There are harder things for a screen beauty to do, eight days after her 68th birthday, than step onto a stage for the first time in her life, but Ali MacGraw can't think of them. "Maybe physical things," she says, pondering the possibilities. "I'm not sure I want to be in the Amazon when an anaconda wraps itself around my neck, but this is right up there."
Yet there she is, sitting regal and upright stage center at the Music Box Theatre at a huge, sprawling dining table that seats 11, conflicts to the left of her, conflicts to the right, trying to muster some matriarchal poise and dignity amid the galloping domestic dysfunction going on around her. The play, by David Eldridge, is Festen, which is Danish for "celebration" and based on a 1998 film that's the prize bauble of Denmark's Dogme 95 cinematic movement, which spartanly eschews the established Hollywood conventions. As originally written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, the film is a study of a family coming apart at the seams when a prodigal son lifts his glass to toast his father's birthday.
It's a long way from "Love Story," and MacGraw is as amazed as you probably are to find she's aboard and on Broadway. "Every single piece of this ritual is new to me," she insists in italics. "Not even in the eighth grade did I do theatre" - no, she takes that back: "I was an autumn leaf once - one of those little kids that lands with a thud at the back of the auditorium and the stage shakes." Which isn't much to build a dream on, but then this wasn't her dream. "It wasn't like I was sitting in my high school math class thinking that one day I want to be on Broadway. It just never occurred to me that this would happen."
How then? "I have a lovely agent who said, 'You should be working, blah blah blah,' and put my name out there. 'It's an ensemble play,' she said, 'and you don't have that much dialogue, but they're interested in you for the mother.' I said, 'God, do they know I've not been in front of a camera in ten years?' She said, 'Yes.' I said I'd have to meet the director because he'd have to think I could do it. I mean, why would he? I don't come to the party with any credentials except some leftover celebrity from a different time." So MacGraw arranged to cross paths with Rufus Norris, who directed the acclaimed London production and repeats that task here. "He flew into New York at one on a Sunday. I came the night before. We met at three, and both of us went home that night. I told him, 'You know I haven't done this, on any level, in my life?' He said yes, and then he said something great. He said, 'Frankly, when your name came up, I was completely stunned.' I said, 'Not half as stunned as I was.' No, I didn't look for it. I didn't prepare it. It came so out of nowhere that I thought it came to me because I needed to do it."
Now, she's sure of it. "It matters, this play. It's about something really important. It's a beautiful piece of theatre art, and these are the best people to do it - Larry Bryggman, Jeremy Sisto, Michael Hayden, Julianna Margulies. What a privilege to get a chance to join that line. Even though mine is a small part, we're all interrelated. I'm not standing in the back, in a party dress in some sitcom, saying, 'Would you like a martini, honey?' Why do that? And that's worth tons of money. In that case, I'd rather go to the Himalayas and feel like I've had some experience. This is an experience. This will change my life."
There has always been more to Ali MacGraw than meets the eye. "I've worked since I was 14, and I didn't do Those Three Movies until I was almost 30, so obviously I knew how to do a lot of other things," she points out. "I write, I draw, I design, I do yoga, I have activist issues." She actually racked up seven features during her heyday somewhere in the Age of Aquarius, but she only counts Nos. 2-4: "Goodbye, Columbus," which made her a star; "Love Story," which made her an Oscar nominee; and "The Getaway," which made her Mrs. Steve McQueen. She has a son, Joshua (35, and a film director), by her first husband, Robert Evans, who produced "Love Story" and was preparing "The Great Gatsby" and "Chinatown" for her till McQueen entered the picture. She never utters, especially upon request, the line she made famous: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."
To keep this date on Broadway, she made it out of the macrame and stucco of Santa Fe, where she has lived the past decade. "My house in L.A. burned down, so I took that as a cosmic note to get out of town. I lost everything, but nobody died or got hurt. I think to have lasted as long as I have and come out of whatever those ten years were about - which were wonderful, but they weren't acting - was worth it to work with Rufus and all these actors. I think that being away from it all for a decade gave me the courage to try this."