PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Freeze Frame in Frozen

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Freeze Frame in Frozen
 
The audience-participation portion of Frozen, Bryony Lavery's disturbing new play about pedophilia and punishment, at Circle in the Square, occurs in Act II and lasts about 16 seconds — or did, May 4, on opening night.
From Top: Laila Robins, Swoosie Kurtz (center), and Brian F. O'Byrne, Bryony Lavery, Martha Plimpton (left) and Barnard Hughes, Lucy Liu, Cherry Jones, Peter Gaiten, David Marshal Grant, Robert Cuccioli, Brian Dennehy, and John Patrick Shanley
From Top: Laila Robins, Swoosie Kurtz (center), and Brian F. O'Byrne, Bryony Lavery, Martha Plimpton (left) and Barnard Hughes, Lucy Liu, Cherry Jones, Peter Gaiten, David Marshal Grant, Robert Cuccioli, Brian Dennehy, and John Patrick Shanley Photo by Aubrey Reuben

During this small eternity, a serial killer of young girls (Brian F. O'Byrne) lays eyes on the mother of one of his victims (Swoosie Kurtz) and their eyes lock in silence. Everyone else in the theatre goes on dog whistle. You sense brain waves around you, going into overdrive, scribbling their own dialogue.

What the two actors are thinking is a puzzlement — and remains one. "Oh, I can't tell you that," Kurtz replied to this direct question later at the post-performance party at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse on West 51st. "That's a professional secret. Different things. Very, very different things. It's so profound and yet so ordinary the things I'm thinking. Some things you would expect me to think, some things you would never in a million years believe."

It gets her there. O'Byrne, an artful dodger, opted for enigmatic and answered with a grin: "You know, it's more important what you're thinking of than what I'm thinking of."

Kurtz seconded that — "Everyone is grafting onto what they're thinking" — and both professed amazement that the pause was that long. "We never know how long that's going to go," the actress admitted. "Brian and I have no idea what's happening next."

Coming from polar opposites, they just have that one scene together, full of tentative stops and starts and large blanks for the audience to fill in. Otherwise, they solo or they play to a third party, Laila Robins, an American social worker investigating serial killing in Britain, something of an unsteady sounding board for the two to speak of their pain. "It's interesting," said Robins, "because my character's secret is not revealed until the end so I've got to hold it away from the audience, and sometimes that feels like I'm alone."

But she was ecstatic about the company she does keep on stage. "It's heaven. Swoosie's the consummate professional with a heart of gold. Brian, with his unruly antics, keeps us laughing backstage a lot — and, with this heavy material, that's a godsend, believe me."

That little-known sense of humor, helping him through one of the darkest roles of his career, was in evidence the night before his Broadway opening when he picked up a Best Actor prize (the Lucille Lortel Award) for originating this performance Off-Broadway — a confidence-building turn of events if ever there was one! "I think everyone should do it."

Daniel Sunjata, a Tony nominee last year, announced OByrne's win but mispronounced his name (it's "Breehan O'Burn"). The winner corrected the error but conceded that, if he took his clothes off as Sunjata did in Take Me Out, he would never be up for any awards.

Frozen's unexpected, last-minute run for Broadway caught O'Byrne off-guard. He was to play Mitch to Patricia Clarkson's Blanche and Amy Ryan's Stella in the Streetcar Named Desire that is currently making a stop at the Kennedy Center salute to Tennessee Williams. Noah Emmerich took over the part. "When you're in a part like this and you get a chance to do it on Broadway, you do it — but it was a tough decision because [Streetcar director] Garry [Hynes] is a very good friend of mine and she is a big believer in me and personally takes risks for me more than anybody else." In point of fact, she directed him to his two Tony nominations (for The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West).

The real possibilities of a third nod for O'Byrne — and a third win for Kurtz — spurred the push to Broadway for Manhattan Class Company's co-artistic directors Robert LuPone and Bernard Telsey. "The convergence of drama with regard to directing, acting, writing in one production is so rare," said LuPone. "This production manifests that, and it's worth fighting for."

"It's an honor to be involved with this," admitted London based co-producer Frederick Zollo, "and all the credit has to go to Bernie and Bobby — or, as I call them, The Killer B's because they put together this whole theatre company a few years ago and look at the body of work already. It's what The Public used to be when Joe Papp was around."

Shifting gears dramatically , Zollo said his next Broadway endeavor will probably be his Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, flying car and all — that in March, probably with Aspects of Love's Michael Ball reprising his role of Caractacus Potts. And he liked the idea of finding a place for the still active and acting Sally Ann Howes, Truly Scrumptious in the 1968 movie musical. "Oh, man, it would be great to have her. She was great in The Dead."

He said the new David Mamet play might get in the Broadway express lane before Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It's untitled. Zollo referred to it as "[expletive deleted]."

Roy Gabay, another of the show's go-for-it producers, admitted to being happily amazed at crossing the finish line. "It was very hard," he said. "Three weeks ago we stood in the theatre, and we didn't know if it was going to happen. It was that close. And we just said, 'It's gotta happen.' Everybody came together and made it happen. I think it really fits the space well at Circle in the Square. The play finally has a chance to breathe."

Breathing was indeed a problem for author Lavery. At one point in the play, one of her characters advises another to "just breathe," but, the playwright noted, "did I take that advice? No. It was fantastic, except that I forgot to breathe from the moment I came to the theatre."

At the end of the play came the cherry on the sundae. O'Byrne summoned Lavery to the stage to take a bow for "her Broadway daboo" and presented her with a bouquet of roses. Kurtz and Robins presented her with their bouquets and knelt at her feet. Then, all ushered her off on Cloud Nine. Left on stage was the playwright's outsized handbag, and, when she was asked at the party if she got her bag back, she said, never very distressed, "I hope so."

The baggage she did leave on stage was a reflection of the research she put in on the subject of serial killing. "I read loads of stuff, and there are so many different cases represented in the play, bits here and there. I wrote the play because I'd been listening to 'Silence of the Lambs' and all those things about 'brilliant serial killers,' and I thought, 'You know, I don't think they are brilliant. I think they're stupid. It's the least creative act in the world.' So that's when I decided that that was what I should pursue as a play."

Another debut of note marked by Frozen was that of its director, Doug Hughes, who previously toiled with distinction regionally and Off-Broadway. "It's wonderful to make my debut with this play in particular, a real privilege to do a piece you have a fervor for."

Because of the play's sudden Broadway agenda, it meant a lot of fierce juggling with a prior Off-Broadway commitment. Almost simultaneously, he staged a hilarious revival of Arthur Sullivan's Engaged — which seems a little like going back and forth from 33-and-a-third to 78. "No, it wasn't so bad. They were the antidotes to each other so it was easy."

Giving himself two big days off, Hughes begins workshopping an Alfred Uhry play he did previously at the Hartford Stage called Edgardo Mine, about the Vatican kidnapping of a six-year-old Jewish boy in 1875. Brian Murray would play The Pope, and Robert LuPone would be his cardinal. Also lined up are Tim Blake Nelson (The Beard of Avon for Hughes) and Jessica Hecht. "We'll go out to the Guthrie and work some more on it."

At the party, he formed his own family picture by joining his (and the world's) "Da," Barnard Hughes, his recently Tony-nominated actress mom, Helen Stenborg and his sister, Laura Hughes, a new mother who just got back into the acting swim with a "Law & Order." Advised Da, in a mock gruff: "Get rid of the kid, and go to work again." Taking his own advice, he was seen shop-talking with director Melvin Bernhardt. They both won Tonys for Da in 1978. Bernhardt goes back even farther with Kurtz, even before their original 1970 Off-Broadway run of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. "She played all three girls during the course of that run," said Bernhardt. "We've always joked about her playing the mother and then, eventually, the old lady."

The opening night audience wasn't an especially starry group, save for a "Charlie's Angel" that alighted out of nowhere (Lucy Liu, on the arm of screenwriter Zack Helm), but it was thick with actors: Swoosie's Imaginary Friend, Cherry Jones, was there with her Flesh and Blood playwright, Peter Gatiens. Actor-author David Marshall Grant was there with his Snakebit muse, Geoffrey Nauffts, who has been turning writer himself of late and even directing pilot presentations for Fox. Doris Roberts was enjoying her last night off before she starts City Center's five-day run of Bye Bye Birdie with Dan Jenkins and Karen Ziemba. Alive and well and walking around radiant after Sixteen Wounded fell was Martha Plimpton. Just out of spotlight shot, was Robins' longtime beau, Robert Cuccioli, who's opening June 5 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in his first (high school, yet) role — Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. ("Hopefully, I've gotten a little bit better," he post scripted.)

Father and son from Broadway's last Long Day's Journey Into NightBrian Dennehy and Robert Sean Leonard — made the scene, Dennehy fresh from a Trinity Rep revival of another O'Neill: Hughie with Joe Grifasi. He'll do more work on it in Chicago with Robert Falls. ("We've got to come up with another curtain-raiser. It's pretty short, only 50 minutes.")

Playwright John Patrick Shanley wasn't actually humming "Curtain up," but he could have been. "I'm opening up Manhattan Theatre Club's next season with Doubt, which Doug Hughes will direct. It's a period piece — 1964 — The Bronx -church school. I know a lot about that. And I'm opening the LAByrinth Theatre season as well with a play called Sailor's Dance. It's about 40 percent dance. Very romantic, poignant thing about two merchant seaman and the women in their lives. Chris McGarry, who was in my last play Dirty Story as an actor, will direct. I thought, 'He's very smart. Let's give him a shot.' And I'm supposed to open Second Stage's season with a revival of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, but I'm a bit nervous about that. It may be too many. I have to see if I can do it."

And what is Shanley not saying? Anything about the Henry Krieger-Susan Birkenhead musical he was working on based on his Oscar-winning "Moonstruck" script. What gives?

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