Jill Heads Back Up the Hill

Special Features   Jill Heads Back Up the Hill Long absent from Broadway, Jill Clayburgh makes up for lost time this season with a welcome return in not one but two comedies
Jill Clayburgh
Jill Clayburgh

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When you've been kissed full on the lips by fame — as Jill Clayburgh was with a series of hit flicks in the late seventies — the afterglow never really goes away. It's there still, flickering in one of the back corners of Craftbar as she pores over the menu for a noonday repast.

One item catches her eye and brings a smile. "Lamb's-quarters," she says. "You wouldn't think lamb's-quarters would be a vegetable, would you? But it is." This useful little tidbit she picked up at the first reading of A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, the new Richard Greenberg antic that brings her back to Broadway after a 20-year intermission.

"When the play begins, she is making a salad of 49 ingredients, one of which is lamb's-quarters." By "she," she means Bess Lapin, Greenberg's version of a cuisine queen, replete with a TV cooking-show, a series of best-selling cookbooks and a mulligan stew of a home life. She and her fuzzy-headed hubby, an absent-minded-professor type played by Richard Thomas, adopt an Asian son, a Hispanic daughter and, for flavor, a Caucasian son — virtually a mini-U.N. that gives their liberal beliefs a kick in the pants.

"This really expands the idea of prejudices. I don't know Greenberg's work, but I'm sure he's very interested in prejudice against all kinds of supposed taboos. This is a very liberal couple. They're so liberal, they put liberals down — very hip and modern, and they find themselves suddenly faced with a situation they can't deal with." A Naked Girl on the Appian Way plays the American Airlines Theatre and will run through December 4. Then, later in December, Clayburgh starts rehearsing for her second Broadway siege of the season, joining Patrick Wilson, Amanda Peet and Tony Roberts in the first Broadway revival of Neil Simon's 1963 Barefoot in the Park, which is scheduled to open in February 2006.

In both comedies she plays a part she has been honing to a fare-thee-well her two decades away from Broadway — that of Mother. "What's interesting about these two roles is the way they're worlds apart," she says. In Barefoot she's a widow getting an amorous rush from the bohemian neighbor of her honeymooning daughter, fending him off with quaint old-guard morality. "People then didn't sleep together before they got married so there's all this sexual energy between the two of them — this starting a new life, it's so romantic.

"It's hard for me to think of it this way, but Barefoot now is really a period piece. Here's this woman whose life is basically over. Her husband has died, she lives in New Jersey, she's constantly thinking of how she can get into her daughter's life. She doesn't have a life of her own. Whatever age she is, it's sort of an end. 'You aren't going to have another chance.' Then she does. That's what is so much fun. In the Greenberg play it's not even thought about. She's a woman who's at the prime of everything wonderful in her life."

Two plays in a single season are sure signs of a comeback kicking in — no small thanks to formidable examples and helpful hands at home. Her husband of 27 years, David Rabe, enjoyed a hit Off-Broadway revival of Hurlyburly, directed by Scott Elliott, who, out of the blue one fine day, phoned up Mrs. Rabe and invited her to give Barefoot in the Park a reading.

Then, one of the two reasons she gave up Broadway — Lily Rabe — suddenly emerged, of all things, a Broadway actress, stealing thunder and glory from some very seasoned veterans in Steel Magnolias. The irony of this turn of events is deepening these days now that Clayburgh, a Connecticut resident, is rooming with her daughter, who is working another part of the theatrical forest (Off-Broadway's Lortel Theatre) in Colder Than Here through October 15.

When did Clayburgh realize she had an actress on her hands? "When she announced it to me," she shoots back. "As Lily says — with glee, to anyone who asks — we didn't encourage her to be an actress. For obvious reasons. It's not an easy go. If you're successful, it's disruptive in terms of having a family and a life. If you're not successful, it's really bad."

The blossoming of Lily, in a unique way, brought Clayburgh back to Broadway. "Israel Horovitz has this theatre in Massachusetts, Gloucester Stage. It's right on the beach. I prepare by looking out the back at the water. It's so beautiful. He said to me, 'Let's do something,' the way people say, 'Let's have dinner.' I said, 'Well, write something for me. Write something for me and Lily.' He said, 'Okay.' And he did. It was called Speaking Well of the Dead. Then Frank Pugliese wrote something for us, The Crazy Girl, and we did that. I really enjoyed doing those plays. They got me excited about doing theatre again."

Like daughter, like mother. Jill Clayburgh arrived in the first wave of feminist films, which included her two Oscar-nominated performances (An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over) and an Oscar-winning one she turned down (Norma Rae). Strong, independent women didn't go out of style. They've just become mothers.

And hers enter laughing…

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