Six degrees of separation? Try this one on for size: Daniel Goldfarb and David Lindsay-Abaire were one year apart in the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at Juilliard, but often were in classes together and thus became friends.
David Lindsay-Abaire went on to write a play called Fuddy Meers, among other works, and Daniel Goldfarb went on to write, among other works, a play called Sarah, Sarah, which is in its world premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It is set in Toronto, Canada, in 1961, and then in Hefei, China and along the Great Wall in China in 2001. In Act I a strong-willed Russian-born mother, Sarah Grosberg, is breaking up her 20-year-old son’s engagement to a girl Sarah disapproves of. In Act II that son, Arthur Grosberg, now in his sixties, has accompanied his 39-year-old unmarried daughter to China, where — to his distress and disapproval — she has her heart fixed on adopting a tiny, sickly infant he dubs Tweety Bird.
One of the reasons Fuddy Meers became a big Off-Broadway hit was the remarkable performance in it of the actress J. Smith-Cameron, known to one and all as J. It was through David Lindsay-Abaire that J. sort of knew who Daniel Goldfarb was when she bumped into him at a party two-and-a-half years ago. “He told me he was writing this play. I asked, ‘What’s it about?’ and he said, ‘Well, Act I is about my grandmother in Toronto, and Act II is about my sister who went to China to adopt a baby.’ I said, ‘Oh, my sister went to China to adopt a baby. What’s the name you’ve given your sister in the play?’ Dan said, ‘It’s Jeannie,’ and I said, ‘Why, that’s my name’”—because J. Smith-Cameron indeed started out in life as little Jeannie Smith of Greenville, South Carolina. “And Dan said, ‘Oh my God, maybe you should play it.’”
The kicker is, of course, she also has to play Sarah Grosberg, the character based on Daniel Goldfarb’s grandmother. The further kicker is that J. Smith Cameron, wife of playwright-actor-director Kenneth Lonergan, was even at that moment pregnant with daughter Nellie — not from China — who is now two years old. Playing a Jewish mother/grandmother is, says J., “a real stretch for me, but I married into a Jewish family, so it’s not as unfamiliar as it once was.” Indeed, for the actress who was so brilliant flashing in and out of the likes of Auntie Mame (Rosalind Russell), Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) and Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) in Douglas Carter Beane’s As Bees in Honey Drown seven years ago, a Jewish grandmother here and there should be a can of corn. Or a bottle of formula heated up just right at three o’clock in the morning.