham and Bradford Cover. McCall, a short guy with a beautiful baritone voice, played most of the young men. Dan Daily, a stocky fellow with a tenor voice, played most of the old guys and Carol Schultz was the older women. Daily was particularly good in plays by Shaw and he put me in mind more than once of the late, great Philip Bosco, also outstanding in Shaw. He was superb as Tarleton in MISALLIANCE but equally good as William the waiter in YOU NEVER CAN TELL, and he stole the show as the Fire Chief in Ionesco’s THE BALD SOPRANO. He was also a memorable Falstaff in HENRY IV, Pt. 1.

The only misfire I ever saw at the Pearl was a dreadful production of MAJOR BARBARA wherein the director, David Staller, rearranged Shaw’s text, used double casting which made no sense and staged the play on a terrible black unit set, which killed the comedy. One of their best productions was of O’Neill’s A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, directed by then Artistic Director JT Sullivan, which was as good or better than the other productions of the play I have seen, with the exception of the Jose Quintero production at the late lamented Morosco Theatre in 1973, which starred Jason Roberts, Colleen Dewhurst and Ed Flanders, which I saw on Opening Night and which established the reputation of a play which had been consigned to the dustbin of theatre history.

At the end, the Pearl had jettisoned their acting company, which made them not really the Pearl anymore, their last production being a dramatization of VANITY FAIR, using none of the Pearl actors, written by and starring Kate Hamill, which was a fine production but, well, not really the Pearl.

New York City is new play crazy – which is great — but I shall miss the Pearl’s dedication to old plays.

The demise of the Pearl got me thinking about the other theatre companies which I used to attend regularly which are now gone, such as Circle Rep, the WPA, the Hudson Guild, the American Place Theatre, Jewish Rep, American Jewish Theatre, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, the Irish Rebel Theatre and Circle in the Square, as well as of the Broadway and Off Broadway theatres which we have lost, such as the aforementioned Morosco, the Helen Hayes in W. 46th St., and Off Broadway theatres such as the Lambs Club Theatre, the Variety Arts, the Promenade and the Century Center.

The WPA was founded by Kyle Renick (a producer), Howard Ashman (a playwright) and Stuart White (a director) and specialized, as did Circle Rep, in American realism. Mostly, they did new plays, although I saw memorable productions there of Tennessee Williams’ VIEUX CARRÉ and a dramatization of Edith Wharton’s ETHAN FROME, by Owen and Daniel Davis, which was produced originally in 1936 and was a great success for Ruth Gordon and Raymond Massey and many fine performances by the likes of Jay O. Sanders and Dann Florek. Their biggest hits were Tom Toper’s NUTS, directed Steve Zuckerman, which moved to Broadway and then became a successful film starring Barbara Streisand and Richard Dreyfus, Robert Harling’s STEAL MAGNOLIAS (also a hit film), Larry King’s THE NIGHT HANK WILLIAMS DIED, Kevin Wade’s KEY EXCHANGE and, of course, Ashman and Menken’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, which started at their tiny theatre in 5th Ave. at 18th St. and moved to the Orpheum (where STOMP has been running for years), running for eight years before becoming a successful film starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin and Ellen Greene, recreating her role as Audrey from the Off Broadway production.

After a few years at their original location in 5th Ave., the WPA moved to the Chelsea Playhouse, a brand-new theatre in W. 23rd St. at 10th Ave. By this time, Ashman and White were dead, lost to AIDS, but Renick kept it going until the building’s owners decided to tear it down and put luxury condos in its place. Since there weren’t any other viable Off Broadway spaces for not-for-profit companies (the Cherry Lane and the Theatre de Lys were commercial rental spaces at the time, and this was before the construction of the Theatre Row and New World Stages multiplexes) Renick decided to fold. I have fond memories of the many WPA productions I saw over the years, several of which were designed by their brilliant in-house set designer Edward (“Hawk”) Gianfrancesco, one of which was a play I placed there, Don Nigro’s GROTESQUE LOVESONGS. Hawk’s splendid set was a two-story house with a greenhouse attached. The buzz on this production was very good – until, that is, the Times sent their cabaret critic, Stephen Holden, who dismissed it with a syllogism: plays about Midwestern families are boring/ GROTESQUE LOVESONGS is about a Midwestern family/GROTESQUE LOVESONGS is boring — which killed any chance the play might have had to transfer.

Circle Rep was founded in the late ‘60s by Marshall W. Mason, Rob Thirkeld, Tanya Berezin and Lanford Wilson. Mason, the Artistic Director, was its driving force; Wilson, its resident playwright. They had an affiliated group of actors, such as Conchata Ferrell, Trish Hawkins, Judd Hirsch, Jonathan Hogan, Jeff Daniels and William Hurt, many of whom moved on to TV and film, but their “star” was Lanford Wilson, who came up with Mason in the off off Broadway scene in the 1960s, often working at Caffe Cino. They got themselves a loft on the Upper West Side, where they opened the play which was to establish their reputation, Wilson’s THE HOT L BALTIMORE, which transferred to Circle in the Square Downtown, in Bleecker Street, where it had a long run in the early 1970s. They then built a theatre in what had once been a garage in 7th Ave. South, just below Sheridan Square. It was here that they produced many plays by Lanford Wilson, including TALLEY’S FOLLY, which won the Pulitzer Prize, THE FIFTH OF JULY and BURN THIS – all of which moved to, and succeeded on, Broadway – and William Hoffman’s AS IS, which was the first play to deal with the AIDS crisis.

When Mason decided to move out to Los Angeles to work in film, sadly Circle Rep folded two or three years later, burdened by too much debt to keep going. Mason never got a film career going and wound up chairing the Theatre Dept. at Arizona State University. Trish Hawkins, the original Sally Tally in TALLY’S FOLLY and The Girl in THE HOT L BALTIMORE, ditched her acting career and joined Mason at ASU, where she taught for many years.

The Hudson Guild Theatre Co. performed in an auditorium in the community service center of what were basically low-income housing projects in W. 26th St. It was founded by playwright PJ Barry, who turned it over to Craig Anderson, who ran it for several years before moving out to Los Angeles to become a successful TV producer. For a few years, the Hudson Guild was an Off Broadway powerhouse. It was here that ON GOLDEN POND and the American premiere of DA started, both of which later had successful Broadway runs. They also did a political farce by Lee Kalcheim, WINNING ISN’T EVERYTHING (which Samuel French published under its original title, WIN WITH WHEELER), which was directed by none other than George Abbott, over 100 years old at the time but still going strong. After Anderson’s departure, though, the company went slowly downhill, petering out several years ago. Now, it’s basically a community theatre.

Charles Ludlam’s the Ridiculous Theatre operated for many years in a small theatre in Sheridan Square, where they did all of Ludlam’s plays. I saw several productions there, most notably of THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP, which starred Ludlam and his partner Everett Quinton. When he received a Lifetime Achievement Obie Award, Julies Novick of the Village Voice described Ludlam as “America’s greatest 19th Century actor.” That he was. Sadly, he died of AIDS in 1987. His theatre folded 2 or 3 years later.

The Irish Rebel Theatre operated for several years out of the Irish Arts Center in W. 51st Street. I saw several productions there, most notably of Janet Nobel’s AWAY ALONE, which was later produced at Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre and was made into a film. The theatre was founded and was run by Jim Sheridan, who directed the films “My Left Foot,” “The Boxer” and “In the Name of the Father,” all of which starred Daniel Day Lewis. Shortly after Sheridan became a successful film director, the theatre folded. That was often the case when a theatre’s  brilliant and charismatic founder moved on. See the abovementioned Hudson Guild and Circle Rep. he Slab Boys, which starred Kevin Bacon and John Pankow

Circle in the Square was the Granddaddy of the Off Broadway movement. Founded by Theodore Mann in 1951, in a small space in Sheridan Square, they hit the jackpot early on with an acclaimed production of a pretty much forgotten play by Tennessee Williams, SUMMER AND SMOKE, which made a star of its Alma Winemiller, Geraldine Page, and a few years later, an equally acclaimed production of another forgotten play, this one by Eugene O’Neill, called THE ICEMAN COMETH, which made a star of its Hickey, Jason Robards, Jr. In 1960, Mann relocated to a new space in Bleecker Street, a long, jutting stage with seating on three sides. In 1970 he relocated again, to a new space just below the ground floor of a skyscraper between W. 50th and W. 51st Streets, where he produced memorable star-driven revivals of classics such as UNCLE VANYA, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Nicole Williamson as Vanya, Julie Christie as Yelena, Barnard Hughes as Serebryakov and George C. Scott as Astrov. Lillian Gish played the nurse. This played before I got to New York so I didn’t see it. But I saw another fine production of UNCLE VANYA later there, with Tom Courtenay as Vanya. Scott was a brilliant Willy in DEATH OF A SALESMAN there. ONCE IN A LIFETIME, directed by Tom Moore, the first revival of this comedy classic since its original production (detailed memorably by Moss Hart in his classic autobiography, Act I) starred John Lithgow, Treat Williams and Deborah May. George S. Irving was hilarious as Glogauer, based on Samuel L. Goldwyn, and Max Wright equally hilarious as flustered, flabbergasted playwright Lawrence Vail, which the playwright and director George S. Kaufman had played in the original production. Another hit was a transfer from the Long Wharf Theatre of O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS, directed by Long Wharf’s Artistic Director, with a wonderful cast which included Richard Backus, Swoozie Kurtz, William Swetland and Theresa Wright. Occasionally, they did a new play or musical, such as Michael Weller’s LOOSE ENDS, directed by Alan Schneider, starring Kevin Kline and Roxanne Hart, and a musical version of Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA starring Ann Crumb, directed rather ineptly by Mann himself. Sadly, the theatre company went bankrupt in 1997 and CITS is now a commercial rental house. While it has housed some memorable productions such as revivals of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW and ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, I miss the good old days when Mann was running the show.

As is the way of the march of time the WPA, Circle Rep and Hudson Guild Theatres died out, but in their place have sprung numerous Off Broadway companies, many of which have done terrific productions; but I miss the old days when I could see a new play by Larry Ketron at the WPA, Wilson’s latest at Circle Rep and an Irish import by the likes of Hugh Leonard at the Hudson Guild.

The American Place Theatre was founded by Wynn Handman and The Rev. Sidney Lanier at St. Clement’s Church (Lanier was the Rector of St. Clement’s) in W. 46th St. in the mid-1960s and was, for a time, quite a cutting-edge company. This was before there was much off and off-off Broadway, so theatregoers in search of an alternative to Broadway had a place to go. Handman did poetic dramas, such as Robert Lowell’s THE OLD GLORY and William Alfred’s HOGAN’S GOAT, which featured a standout newcomer named Faye Dunaway, soon to be lost to Hollywood, and Sam Shepard’s monologue play KILLER’S HEAD, featuring another newcomer whose name was Richard Gere.

In the early 1970’s New York City started offering tax breaks to developers who included a theatre in their new skyscrapers – for tax purposes, they were granted ten free stories – which resulted in the Minskoff Theatre (in the Minskoff Building on the site of the old Hotel Astor), the Uris (now the Gershwin), Circle in the Square Uptown and an off Broadway theatre in the new J.P. Stevens building in W. 46th St. just off Avenue of the Americas. Handman moved his theatre into this new space, which was to lead to the American Place’s downfall. Plays which seemed oh-so cutting-edge in Hell’s Kitchen had trouble appealing to the Broadway critics, let alone attracting audiences to a theatre just off Times Square. The critics were often harsh in their assessments of their productions, I think because they expected a more mainstream experience in the Broadway theatre district. Walter Kerr (admittedly, a rather conservative critic) once referred to the American Place as “that continuing disaster area.” It got harder and harder for Handman to keep the theatre going, and eventually he downsized to a basement space way below street level (which is now known as the Roundabout Underground), finally folding altogether.

One of the most important and long-term legacies of the American Place, though, is the Women’s Project, founded by Handman’s Literary Manager, Julia Miles, with the support of the Ford Foundation, to do new plays by women, directed by women, at a time when both were exceedingly rare. She struck gold with her first production, a revue concocted by Julianne Boyd and Joan Micklin Silver, which opened in the basement space of the American Place and moved to the Village Gate (alas, another lost theatre) in Bleecker Street, where it ran about a year. This was A … MY NAME IS ALICE, a wonderful revue of songs and sketches about contemporary womanhood written by several prominent playwrights and composers, which Julia invited me to and which I got my boss at Samuel French to acquire, which went on to many productions across the country, as well as two sequels. Eventually, Ms. Miles began producing in the original Theatre Row theatres, before moving into Theatre Four in W. 55th St., subsequently the Julia Miles Theatre, where the Women’s Project was ensconced for several years before having to vacate the premises because the theatre was just too decrepit. A few years ago, the Women’s Project rebranded as the WP Theatre. Although it’s peripatetic again, it continues to be an important off Broadway theatre company.

American Jewish Theatre was founded by Stanley Brechner in the YMHA in the Upper East Side, then moved to the basement theatre in W. 26th St. below a supermarket, which was the original home of the Roundabout. Brechner did Israel Horovitz’s FOUNTAIN PEN TRILOGY in the Upper East Side space and, in W. 26th St., exemplary revivals of musicals such as MILK AND HONEY, RAGS and THE ROTHSCHILDS, as well as a new musical called A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE (another one I got Samuel French to acquire), which should have moved but didn’t, and fine new plays such as BORN GUILTY by Ari Roth (who later founded Theatre J in Washington, D.C., a Jewish Theatre founded by former American Place Theatre Literary Manager Martin Blank). At the end, Brechner could only afford to do projects which came with money attached (a disturbing off Broadway trend which I will discuss in another chapter), usually a guaranteed harbinger of the end, finally folding and absconding to Columbia with whatever money he had left (which, I suspect, was from subscriptions as well as grants).

For many years, there was a fine off Broadway theatre company, the Lambs Theatre Co., run by Carolyn Rossi Copeland, which operated out of the Lambs Club in W. 44th Street. They produced shows in the smaller of two spaces, on the ground floor, and rented out the larger one upstairs for commercial productions. Their biggest hit in the downstairs theatre was the musical SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN. I had seen this at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton during its last week and called Carolyn and asked her to see it, as generally she did shows with a religious slant and this one was about a gospel group, The Sanders Family Singers, performing at a Southern Baptist church, much to the chagrin of the more conservative members but enthusiastically supported by the pastor. Carolyn couldn’t make it out to the McCarter to see it there, but she invited the cast to perform it for her at the Lambs and optioned it on the spot. It had a long run there. The upstairs theatre was an exquisite space designed by Stanford White. Some of its memorable hits were James Sherman’s BEAU JEST, produced by Arthur Cantor and Carol Ostrow, who also produced Eileen Atkins in a one-woman show based on Virginia Woolf’s A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN. Tina Howe’s PAINTING CHURCHES, starring Marian Seldes in one of her most memorable performances, Donald Madden and Elizabeth McGovern, originally produced by Second Stage in one of the old Theatre Row Theatres, transferred there for a successful commercial run. Incredibly, this beautiful theatre was ripped out several years ago. What an outrage! The Lambs Theatre Co. was long gone by that time.

Jewish Rep was started by Ran Avni in a small space in the 14th St. YMHA, where it operated for several years before moving to Playhouse 91 in the YMHA on the Upper East Side (which doesn’t appear to be used for theatre anymore). I saw many memorable plays and musicals produced by Jewish Rep at the YMHA and at Playhouse 91, such as Susan Sandler’s CROSSING DELANCEY (another gem I landed for Samuel French), directed by Pamela Berlin, which became a successful film directed by Joan Micklin Silver starring Amy Irving and Peter Riegert, and the musical THEDA BARA AND THE FRONTIER RABBI, directed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, which deserved a commercial transfer but didn’t get it. Then, several years ago, Jewish Rep disappeared. I still don’t know what happened to it.

When I moved to New York in the summer of 1975 in search of a niche for myself in the theatre, there were several excellent off off Broadway theatre companies but few Off Broadway ones (by this time, Circle in the Square had moved uptown to the theatre district). The only one I can think of is Joe Papp’s Public Theater, which had opened in 1967 with the original production of HAIR. Soho Rep, Theatre at St. Clements, Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizons were all off off Broadway then – hard to believe, but true. One of my favorite OOB companies was the Impossible Ragtime Theatre in W. 26th St. which was founded by Ted Story, Pam Mitchell and George Ferencz (who passed away recently). Ferenz directed a notable production of O’Neill’s THE HAIRY APE, featuring an inexperienced actor who had literally walked in off the street and asked to audition. His name was Brian Dennehy. Ted Story directed a play which I found in stacks and stacks of old scripts when Samuel French was moving out of their premises in W. 45th St., Sam Shepard’s ANGEL CITY, which as far as I can determine was the New York premiere. The IRT was a director’s theatre and I was accepted there as one of their resident directors. I was also the Literary Manager. Other directors included Steve Zuckerman, who went on to a successful directing career on the New York stage before moving out to the Left Coast, where he became a top TV director, and Mary B. Robinson, who went on to a successful career in regional theatre. I directed Brian Richard Mori’s DREAMS OF FLIGHT (FROM A BIRD IN A CAGE) there, which I had plucked out of Bill Talbot’s slush pile at Samuel French and which was published later by Dramatists Play Service, dedicated to me. In those days, actors in OOB productions weren’t paid anything. When Actor’s Equity forced the theatres to pay actors something based on their budgets Ted Story, pissed off, closed the theatre. It later became the home of Manhattan Class Company (now, MCC), which presented acclaimed productions of Alan Bowne’s BIERUT, which made a star of Marisa Tomei, Margaret Edson’s WIT, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and Tim Blake Nelson’s THE GREY ZONE, which established the career of its director, Doug Hughes. I don’t know what happened to the theatre space once MCC started producing in the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Christopher Street which, after Miss Lortel died, became a home for not-for-profit Off Broadway companies. There were commercial Off Broadway rental houses such as the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village, the Promenade on the Upper West Side and Lucille Lortel’s Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre). Circle in the Square Downtown, in Bleecker Street, became a commercial house after Ted Mann relocated uptown. Angelina Fiordelisi, an actress who is married to Matt Williams (Executive Producer of “The Cosby Show” and creator of “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement”), bought the Cherry Lane, renovated it and produced plays there for a few years before making it a rental house, mostly for not-for-profit theatres such as Rattlestick and Primary Stages. Other Off Broadway theatres which are gone include the Douglas Fairbanks and the John Houseman in W. 42nd St., torn down to make way for luxury condos, the Variety Arts in 3rd Avenue in the East Village and the Century in E. 15th Street off Union Square, which is now a Christian broadcast studio.

There were two small Broadway theatres which are gone now, the Playhouse in W. 48th Street west of 9th Avenue and the Paramount, which is now where the Church of Scientology is based. One memorable production I saw at the Playhouse was Scottish playwright John Byrne’s THE SLAB BOYS, which starred Kevin Bacon and John Pankow. I saw a play at the Paramount (I have forgotten the title) which had a wonderful performance by a young actor who the producer, who also acted in the play, told me was about to hit it big in Hollywood. His name was Sean Penn.

The Westside Arts’ two theatres in W. 43rd Street, Theatre at St. Luke’s in W. 46th Street and the Actors Temple Theatre in W. 47th Street, run by the aforementioned Carol Ostrow, are basically the only stand-alone commercial Off Broadway Theatres left. There are three multiplexes each sharing a single box office: New World Stages, which has five theatres, the Theatre Row multiplex, which were constructed after the original five stand-alone theatres on the block were torn down. and the Signature Center further west. New World Stages, an architectural monstrosity, houses commercial productions and the Theatre Row Multiplex mostly houses not-for-profit Off Broadway companies such as the Keen Company and the Mint. Another multiplex, the exemplary 59E59, with three theatres, houses imports and, occasionally, Off Broadway theatre companies. Founded by Elysabeth Kleinhans, who ran it for many years, it’s now run by Val Day, a former colleague of mine at Samuel French who went on the become a top playwright’s and director’s agent at William Morris and, later, at ICM. Every summer, they present Brits Off Broadway, wonderful productions from England. I saw three plays there written and directed by the great and much-underrated English playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Primary Stages was there for several years before moving downtown to the Cherry Lane.

As for Broadway theatres, the ones that we lost during my time in New York include the Morosco and the Bijou in W. 45th Street and the Helen Hayes in W. 46th St., torn down to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel and Theatre. Its developer, John Portman, got the city to declare the area a “blighted zone,” which got him tax breaks. Three Broadway Theatres were a “blighted zone?” The Morosco was where the modern American Theatre began, when Eugene O’Neil’s BEYOND THE HORIZON transferred there from the Provincetown Playhouse in MacDougall Street, another venerable OB theatre, which housed Charles Busch’s long-running hit, VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM. It’s still there, but no longer a functioning theatre. It was at the Morosco where I saw the Opening Night of Josè Quintero’s legendary production of A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN and Michael Cristofer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning THE SHADOW BOX. Joe Papp led protests against demolishing these theatres, to no avail. Every time I see something at the Marriott Marquis I try not to get pissed off.

Out with the old, in with the new, is the normal order of things, but I lament the loss of the old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Walden, TheatreWorks Hartford, 26 August 2021

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 a show you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo. 

And now for something completely different: TheatreWorks Hartford is streaming their production of Amy Berryman’s Walden but unlike other streamed productions I have seen during the Pandemic, this one takes place outdoors. The set is a cabin in the woods with actual woods as its backdrop, with an adjacent chicken coop. The audience (socially distanced, of course) is given headphones. It’s a brilliant device which greatly enhances the intimacy of this very intimate play.

The play is set in the near future and focuses on two sisters – Stella, a “space architect” and Cassie (short for Cassiopeia), an astronaut. Stella and her boyfriend Bryan, whose cabin we peer into, are endeavoring to make a brave, sustainable new world. There have been major advances in space exploration as well as a burgeoning environmental movement called Earth Advocates, and much of the play concerns arguments about how to save our planet, the merits/demerits of space colonialization and synthetic foods, and if it is more ethical, even possible, to live with no electricity.

Director Mei Ann Teo has created a unique form of site-specific theatre, assisted brilliantly by her designers, most notably You-shin Chen, whose cramped cabin set greatly enhances the intimacy of the play and sound designer Hao Bai, who makes you feel almost as if you are in the cabin with these fascinating characters. The actors, Diana Oh (Stella), Jeena Yi (Cassie) and Gabriel Brown (Bryan) are all first rate.

While we wait for live, indoor theatre to get going again, you couldn’t do better than stream Walden. Tickets: Buy: Walden (IN PERSON) (force.com)

 

“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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Ann Crumb (from my Memoir, “200 Times a Year. My Life In, At and Around the Theatre”)

Ann Crumb

From my Memoir, 200 Times a Year. My Life in, At and Around the Theatre

I first saw Ann during the summer of 1972. I was working on the University of Michigan grounds crew, starting grad school in the fall. I was on the grass cutting crew, but it hadn’t rained for eight weeks so there was no grass to cut. When we came in every morning, essentially we were told to go someplace and lay low. I chose the Undergraduate Library, where I sat and read plays all day. One day, tired of all that reading, I moseyed over to the Theatre Dept. to scope it out and heard a rehearsal going on in the Trueblood Auditorium, so I slipped in and sat in the back to watch. An energetic little man (more about him in another chapter) was staging a scene from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. It was the scene at the house of Marcus Lycus, with the three courtesans. I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl playing Tintinnabula, who was a wonderful dancer and very beautiful. Of course, this was Ann.

Ann was not a theatre student — she was getting a degree in speech pathology – but she was one of the stars of the Ann Arbor theatre scene. I didn’t really know her very well, though,  until after I moved to New York. I went to see a children’s play by David Mamet, REVENGE OF THE SPACE PANDAS, at St. Clements, to see an actress who was in a play I had directed off off Broadway. Ann came to the play, too, to see her friend Margo Martindale (more about her in another chapter), and we reconnected. She invited me over to her apartment for dinner, and we really hit it off. I lived nearby, so I started spending most evenings there when I wasn’t at the theatre.

After finishing her degree, Ann had moved to Philadelphia to work at a hospital there, treating aphasia in people who had had a stroke. She missed the theatre, though, so she auditioned for a class at the Hedgerow Theatre. This was typical of her, thinking she needed to take a class. Ann had a huge inferiority complex. Well, after her audition they offered her a job on the faculty, so she taught at Hedgerow for a while in the evenings, after a full day at the hospital. Then a non-Equity touring production of EL GRANDE DE COCA COLA in Philly lost an actress, so the producer called the Hedgerow and asked if they could recommend anyone. They recommended Ann and she got the job. From that, she went into a production in Philly of STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW, a revue of the songs of Richard Maltby and David Shire, which got her her Equity card. She then did a couple of seasons at the Philadelphia Theatre Co., playing Ophelia opposite John Glover’s Hamlet and several other roles, before moving to New York. When I reconnected with her, she was working as a secretary in a law office. She wasn’t even auditioning. Well, I viewed this as a huge waste of talent, so I made it my obsession to help her believe in herself again, and to get her back to the theatre. She was full of excuses. She said she couldn’t audition because she had a lousy headshot, so I gave her money for a new one. Then she decided she needed her hair styled before she could go to a photographer, so I gave her money for that. She spent my dough on vet bills for dogs she had rescued. She was an indefatigable dog-rescuer. Finally, she got her hair done and her new headshot, and started going to Equity open calls, mainly for musicals. In those days, open calls actually could lead to a job.

By this time, I was head over heels in love with her.

Around about then, she got her first agent. I took her to a French restaurant, A La Fourchette (which closed many years ago, alas), to celebrate. Bob Bennett, a stage manager friend of mine, had told me I had to see a show which was getting a lot of buzz, playing late nights after his show at what is now the Westside Arts Theatre, a revue about the Boswell Sisters called THE HEEBIE JEEBIES, so we went to see it. This turned out to be PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES. What a night! After it transferred, I saw the show several times. It’s one of my all-time faves.

Ann finally got a Big Break when she was cast as Andrea Marcovicci’s understudy in the title role of the musical NEFERTITI, which was to open in Chicago before coming to Broadway. Alas, the show closed in Chicago. When she got back to New York, she decided she needed a vocal coach. Bill Schuman, one of the top ones, told her she had to audition for him. At the time, Bill was the vocal coach for EVITA, which was casting its first national tour. After hearing her sing, Bill called the casting director and said he had in his studio one of the greatest voices he had ever heard. She auditioned, but the producers decided to go with an actress who had done the role on Broadway since there was only going to be a week of rehearsals. Harold Prince’s assistant was starting to direct productions around the country, though, and he started to cast Ann; so she played Eva Peron at several theatres. I saw her at Theatre by the Sea in Rhode Island. She was astounding.

Lest you think that Ann only did musicals, early on in her career she played in a terrific production of Witkiewicz’ THE MADMAN AND THE NUN at Theatre Off Park, for which she got her first NY Times review – a rave – and played Miss Scoons in the NY premiere of Sam Shepard’s ANGEL CITY at the Impossible Ragtime Theatre, directed by Ted Story (more about my involvement with this in my chapter on Samuel French). I recommended her for both roles. She also played Maggie in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at Tennessee Rep.

Her next Big Break came when she was cast in the ensemble of LES MISERABLES, understudying Randy Graff as Fantine. When Randy left for a week’s vacation, Ann went on. She invited me, and this was one of my greatest nights at the theatre. I still get chills when I hear her voice in my head, singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” She did the show for several months, then Trevor Nunn cast her in the ensemble of CHESS, understudying the roles of Florence and Svetlana. Marcia Mitzman (Svetlana) was sick during most of the preview period, so Ann did the role, wonderfully. She then was cast as Fantine in the first national tour of LES MISERABLES.

While she was at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, she got a call to audition for a supporting role in a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical which was opening in the West End, so she came back to New York for her audition. Her vocal coach prepared a medley for her of Lloyd Webber’s hardest songs, and while she was singing who should barge in but Lloyd Webber himself, wanting to know who that voice was. He took her into another room, played the score of ASPECTS OF LOVE and asked her to sing the songs he had written for Rose Vibert, the female lead. A week later, her agent called. She was cast in the role, starring opposite Michael Ball.

ASPECTS OF LOVE was a huge hit in London, and Ann was the toast of the town. Well into the run, she was injured when a treadmill came on too early in a blackout while she was changing costumes. It caught the heel of her shoe and dragged her across the stage, jamming her foot into where the treadmill went back under the stage, mangling it. She was rushed to a hospital, where she got a big surprise: her insurance through American Equity wouldn’t cover her because she was not acting in an American show. She was part of the exchange program between the Equities. When the unions had set up this program, apparently it had never occurred to them what would happen if someone got hurt.  She was told her only option was to sue the producer, Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company, and the theatre owner, Cameron MacIntosh. MacIntosh pulled her out of a National Health Hospital and got her into a private one in St. John’s Wood. The Really Useful Company paid for everything, including several operations on Ann’s foot. Eight months later, she opened on Broadway, wearing special orthopedic shoes designed for her foot. In London, the stage floor had been cobbled. On Broadway, the cobbles were two-dimensionally painted so Ann could walk.

By this time, Frank Rich of the NY Times had decided he had had it with “bloated British mega-musicals,” so he panned the show – quite ironic when you consider that ASPECTS OF LOVE is a small scale, intimate musical. Despite Rich’s pan it held on, building an audience, so the Times began running negative pieces about it, trying to twist the knife. Although the show was nominated for a Tony Award, Ann herself was snubbed. Ann’s contract for Broadway was for a year, but for 8 performances a week, which Ann couldn’t do, not only because of the difficulty of the role but also because of the pain in her foot, which Lloyd Webber considered to be a violation of her contract. That was the excuse. The reason was that he had decided he could turn the show into a hit by replacing Ann with a star. The role was offered to several stars, one of which was Patti Lupone, who told the casting director that she was unavailable as she was in a TV series and, anyway, she couldn’t sing the role. She said she knew of only one actress who could sing it. “Who?” asked the casting director. To which Lupone replied, “Ann Crumb.” She then called Ann and told her about this, which is when Ann learned that she was being replaced, although she had heard rumors. Then Sarah Brightman, Lloyd Webber’s estranged ex-wife who had become a star when she played Christine in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, decided she would like to play Rose. She was angry that the film of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in which she was to play Christine was delayed and Andrew wanted to mollify her as the couple were in the midst of a contentious divorce, so he gave her the role. He then closed down the production and rehearsed Sarah for three weeks with a full orchestra and cast. He also re-orchestrated the role, lowering it so she could sing it. It was the most expensive cast replacement in Broadway history. When Sarah was ready, critics were re-invited. They were unimpressed (particularly, Rich), so the show closed a few weeks later.

Meanwhile, Ann decided to accept a settlement offer rather than sue, concerned that if she sued this might harm her career, and rightly so. Word got out about this settlement anyway and she became persona non grata to the casting directors, who were afraid of incurring the wrath of Lloyd Webber and MacIntosh. Was she blacklisted? It’s hard to say, but it is undeniable that she went from being considered for every show to having no auditions. She received a big chunk of money, though, which she used to buy the second floor of an old church in Brooklyn Heights, which she converted into a fabulous loft with stained glass windows and a cathedral ceiling.

A year or so later, I got a call from Nancy “Pinkie” Bosco, Circle in the Square’s literary manager (as well as the wife of the great actor Philip Bosco). Pinkie told me that the theatre was going to do a production of a musical version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and asked me if I could recommend anyone for the title role. They had done a workshop of the show with Melissa Errico as Anna, but had decided she was too young for the role. They had considered several actresses recommended by their casting director but felt none were suitable. Mind you, this was at a time when the casting directors seemed to have “forgotten” about Ann. Pinky hadn’t, though, and when I told her Ann was perfect for the role she agreed, and Theodore Mann, the theatre’s Artistic Director (who was directing the show) cast her. The show wasn’t very good, partly because Ted Mann was not an experienced director but mostly because the two guys who wrote it hadn’t seen LES MISERABLES. How can you do a musical adaptation of another great 19th Century novel without having bothered to see LES MISERABLES? Although the reviews for the show weren’t very good, Ann’s notices were excellent and she received a Tony nomination. Alas, ANNA KARENINA was Ann’s last Broadway show.

In London, though, she was still a star from ASPECTS OF LOVE. She played Louisa in the London premiere of NINE, opposite Jonathan Pryce as Guido Contini. There is a recording of this production on You Tube, so you can hear her thrilling renditions of Louisa’s two songs, “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Be On Your Own.” She also starred in the London production of THE GOODBYE GIRL, in the role originated on Broadway by Bernadette Peters. Back in the U.S., she did tours, most notably a hugely successful one of MAN OF LA MANCHA, in which she played Aldonza opposite John Cullum’s Cervantes/Quixote. I saw it in Baltimore and Ann received a screaming standing ovation at her curtain call. She was offered the role in a Broadway revival starring Raul Julia but then the offer was withdrawn when the producers decided they needed a bigger “name,” who turned out to be singer Sheena Easton. The show flopped.

Ann also did some work Off Broadway. She was excellent in a revival of RAGS at the American Jewish Theatre, in which she played the role originated on Broadway by opera star Teresa Stratas and was hilariously evil in a musical version of the film Johnny Guitar, although one legacy of that was that she injured her knee during a fight scene and eventually had to have knee replacement surgery. She played in an ensemble musical about women in group therapy at the Cherry Lane Theatre, produced by my friend Carol Ostrow (more about her in a suubsequent chapter). About this time, she started doing shows in the Philadelphia area, where she was sort of “local girl makes good.” She did GOBLIN MARKET at the Wilma Theatre and several shows at the Media Center for the Performing Arts, where she played Florence Foster Jenkins in SOUVENIR and Maria Callas in MASTER CLASS. The last show she did there was a scaled down production of SUNSET BOULEVARD, as Norma Desmond, a role she had played two or three times before at theatres around the country. Anne was a coloratura soprano, but in “New Ways to Dream” she went down into the depths of her range and was astounding. I blurted out, “Oh my God!” when she did this. I couldn’t help it. When she came out afterwards, she asked me “Was that you? I knew that was you!

At this point, I have a few personal anecdotes about Ann to share with you. Ann loved Snickers bars. I always brought her a couple of them when I took her to the theatre. One night about eleven o’clock, early on in our relationship, my phone rang. I was in bed, asleep. I picked up my phone and heard, “Snick! Snick!” I got dressed and went out into a driving rain to find her some Snickers bars figuring, finally, this was gonna be my night. The entrance to Ann’s apartment was in the rear of a house. There was an alleyway which led to a heavy, black, steel door which opened onto the street. I rang her buzzer and heard her walking down this alleyway. Then the black door opened with a creak and I heard, “Did you get them? “Yes, Ann,” I said, and held up the bag of Snickers bars. A hand reached out through the door opening and took them. “Thank you,” she croaked, and then the door slowly closed with a creak and a clang. I trudged back in the rain to my apartment.

Ann could be quite a handful. She was, to put it mildly, time-challenged. Whenever I took her to the theatre she would always ask me what time she needed to be ready, and I would always tell her fifteen minutes before the actual time, in order to get to wherever we were going on time. She and her boyfriend Vince lived together when Ann moved to Brooklyn Heights, and he became one of my dearest pals, almost like a brother. Once, he told me, Ann was flying off to do a show, but she dithered and dithered. Vince kept silent, knowing if he bugged her about the time she would Just. Go. Slower. Predictably, she missed her flight. Vince helped her book another one, which was four hours later. Then he wished her a good flight and turned to leave. Ann was flabbergasted. “Aren’t you going to wait with me? She asked. “No, Ann,” Vince replied. “I want you to sit there by yourself for four hours and think about why it was that you missed your flight.”

As I mentioned earlier, Ann was a dedicated dog rescuer. She always had a least two – sometimes, three — dogs living with her. She would find dogs on the street, pay vet bills for them and then place them far and wide. She spearheaded the rescue of the dogs orphaned by Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of them, organizing caravans to deliver them to new homes all over the country. One day, I went over to her apartment to visit her and she asked me to drive her around Brooklyn Heights to look for a stray she had seen earlier in the day. After about two hours, we were unsuccessful in our search – but she wanted to keep going. It drove her nuts that she never found this dog. She paid thousands of dollars to kill shelters to hold off euthanization until she could find dogs homes. Let me tell you, there is a special shrine in Doggy Heaven dedicated to Ann Crumb.

Ann’s father, George Crumb, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. He began writing vocal music, and Ann sang it all over the world, recording Grammy-nominated albums. She also had an act in which she sang jazz, performing this worldwide and recording an album, “A Broadway Diva Swings.” You can hear her on You Tube singing some of her father’s compositions as well as the best songs from her jazz album.

In 2017, Ann was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. She had it all cut out and went through chemotherapy. Finally, it was in remission; but in 2019, it came back, spread all through her. She started hemorrhaging and was taken to the emergency room, but it was too late. She was brought home to her parents’ house in Media to die. I drove out there to see her one last time. She weighed less than 90 pounds and was so heavily-sedated it was like she was in a coma. I sat vigil along with Vince, her family and several friends. A day later she died, never regaining consciousness.

When I get to Heaven, I plan to look for her. I’ll just listen for the sound of barking dogs.

 

“She walks in beauty, like the night

   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

   And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”

— Lord Byron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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JANE MARTIN

JANE MARTIN

Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 1981 New Play Festival (this was a few years before it became the Humana Festival), included a bill of short plays (this was before the “10-Minute Play” genre, which ATL pioneered, became a fixture in contemporary playwriting). One of these plays was a lengthy monologue entitled “Twirler,” whose author was Anonymous. I wrote about this in my chapter on the Humana Festival, but I’m mentioning it again because this is where the saga of Jane Martin begins.

We were in the Victor Jory Theatre, ATL’s smallest of their (then) two theatres, in which the audience sits on three sides. The lights came up, and there before us was a woman dressed as a majorette, holding a baton. She proceeded to tell us how she came to baton-twirling, but she never became a True Twirler until her hand was crushed by a horse called Big Blood Red. “People think you’re a twit if you twirl,” she says, “but they don’t understand it’s true meaning because it’s disguised in the midst of football. It’s God-throwing, spirit-fire.” She describes a bizarre ritual the True Twirlers enact at the winter solstice in a meadow outside Green Bay, where they stand barefoot, wearing white robes. Their ‘tons are 6 feet long, with razor blades set in the shafts, and as they twirl, their blood drips down onto the snow. “Red on white, red on white. You can’t imagine how wonderful that is. I have seen the face of God thirty feet up in the twirling batons, and I know him.” There was stunned silence at the end. I looked across the stage at the people on the other side, who were dumbfounded. We realized we had just witnessed the debut of a major playwright.

In those days, newspapers in major cities all had theatre critics, most of whom attended the ATL festival. There were also several international critics, such as Irving Wardle of the Sunday London Times. When the reviews came out, they focused on this extraordinary experience, and many speculated on who Anonymous might be. When the plays in the next year’s Festival were announced, everyone was excited that one was entitled TALKING WITH, by Jane Martin, a bill of eleven monologues, performed by eleven different actresses, one of which would be “Twirler.” Jane Martin, we were told, was the pseudonym of a Louisville writer. Well, TALKING WITH became the sensation of that year’s Festival, and the speculation as to who “Jane Martin” might be increased. Some thought she might be Beth Henley; others, Marsha Norman.

I got my boss at Samuel French to acquire the rights to TALKING WITH. This was the one deal he let me negotiate (with Jon Jory – more about this later), which was then done at Manhattan Theatre Club, with “French Fries” replacing “Cul-de-Sac,” which featured a woman attacked by a potential rapist. She pulls a handgun out of her purse, forces him to cut off his penis, and ends with her marching him off to the nearest police station, where “I want you to tell them exactly what happened to you.” Predictably, several critics decided that Jane Martin was a man-hating feminist, which was why “Cul-de-Sac” was dropped. We later included it in an anthology of short Jane Martin plays, entitled SUMMER AND OTHER PLAYS.

Actors Theatre did a bill of Jane Martin one-acts, two hilarious comedies called COUP/CLUCKS, in their regular season. When I found out that Dramatists Play Service had acquired the rights, I called Jory to express my great disappointment. I think it never occurred to him that Samuel French might want to publish them. He apologized and promised that Samuel French would have right of first refusal for all subsequent Jane Martin plays, a pledge which was honored thereafter, much to the dismay of the Dramatists Play Service.

In several Festivals up until the one in 2000, there was a new Jane Martin play, and all were the most memorable events of each year. Some were hilarious comedies, such as CEMENTVILLE, about a troupe of very low-level women professional wrestlers, MIDDLE- AGED WHITE GUYS (see my Humana Festival chapter) and the last Jane Martin Humana Festival play, ANTON IN SHOW BUSINESS, a brilliant satire of professional theatre with a cast of 6 women, playing both female and male roles; some were extraordinary dramas such as MR. BUNDY, about the impact on a community when a sex offender is released from prison into their midst and KEELY AND DU (see my Humana chapter), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, losing out to THREE TALL WOMEN.

I have to say, I saw a lot of wonderful plays at the Humana Festival, but my faves were always the ones by Jane Martin. Speculation continued as to the true identity of this extraordinary playwright. Finally, most people assumed that the Jane Martin plays were the work of Actor’s Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jon Jory. I have a different theory. Here goes:

“Jane Martin” (or, “Miz Martin,” as Jory called her) was exactly who he said she was, a mysterious Louisville woman who didn’t want her identity known. She wrote “Twirler” and most of the other pieces which comprise TALKING WITH. She may have been involved with other plays, such as COUP/CLUCKS and VITAL SIGNS, another collection of monologues, though shorter than the ones in TALKING WITH. I do not think she was involved with subsequent Jane Martin plays. How do I know this?

At a Festival in the mid-1980s, I met a member of the ATL staff who seemed very mysterious to me. I asked her if she was Jane Martin, which she denied. We became friends, corresponding frequently. In one letter, she told me that she had decided to leave Actors Theatre of Louisville and try her fortune in New York. She had rented a room in someone’s apartment in New Jersey (Jersey City, I think). She had gotten a ride up to New York, and I offered to let her stay with me and then I would drive her out to New Jersey. Well, we drove out there and they guy she had rented a room from turned out to be really creepy, and her “room” was little more than a closet. Forget this, I told her, you can stay with me until you find another place. She wound up living with me for a little over a year. She continued to deny that she was Jane Martin. Why do I think she was Jane Martin? Two reasons. First, she needed a job so I offered to make copies of her resume for her, in which she listed that she had been a Rockefeller Award recipient. This award was to a playwright for a one-year residency at a theatre. The year she had the Rockefeller Award, Jane Martin was Playwright in Residence at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Second, she was concerned that she had no health insurance. She had let her Dramatists Guild membership lapse, from which she had had health insurance, so I decided to renew her membership as a present. I called up the Dramatists Guild, who told me that they had no record of her ever having been a member. I asked her about this and she went white, stammering, “I was a member … under a different name.” So, it’s pretty clear to me that my friend was, in fact, the mysterious “Miz Martin.” This was further confirmed by her parents who told me that, much to their dismay, she had signed over her Jane Martin copyrights to Actors Theatre of Louisville in order to get the rights back to a play ATL had commissioned her to write.

But what about all the other Jane Martin plays, and whatever happened to the original Jane? As to the first question, here is my theory. “Jane Martin” was actually a committee. Jory headed this committee, one of whose members was ATL’s Literary Manager, Michael Bigelow Dixon. Another was probably Marcia Dixcy, Jon’s wife. The committee would meet to decide what the next Jane Martin play would be. One year, they decided that it would be about America’s fascination with fantasy entertainment and they decided on a play about a ragtag group of professional women wrestlers (CEMENTVILLE). Another year, they decided to do a play about the abortion issue (KEELY AND DU). The committee would come up with the characters and a scenario, different members would write different parts, and Jory would put the whole thing together. Why didn’t he just reveal the truth? Because he knew, rightly, that the work wouldn’t be taken seriously if it was known that it had been created by a committee. Hence, the “Jane Martin” gambit.

As for the original Miz Martin, I am ashamed to say I broke her heart – but that’s a whole other story. She got an M.F.A. in playwriting from a major playwriting program, moved back to Louisville and eventually wound up living in northern Florida. Every once in a while, I hear from her and she tells me she’s writing again. I hope so, but this has been going on for years.

Jon Jory left Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2000. Michael Bigelow Dixon left the same year to become Literary Manager of the Guthrie Theatre which, predictably, began premiering  Miz Martin’s plays. After Michael left the Guthrie, I think Jory just took over writing the Jane Martin plays by himself, still perpetuating the myth that Miz Martin was exactly who he said originally that she was.

Why aren’t the Jane Martin plays better known? Because Jory and ATL’s Managing Director Sandy Speer (the “Jane Martin Cabal” – Speer is listed in the copyright notice in all the plays as “Trustee”) refused to allow them to be done in New York, petulant that the New York critics had begun slamming plays which had premiered at the Humana Festival. Pisses me off.

Two or three years ago, I asked Jon if Miz Martin had any new plays in the works. “No,” he said. “She has retired and is living in a yurt in Siberia.”

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“On the Aisle with Larry” 18 June 2021

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 until the Fall, in this column Larry reports on shows you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo.

The Mint Theatre is streaming another production from its recent past, N.F. Simpson’s A Picture of Autumn, a charming if rather quaint play from 1951. Although Simpson was a rather successful West End playwright, this play was apparently never fully produced – just a one-night-only reading. It’s about 3 elderly members of a once grand family living in a once grand manor house, with 18 bedrooms and 60 acres of land. The garden is going to seed, the boats at the pond are rotting away and the house is falling apart. The plot basically consists of son Robert’s attempts to persuade the old goats that they have to give up the house. His chief antagonist is cranky old Uncle Harry, whose young wife died a half-century ago in the house.

Gus Kaikkonen has done a beautiful job directing this somewhat Chekhovian play, at least in style if not in substance; but the chief pleasure in watching it comes from the fine performances, most notably from veterans Jonathan Hogan, Barbara eda-Young and George Morfogen. The careers of these three have been almost exclusively on the stage. Hogan’s goes back to Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore in 1972, in which he played the young drifter Paul Granger III. He was a longtime member of Circle Rep’s acting company, appearing in such contemporary classics as Wilson’s Burn This and William Hoffman’s As Is, and Eda-Young’s career goes back to Leonard Melfi’s ‘60s one act classic, Birdbath. Morfogen’s was by far the longest-tenured career. He did 17 seasons at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and I must have seen him 30 or 40 times over the course of my NYC theatre-going, often at the Mint. I use the past tense, because he died two years ago. Uncle Harry may have been his last role. He was wonderful as always.

 

While this production does not make the case for the play as an unjustly neglected classic, as many Mint Productions have over the years, it nevertheless is a pleasure to watch; particularly if, as I do, miss good old-fashioned realism, which is fast going to way of the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Stream it: www.minttheater.org/streaming-series/?tab=apictureofautumn

You can also stream a new production of the Jason Robert Brown two-character all-songs musical, The Last Five Years, produced by Out of the Box Theatrics and Holmdel Theatre Company, the poignant story of the failed marriage of Cathy and Jamie. It has a unique structure. Jamie’s story is told in chronological order (starting just after the couple have first met) and Cathy’s story is told in reverse chronological order (beginning when their marriage has ended). The characters do not directly interact except for a wedding song in the middle.

This time around, Cathy and Jamie are played by black actors. They are Nasia Thomas and Nicholas Edwards, wonderful, and they sing Brown’s songs beautifully. Stream it: www.ootbtheatrics.com/l5y

If you have HBO Max, you can also stream the film of In the Heights, the Lin-Manuel Miranda/Quiara Alegría Hudes Broadway hit musical, directed by Jon Chu. It’s an exuberant feast, with a wonderful cast led by Anthony Ramos as Usnavy (originally played on stage by Miranda), who owns a bodega in Washington Heights but who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to reestablish his father’s business, a beach refreshment stand, destroyed by a hurricane, causing him to move his family to the U.S. when Usnavy was a young boy. Since the film is framed by Usnavy sitting at his stand in the D.R. telling his story to a rapt group of kids, we know he achieved his dream; the question is, how? Everyone in this film is delightful. My faves in addition to Ramos were Jimmy Smits, who plays a car service owner selling off parts of his business to pay for his daughter Nina’s tuition at Stanford; Leslie Grace as Nina, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, Usnavy’s love interest, who dreams of a career as a fashion designer and Daphne Ruben Vega (the original Mimi in Rent) as a beauty salon owner forced to close her shop and relocate to the Bronx when she’s hit with a huge rent increase). Miranda himself even turns up from time to time as a neighborhood pushcart peddler.

There is quite a controversy going on over the film, which has been attacked for its casting. The attackers are upset that there are no dark-skinned Latinos in the major roles. Miranda has apologized for this (what else could he do?), but he and the rest of the creative team have added fuel to the fire by saying that they cast the best actors for their roles. Good God, they’re attacking Lin-Manuel Miranda, of all people.

I think this may be a precursor of what’s to come when the theatre finally reopens. God help theatres which don’t do a “sufficient” number of shows by of-color writers, or which don’t have a “sufficient” number of of-color actors in their casts. When audiences finally return, will they have to cross picket lines of screaming protesters? I’m all for diversity in the theatre, but this is getting ridiculous.

Broadway HD (www.broadwayhd.com) is offering for free a concert honoring the American Theatre Wing, with wonderful performances by the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Osnes, Heather Hedley, Norm Lewis and Santino Fontana. Stokes starts it off with a soaring rendition of “Being Alive” from Company and I thought, “That’s a tough act to follow,” but it just keeps going and going. I was blessed to see all of these great performers many times on Broadway, and it was a joy to see them again, though I couldn’t help but wonder if the Broadway they so superbly embodied will be anything like what it was once it reopens.

 

“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” 16 April 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. 

NJ Rep is currently streaming Sitting and Talking by Lia Romeo, featuring Dan Lauria and Wendie Malick. It’s a lonelyhearts play about a man and a woman who connect via a dating website, but they can’t do the usual – meet for a drink or coffee – because of the pandemic, so they meet for “dates” on Zoom over a period of several weeks. He’s a divorced man in his late 60s; she’s a widow. At first, she is reticent; but gradually, she warms to him. At one point, they even have Zoom sex (well they try, anyway). In the end, she’s in her zoom space laying in a hospital bed. Does she have the virus? Is she sleeping? Dead? In his apartment, he reads a Robert Frost poem to her, the one about good fences making good neighbors; but then, she appears behind him, full of love, and they have become a couple. Is this real, or is it his fantasy?

 

This is a poignant love story, given the way it has to play out. Perfect for Zoom. Lauria and Malick, longtime friends, are wonderful. But that ending. Huh?

Stream it at: www.njrep.org/plays/sittingtalking

TheatreWorks Hartford is streaming their production of Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, which played on Broadway just before the pandemic shut us down, featuring a titanic performance by Mary Louise Parker as a 53-year old Yale creative writing professor dying of cancer having to deal with a problematic but brilliant student, with whom she becomes increasingly obsessed. Much of the play involves direct address story-telling to the audience, a device which ordinarily I do not favor, but given that the play is in many ways about the nature of fiction, this device works pretty well. In the end, it’s all about death. Maggie Bofill is riveting as the dying professor, as is Ephraim Birney as her student.

Have you ever had the experience of reading a great novel and then being depressed when you have finished it because you don’t have it to read anymore? That’s the way I felt when I finished Hermione May’s monumental Tom Stoppard. A Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020). May takes us from Stoppard’s early childhood in Czechoslovakia, to India, where he and his mother lived before emigrating to England, where his family name was changed from Straussler to Stoppard and Tomas became Tom. Stoppard started out as a journalist in Brighton, began writing short stories and radio plays and then, inspired by what he saw at the theatre, started writing plays, his breakthrough being Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where, miraculously, it was seen by a London theatre critic who gave it a rave review. The National Theatre asked for the script and the rest is history. I was fascinated to read about the genesis of each subsequent play and the enormous research he did. Stoppard is an inveterate re-writer, often making changes to the text during the first run of a play, always doing this with subsequent revivals. What a treasure trove of Ph.D. dissertation material!

We learn of Stoppard’s close friendships with fellow playwrights such as Harold Pinter and David Hare, which were often adversarial as Pinter and Hare are left-wingers and Stoppard is sort of a middle of the road conservative in that he doesn’t embrace every political cause that comes down the road, except for his support of his friend Vaclav Havel’s revolution in Czechoslovakia and the persecuted Belarus Free Theatre which led to the creation of his only “political play,” Rock and Roll.

We also learn of the many women in his life, from his troubled first wife to a woman he was married to for many years, until he wasn’t, to lengthy affairs with actresses Felicity Kendall and Sinéad Cusack until finally he appears to have found contentment with Sabrina Guinness. Above all, Stoppard comes across as a kind and generous soul, someone you wish you could share a pint or two. Amazingly, he smokes like a chimney, has the same shaggy head of hair he had when he burst on the scene in the late 1960s albeit gray now – and is 84 years old. Go figure. What will probably turn out to be his last play, Leopoldstadt, about Viennese Jews in the years up to the rise Hitler closed because of the pandemic. My guess is it won’t be done over here due to its very large cast so I’ve ordered a copy. Can’t wait to read it!

After finishing the book, I went back and read his plays, which I had seen in New York, with new appreciation of his genius. Lee’s book is a must-read. It’s one of the greatest biographies of a literary or theatrical figure I have ever read.

It’s amazing what you can find on YouTube. Recently, I watched the original productions of Pinter’s The Caretaker (with Robert Shaw and Alan Bates – both great – and Donald Pleasance – astounding) and No Man’s Land. I can’t recall if I ever saw a production of The Caretaker but I did see the original production of No Man’s Land, at the Longacre Theatre, featuring Ralph Richardson as Hirst and John Gielgud as Spooner, and watching them on YouTube brought my astonished memory of that memorable evening in the theatre all back to me. I was young then, and much of Pinter’s play passed over my head. Now that I am a geezer, I am better able to appreciate the play itself, while still enjoying the great actors. 

 

“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” 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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