An Entertaining Guy

An Entertaining Guy Veteran director Stanley Donen debuts Off-Broadway with Elaine May's comical look at the world of Adult Entertainment.

Heidi-the-Ho was the hardest to cast — the last, in fact, according to director Stanley Donen: "We were going into production on a Monday, and Linda Halaska came in the Friday before. If she hadn't, we'd have probably had to push back our dates. That role is just as important as any of the others, and we needed to get six terrific people for this."

"This" is Adult Entertainment, Elaine May's takeoff of the take-it-off film biz — a seedy subculture as far removed from the high steps and high style of a Stanley Donen movie as you can get and still call it celluloid —but sometimes you must stoop to conquer, so these two classy septuagenarians are now slumming for fun 'n' profit in this unseemly setting.

Specifically, the setting is an interview show on the "pubic access channel" where anything goes — usually, clothes. Heidi-the-Ho hosts, and her guests run the skin-flick gamut — from the wanton Vixen Fox (Mary Birdsong) to the gay Jimbo J (Eric Elice) to the lesbian Frosty Moons (Jeannie Berlin) to the comparatively legitimate brother (Danny Aiello) of a porn director whom they all have come to eulogize with some eloquence.

How they mix it up beyond that, Donen is reluctant to say — think Pygmalion Goes Porno — but he ducks specifics. "It is, in my opinion, a wonderful idea for a play, and the fun of it is the discovery of it," he insists. "The world that the story takes place in is one that you wouldn't expect it to go in the directions that it does. It's full of invention."

Donen says he got in on the ground floor just by being there. "I'm very friendly with Elaine May and [producer] Julian Schlossberg. And, when she was writing it, she talked to me about it and let me read some scenes, and we kept talking about it. In time, she said, 'Do you want to direct it?' I said, 'I would love to.' It's as simple as that." It is simple for Stanley Donen because he listens to his heart. More than other directors' output, his work has been governed by the women he has loved. "People have said that before, and I can't deny it," he admits sheepishly, shrugging the shrug of the incurably romantic.

The first of his five wives, Jeanne Coyne, was a dancer he and Gene Kelly used in the musicals they co-directed; she died in 1973 — as Mrs. Gene Kelly. In 1960, he married Lady Adele Beatty, and the London life gave such class and lilt to his movies that some of them — Charade and Two for the Road — seemed to be dancing without big musical numbers; his expert steering of stylish superstars is legend, and he has worked with the very best of them (Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, et al.).

Donen left movie directing in 1984, and nine years later, out of the blue, he debuted with The Red Shoes as a Broadway director. Six years after that, he directed A.R. Gurney's Love Letters with Laura Linney and Steven Weber for television. Adult Entertainment is his newest first — his entrance Off-Broadway.

His better-than-never Broadway bow was still too late to save The Red Shoes, which closed after only five performances, but he has no apology for it: "I came into that late, just because I love musicals — Broadway musicals. That's where I come from.

"I grew up in South Carolina, and I spent every summer in New York from the age of five, seeing every show in the world. Then, when I finished high school, I came to New York and got a job in one, Pal Joey. We opened on Christmas Day in 1940. It was an amazing experience for a kid of 16, leaving South Carolina and being dropped into a show with George Abbott and Rodgers & Hart and John O'Hara and Gene Kelly. It changed my life entirely. I never went back, and I never went to college. I loved what I was in — a Broadway musical — and I think that was the most exciting year of my life."

The only times Donen shared film-directing credit were with two men he met during that first Broadway exposure: Kelly (On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, It's Always Fair Weather) and Abbott (The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees). He and Kelly didn't really click until his second Abbott outing, a cadet musical called “Best Foot Forward.” "We were in rehearsal for less than a week when Abbott fired the choreographer and asked Gene, who was still in Pal Joey, to take over that job. Gene said 'Fine' and asked me to be his assistant. That's when we started to work together."

When Hollywood called, Kelly answered — and Donen soon followed, plotting Kelly's fancy footwork in “Cover Girl” and “Anchors Aweigh.” For the latter, Donen dreamed up a live-action cartoon partner for Kelly — but Walt Disney wouldn't permit Mickey Mouse to be in an MGM movie, so Jerry (MGM's mouse-in-house) got the gig.

"I became the mouse in a sense because when we did the number I always danced the mouse's part," recalls Donen. "For a while at the studio, they all called me 'Mouse.'"

Old habits die hard, so you'll find some song and dance in Adult Entertainment. "It became part of the structure of the piece," Donen hastily adds, almost apologetically, as if it wasn't his idea. "Elaine wrote the lyrics, and Bryan Louiselle did the music." And you-know-who did the directing and choreography — the same guy who received his honorary Oscar in 1998 with what historian Damien Bona called "the most wonderful acceptance speech in the entire history of the Academy Awards." Cheek to cheek with the elusive gold guy, Donen broke into primal Irving Berlin: "Heaven, I'm in heaven..."