PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Cherry Jones

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Cherry Jones Cherry Jones, perhaps the preeminent American theatre actress of our time, last appeared on the New York stage as a champion swimmer in Lincoln Center Theatre's production of Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing. Now she's back as another strapping, athletic heroine, this time a search and-rescue pilot in Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird, now in previews at the Public Theatre. Jones talked with Playbill On-Line about Claptrap, coriander cookies and her misunderstood desire to do musical theatre.
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Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Cherry Jones, perhaps the preeminent American theatre actress of our time, last appeared on the New York stage as a champion swimmer in Lincoln Center Theatre's production of Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing. Now she's back as another strapping, athletic heroine, this time a search and-rescue pilot in Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird, now in previews at the Public Theatre. Jones talked with Playbill On-Line about Claptrap, coriander cookies and her misunderstood desire to do musical theatre.

Playbill On-Line: What was your most embarrassing moment in the theatre?
Cherry Jones: The first one that pops into my mind is about The Heiress. Halfway into The Heiress, I went to the prop table to pick of a tray of sherry glasses and coriander cookies. Dr. Slocum and his sister are arguing softly and I come in and interrupt them with my sherry and cookies. Well, I never really looked at the tray that night for some reason. I was preoccupied. I brought the tray up and I saw Donald Moffat and Frances Sternhagen's faces break into these huge, tortured smiles. It was so strange. I saw them maneuver so their backs were almost completely to the audience. They were really stumbling with their lines. And I thought, what in the world is going on with them? It was at that moment that I realized that there were little Poland Spring drinking cups covering the sherry glasses. They were dangling on top of these little tiny sherry glasses, doing a little Poland Spring dance. I don't know how I managed to get out the rest of my lines. Bless the audience at that evening's performance! Every single person that came back after the show thought they were some sort of 19th-century covers for sherry glasses. They just went with it.

PBOL: What credit couldn't you wait to get off your resume?
CJ: I guess I always chalk everything up to experience. So, there's never any one I'd erase from my credentials. But there were some I was glad would eventually become buried. One was Claptrap, which Nathan Lane and I did in our youth at Manhattan Theatre Club in mid '80s. It was not successful. It was so rough that people would leave during the first act -- a lot of people -- not at intermission. Lynne Meadow would plead with people to stay, saying that the second act was much better and knowing damn well it wasn't. Nathan, one night, in the second act -- he was hopping around in a sleeping bag -- and he hopped to the lip of the stage and just started doing an extemporaneous monologue about the fact that the audience was watching the end of a man's career. Unfortunately, then we had to get back into the play after that, and we had 45 minutes left.

PBOL: Who is your favorite artist working in the theatre today?
CJ: I have three people who are touched with greatness, who, because they're not in the theatre, I've been allowed to play more parts! Diana Verona, Amanda Plummer and Meryl Streep. Because they left the theatre, many of us had better shots. You know, instead of talking about a favorite artist, I'd like to talk about one favorite production that I saw last year that was, for me, the best production I'd seen in years. That was, at New York Theatre Workshop, Ivo van Hove's More Stately Mansions, with Tim Hopper, Joan MacIntosh, and young Jenny Bacon -- she was just amazing. It was a thrilling combination of text, design and collaborators. You couldn't breath for three hours. I saw it late in the run, and they were just getting started.

PBOL: What is your dream role?
CJ: I thought for many years I should do Joan of Arc, because that's what we're supposed to do. But I've gotten to do so many great heroines and such a wide variety that I feel like I have done Saint Joan. And I'm really pushing it to play Joan at this point and I don't think I need to anymore. PBOL: You've never been big on film work. Have you changed your mind, or does it still sort of spook you?
CJ: I would like to do a little bit of film here and there just to keep working at every theatre in Manhattan and still make a living. I did an interview with Paula Vogel in The Advocate once. And somehow, what it said was that I wanted to concentrate on film and do musical theatre. If I said that, I was joking! I was so amazed when I saw that. I must have been very irreverent.

--By Robert Simonson