Fame in a Frame

Fame in a Frame The two newest inductees to decorate the walls of that famous watering hole, Sardi's, are, on this particular matinee day, between shows, sitting at a corner table, basking in the newfound glory that hovers above them. How sweet it is!

The two newest inductees to decorate the walls of that famous watering hole, Sardi's, are, on this particular matinee day, between shows, sitting at a corner table, basking in the newfound glory that hovers above them. How sweet it is!

As top bananas in 42nd Street, Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman give the tap spectacular a one-two comedy punch — from supporting positions, but it's enough to rate them their caricatures on the wall.

"This is for all the people who have been in the business forever," declares Testa, gesturing at her case-in-point. "We've done a lot of yeoman's work, and this is a lovely honor. I burst into tears when it happened to me. The week before, I was having these anxiety dreams that, when they unveiled the drawing, it would be a picture of Satan. I guess I was so relieved it wasn't Satan that I got overwhelmed and cried."

Freeman surveys the celebrity caricatures around him, plainly pleased to be in that number: "I've been coming here for 30 years, seeing all the pictures, wondering 'What do you have to do to get on the wall at Sardi's?'" And what did he find out? He answers that with a sheepish shrug: "You just keep doing what you're doing, I guess."

Certainly, that worked for him — just as it worked for Testa, who has been in the biz a quarter of a century herself. Both are crackerjack character actors with a penchant for comedy a mile wide, so it was inevitable their paths would cross before the 42nd Street juncture. Three years ago they did On the Town together — but were never onstage at the same time. After that, they popped up in the same scene, sporting the same Russian accent (she as the countess, he as the ballet teacher), in a Bay Street Theatre revival of You Can't Take It With You. Then they did a duet for a salute to Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Now, they are Comden and Green (fictional facsimiles named Maggie Jones and Bert Barry) and find themselves, extending their symbiotic relationship beyond the footlights, finishing each other's sentences. "No one can quite figure out what our characters are," Freeman admits. (Maggie 'n' Bert didn't exist in the fabled 1933 film on which the musical is based, but were invented for the stage version to cover a multitude of plot functions and carry the comic load.) "We say early on that we're the writers and the producers and we do comedy parts in the show within the show. In a way, it's quite crippling to say that. You're saying, 'We're going to be the funny people.' Then, if you don't get the laughs or aren't feeling particularly funny, you've set yourself up. Laughs are never a sure thing."

You don't have to go very far to find Serious Actors lurking under their comic mien. Freeman doesn't harbor a Hamlet, but Testa would love a shot at Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. "People have come to just expect me to be funny," she contends. "It's the business. People pigeonhole you, and you have a hard time getting seen for serious stuff. You can't be funny unless you know the serious side of things."

Freeman seconds that motion, and the two bat about some Exhibit A's — Ed Wynn, Nathan Lane, Zero Mostel, Jason Graae — before he concludes, "Your Honor, we rest our case."

Then, the fugitives from 42nd Street table their discussion till another day. There's salmon to down before they shuffle off to Buffalo and enter, once again, laughing.

—By Harry Haun