PLAYBILL AT OPENING NIGHT: Well : Chronic Kron

News   PLAYBILL AT OPENING NIGHT: Well : Chronic Kron Well —to begin a sentence with a noun—is alive and well and living at the Longacre Theatre happily-ever-afterish after two years of playing Off-Broadway and on the road and five years of writing and revising, including a last-ditch overhaul at the finish line.

Lisa Kron; Leigh Silverman; Jayne Houdyshell; John Hoffman; Joan Allen; Jerry Stiller; Anne Meara; Sidney Lumet; Liz Callaway; Phyllis Newman; Paul Rudnick; Cherry Jones.
Lisa Kron; Leigh Silverman; Jayne Houdyshell; John Hoffman; Joan Allen; Jerry Stiller; Anne Meara; Sidney Lumet; Liz Callaway; Phyllis Newman; Paul Rudnick; Cherry Jones. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

“Well, we worked very hard on the ending,” admitted Well ’s author-star, opting to lead with an interjection. By “we,” she (Lisa Kron ) meant her director (Leigh Silverman ), her surrogate mom and co-star (Jayne Houdyshell ) and a supporting cast of four (Daniel Breaker, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, John Hoffman and Christina Kirk ). A whole cast and its director haven’t made their collective Broadway debuts since--well, since Oct. 13, 2005, when Latinologues was launched at the Helen Hayes, but Well betters that record by two actors. Historians and Heaven only know when/if there was a more massive bow.

Kron’s “theatrical exploration” (her words—I almost said “play,” and perhaps I should, it being one of the best of the season) focuses, zoom lens-style, on sickness and wellness as it manifests itself in America, in her childhood neighborhood of Lansing and in her mom.

An established monologist who has dotted Off-Broadway with her autobiographical one-person shows (2.5 Minute Ride, 101 Humiliating Stories ), Kron begins business-as-usual, note cards in hand, then nudges the envelope a tad by announcing that Well will be “a solo show with other people in it.” Big mistake. Even as she speaks, she has lost the ball. Stretched out in the shadows of Stage Left—there before the audience files in—laid low on a La-Z-Boy, pretending to be asleep is a facsimile of Mother Kron, Ann by name and given an Obie-going-for-Tony-winning performance by Houdyshell.

Ann Kron is a former fireball reduced to smoldering embers by “allergies” and imagined illness that proved equally contagious to her daughter. In her prime, Ann integrated her suburb just to give Lisa a balanced view of the world; now she can be removed from her easy chair and TV remote only by an insistent diuretic. Lisa remembers Mama in a muumuu, half-living in her Lansing living room. But, once she awakes, it’s the monologist to pay.

Lisa is allowed only a few moments at the beginning and end of her own play to solo. As soon as the aroused Ann gets into the act—like sweetened Bethlehem Steel—interrupting nicely, sulking when rebuffed, ingratiating herself to the cast and to the audience, taking beverage and snack requests from any and all as if we’re all friends Lisa brought home from school. This is heavy-duty deconstruction on the fourth wall, which crumbles like a piece of cake, and even a major portion of the on-stage set winds up wrecked beyond repair by The Gang of Four whom Ann has charmingly mobilized to mutiny. Houdyshell even defects in the now-revised closing moments, returning a bare stage to the “soloist.” Thursday’s opening-night audience behaved like one, welcoming Lisa in her first official walk onto a Broadway stage with a protracted ovation. “And you haven’t seen anything yet,” she lightly chided them. Later she confessed, “It was thrilling, completely thrilling.”

The curtain call was robust and could have gone for seconds but didn’t. The four females in the cast were given great bouquets of flowers, in keeping with tradition even though the play (there, I said it) does its damnedest to dash tradition. (For a construct this complicated, it’s cuter than it has a right to be. Anyone born of woman can relate to its universality.)

Another thing that didn’t happen—and the audience was braced for it: Ann Kron, in the audience with her hubby, didn’t barrel down the aisle to take her place center stage. But she did find her seat of honor at the post-party and was holding forth like a mother.

She, too, said it was “thrilling—because when Lisa was small, I remember one day she said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Well, I would like to go live some place else, but then I think ‘No, I have to stay here and fight for the city,’ and I said, ‘Lisa you’ll find your own way to make your life useful'—but I never anticipated this . I feel honored by it, in spite of . . .”

Ann seemed to have made her peace with the poetic license and inexactness that plague the play and drive her stage persona up the wall. “I was threatening to write my own version of the play and pass it out at the back of the theatre after every performance—until Lisa said, ‘Oh, the producers would be so happy.’” The story stops dead in its tracks here.

But she did, in a magnanimous praise-from-Calpurnia gesture, predict stardom for her second-favorite-but-listing member of the ensemble: “I think Jayne is a marvel, and, if she doesn’t come out of this a major, major star, there’s something terribly wrong.”

Of course, this was a friend talking. The two—the character and the actress—have been tight since Well went so well in its world-premiere gig at The Public in spring of 2004.

Houdyshell recalled the cautious circling of each other at first: “We were both nervous about meeting one another,” she said, amending that to “Better I should say I wasn’t nervous about meeting Ann. I was nervous about her seeing the play and her seeing my representing her on stage, but once I learned she really liked what I was doing, it was okay. I mean, I think her worst fear was that she was going to come into a theatre and sit there and hear an audience laughing at her and her experience was that she came into the theatre and discovered an audience laughing with her. After that, we were comfortable.

“Subsequently, we have become really good friends. I actually went to Lansing to be with her and her husband for about a week and lived in the same house that Lisa grew up in.”

The actress’ “atmosphere soak” enhanced a role she was already crazy about and enlarged the character to Everywoman possibilities. “One of the things that’s kind of magical about Ann—the reason people like her—is because she reminds people of their own mother or some mother they’ve known in their childhood that was the mom who just had an open heart for everyone. Ann is really an open-hearted, loving human being, and she has a great sense of fairness and justice and integrity—political integrity, social integrity, personal integrity. There is just so much about her that I admire. What don’t I like?”

You may wonder the party site that Broadway’s Perle Mesta, Suzanne Tobak, picked for this mother-and-daughter Punch-and-Judy show. Would you believe the former Times Square restaurant extension of World Wrestling Entertainment: now, The Hard Rock Cafe.

“Why?” I asked as I passed her on the stairway into the vast black box with blaring rock music. “Because it’s convenient and new.” Sometimes, she speaks with great lucidity.

The one echo of the play that the party-planners came up with was a La-Z-Boy at the entranceway where female celebs playfully passed for cheesecake with the photographers.

Passing with flying colors was Joan Allen, in jeans and heels, with a hottie at her side. She looked a long way from Berkeley Square. (She arrived on the New York scene in a 1983 Steppenwolf import, C.P. Taylor’s And a Nightingale Sang , which won her the Clarence Derwent Award, the Theatre World Award and the Drama Desk Award. In spite of a Tony for Burn This! , many think it’s her best work. That, and The Upside of Anger .)

On April 8, Allen returns to her Steppenwolf roots in Chicago for the company’s 30th anniversary gala. Wolfgang Puck and Spaggo will rustle up the grub, and the alums anticipated are Terry Kinney, Lois Smith, Laurie Metcalf , directors Frank Galati and Eric Simonson, John Mahoney, Tim Hopper, John Heard and Austin Pendleton (who is directing the world premiere of John Kolvenbach ’s Love Song that very night.)

Molly Shannon , in black lace, also writhed around in the chair provocatively. “I saw the play at The Public,” said she, a fierce enthusiast of the piece. “There’s so many things you can miss. The material is so rich. You can have a different experience seeing it again.”

The new material helps, too. And so does the familiarity of the turf. Because the mother’s takeover of the play is like taking a dinosaur by the tail and flipping the animal back and forth, it’s easy to miss the endless variations of Lisa’s hysterical hysteria. The second time around, it all becomes clear and clean—from Edgar Kennedy slow burn to eye-rolling bewilderment to open-mouth disbelief to you-must-excuse-my-mother to sour surrender.

Whose play is it anyway? It will be interesting to see how the two actresses fit into the Tony categories. If Kron comes up starring (true to her starring billing) and Houdyshell comes up supporting (she’s billed last, as an afterthought, with an “and”), they will probably square off against another mother-daughter donnybrook: Rabbit Hole ’s Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly . If they’re stars, they will probably be facing Julia Roberts .

The balance of these two actress is amusingly disproportional in Tony Walton ’s set-design scheme of things. “The apartment is probably only an eighth of the stage, and the rest of it is just sort of backstage working,” he figured. “It isn’t really cramped, but we were trying to do that because it had been such a small space downtown.” Walton’s vision looks like an overstuffed sliver of a gingerbread house, with a mass of tchotchkes adding to the chaos.

Some of his design ideas came from the actual Kron home in Lansing. “My assistant Kelly went there and took an enormous amount of photographs. Lisa had taken a number of photographs, too. All of those were very, very helpful.” His big challenge, of course, was when Lisa’s seven-eighth portion of the stage goes to rack and ruin. “The tricky thing was to make the accidents look accidental. When you think about the chandelier falling in Phantom of the Opera, you think, ‘Well, I guess I get what they mean, but it didn’t exactly do it.’ But we were keen to make it look like the set was really being wrecked.”

Walton’s next Broadway work will be a mite more majestic and massive: He’s designing A Tale of Two Cities . Eight individuals and four companies were required to bring Lisa’s Well to Broadway. Elizabeth Ireland McCann and Scott Rudin were lead producers, and, in addition to the veteran moneybags like Terry Allen Kramer, Roger Berlind and Carole Shortenstein Hays , there were a couple of uptown newcomers: John Dias and Larry Hirschhorn .

Hirschhorn, founding artistic director of the Melting Pot Theatre Company (MPTC), found the fast track pretty exhilarating. “Why not take chances and do different things on Broadway?” he reasoned. “I think it kinda mixes it up a little.” This experience has broadened his horizons enough to go back for seconds with the same team and Liz McCann producing. “We’ll probably open in October at...one of the smaller Broadway houses with the Butley revival Nathan Lane is doing.” Lane already tested the waters, as it were, three years ago at the Huntington in Boston, diving off the high board into a deep vat of black as a literary professor who loses his wife and his male lover on the same day. The lover in that production was Benedick Bates, whose father Alan was the original, Tony-winning Butley of 1972 and who died at 69 of cancer two days short of a month after the revival had concluded its engagement.

Diaz’s life partner, Michael Cumpsty, helped glitter up the opening, having been pretty much M.I.A. since his Hamlet at CSC last year. “I’ve been teaching, directing a project for the NYU graduate students,” he explained. “I’m directing Richard II, and I might—although this is not definite—play it in the fall at CSC Rep where I did Hamlet.”

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara made the scene—their second play-opening in a row. The previous night they were at The God Committee, which was lorded over by Meara’s pal and After-Play co-star, Larry Keith. “Tonight we’re here for Liz McCann,” she said, but they skipped both post-parties. “I don’t like missing ‘The Daily Show,’” explained Meara.

Others who caught the play and not the party included director Sidney Lumet, who just proved—at 81—he can bat over a Noo Yawk crime yarn and courtroomer better than anybody with Find Me Guilty (which he cast to the gills with New York actors); Liz Callaway (“doing a lot of traveling” and concert work); Phyllis Newman (whose recent Nothing Like a Dame benefit raised $300,000 for her Women’s Health Initiative); producer Daryl Roth (who’s having a cinematic Buschfire these days—next month a fiction feature Charles Busch wrote, directed and starred in called A Very Special Person, and this month the documentary on him The Lady in Question Is Charles Busch).

Claudia Shear came in blowing sideways with a suddenly graying NYTW head James C. Nicola (as well she should since her career got into gear at New York Theatre Workshop). Currently, Shear is writing the book to go with Mark Hollman’s songs for a stage musical remaking of My Man Godfrey, the fourth Carole Lombard movie to be musicalized for Broadway (after Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred and They Knew What They Wanted—which became On the Twentieth Century, Hazel Flagg and The Most Happy Fella). She’s not writing it for herself (“Pa-lease, I’m married!” she offered by way of an explanation), but there’s a role in it she’d be perfect for—and she knew of what I spoke, instantly breaking into a brassy Molly the maid done by the divine Jean Dixon.

Always up for a good laugh, Paul Rudnick was mysteriously mum about his new play which will be directed, as usual, by Christopher Ashley—so it must be about to happen at Manhattan Theatre Club. The comedy updates the sex-strike situation of Lysistrata to embrace the current battle for same-sex marriage. (A gay walker of a rich matron learns her husband has headed to the White House to work on anti-gay-marriage amendments and protests by getting his walker pals to walk out on their dowagers they escort.)

No truth to the rumor that Cherry Jones, dragging a chain, wistfully roams West 48th where she was in Doubt for so long. She laughed at the illusion on her way into the Longacre directly across the street from her former “office,” now happily inhabited by Eileen Atkins. These days Jones is rehearsing Brian Friel’s Faith Healer all by her lonesome, as well she could (the play consists of four monologues in two acts). Ingrid Craigie is playing her part now in Ireland with Ralph Fiennes and Ian McDiarmid, who open here at the Booth with Jones on May 4. The lonely rehearsal is fine with Jones. “I don’t want to know what all the boys are saying. I don’t care. They have their stories, I have mine. They close this week in Dublin. [Director] Jonathan Kent, who’s the mensch of the world, has been working with me the last four days. He’s flying over to London tonight, then flies to Dublin on Saturday and he sees the closing performance, and then flies back to London on Sunday and on to New York. We rehearse on Monday.”

The forgotten man of the evening, Walter Kron, was quite conspicuous at the play and party, but content to let his wife and daughter luxuriate in the spotlight. Maybe he was happy in the knowledge he got his Lisa Kron play first. Her 1996 solo show, 2.5 Minute Ride, is about two trips they took: to Auschwitz, and to the Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, OH. “Now, my parents can argue about which one of them got the best show,” laughed the playwright who kept the fifth commandment literally and in spades.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben