Marrying for Mama

Special Features   Marrying for Mama Faith Prince finds a touch of Chekhov in the meddling mom she plays in the new musical A Catered Affair.
Faith Prince
Faith Prince Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Bells are ringing again on Broadway for Faith Prince, who nabbed her Tony 15 years ago for Miss Adelaide, "the well-known fiancée" of that artful altar-dodger, Nathan Detroit, in Guys and Dolls. Now she is conspicuously queuing up to collect a companion Tony for the no less marriage-minded Aggie Hurley in A Catered Affair at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Unlike Ever-lovin' Adelaide, whose 14-year-long engagement played havoc with her upper respiratory tract, Aggie is very much in the bridal driver's seat — even if she's not the bride, exactly (at least, literally). And instead of Adelaide's militant "Marry the Man Today," we have Aggie's daughter Janey's unsentimental Marry the Man Tomorrow (so that Bride and Groom can avail themselves of a sudden offer to drive a friend's car from The Bronx to L.A. and pretend they're on a free honeymoon).

Aggie, herself a victim of a sudden marriage (and still longing for the lace and lavishness of a big wedding), throws a flying wedge into the elopement, and the conflicts begin — not the least of which is paying for it (a major money strain for her shabby-cabby hubby).

To call Aggie the Momma Rose of weddings overstates it a bit, but not by much. "If you'd talked to me in San Diego, I might have said that," Prince admits. [The musical tried out at the Old Globe there and raked in seven area awards, including an easy win for Prince.] "Actually, Aggie is quite different from Momma Rose. She's not brash and brassy. She's cold and controlling, but soon you see what she has endured. You see she doesn't really know if her husband loves her because they had to get married. As in life, it's never the present stuff — it's what it triggers in the past. I think Aggie is more a Chekhov woman."

Early television's "poet of the pavement," Paddy Chayefsky, created "A Catered Affair" for "The Philco Television Playhouse" of May 22, 1955, starring Pat Henning and Thelma Ritter. A year later Gore Vidal adapted it into an MGM movie for Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis. Now, Harvey Fierstein has turned both of the above into a Broadway musical — with songs by John Bucchino — and retailored the uncle-of-the-house (Barry Fitzgerald) into an openly gay florist, for himself.

Director John Doyle — previously a Tony-winning (Sweeney Todd) and Tony-nominated (Company) interpreter of Sondheim — here places his bets on the Broadway-bowing Bucchino. You've heard of The Horse Whisperer; his casts refer to Doyle as The Actor Whisperer, and Prince is the latest to praise his gentle methods of righting a character.

"He always makes you feel great about yourself. Even if you're not going the right way, you never know it because he leads you to where you should be without ever making you feel you weren't there. I can't tell you what that does for an actor. It's good parenting. He takes me places I've never been."

For starters, Doyle has increased Prince's multi-tasking skills. She acts, sings and dances as always but here while making beds, peeling potatoes, scrambling eggs — all the dreary dailiness that is her life, all onstage. Prince breezes through this "because of the way John works. He does everything in repetition so you always know what you're doing. It's my favorite way to work. It supports the play, too, because this mundane stuff is Aggie's whole life till she stops and takes stock. But she stays busy up to that moment."

A Catered Affair is a low-rent, blue-collar "Father of the Bride" — a nuptial taffy-pull among the bride (Leslie Kritzer), her inner-conflicted parents (Tom Wopat and Prince) and, oh yes, that forgotten man, the groom (Matt Cavenaugh) — all played out at exactly life-size.

Faith Prince with Tom Wopat in A Catered Affair.
photo by Jim Cox

"This is the fifth time Tom and I have worked together, and we've always had great chemistry," says Prince. [He was Billy Bigelow to her Carrie Pipperidge in a Kennedy Center Carousel and a replacement Sky Masterson to her Adelaide on Broadway; plus they teamed for a Harold Arlen tour and a nightclub cabaret act.] "He's just wonderful. And Leslie Kritzer, who plays my daughter — there's such trust there. It feels like she is my daughter, which is strange because we're not warm onstage, but we are offstage." Jerome Robbins' Broadway began Prince's Broadway career, handpicked by The Master. "I was really his kind of girl. I always thought I was born 30 years too late and, if I wasn't right for that show, I'd better reconsider and do something else. Thank God he put me in it." And Robbins' faith was rewarded with the first of Faith's three Tony nominations.

Next came Lorraine Bixby, who arrived D.O.A and only lingered for nine performances in Nick & Nora. She was the murder victim the title sleuths were investigating and would pop up periodically throughout the evening in telling flashbacks. It was also the last time she created an original role for Broadway — until now.

"I feel like I have a purpose in this play, and that gives me great joy because nothing makes me happier than to affect people. I really feel that's my God-given gift in life."

Aggie is a gift, too, giving people someone other than Adelaide with the Prince imprint. "For some reason, people really related to her. They'd see me as someone else and say, 'Well, you're not Miss Adelaide.' Well, I never was. I'm Faith, and Faith is many different things. It's a myth comediennes can't go another way. The mere mention someone's a comic means there's gotta be darkness there somewhere. That's what makes the comedy. It's a choice to cope, somehow, with something. It's so funny when people go, 'Oh, I had no idea you could do that.' Well, of course, of course, I can do that. I act."

Leslie Kritzer and Faith Prince in A Catered Affair.
Leslie Kritzer and Faith Prince in A Catered Affair. Jim Cox