PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Naked Girl on the Appian Way

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Naked Girl on the Appian Way Despite his saucy, continental title—A Naked Girl on the Appian Way—Richard Greenberg has rustled himself up a highly domestic comedy
Way-farers: Richard Greenberg, Doug Hughes, David Rabe and Jill Clayburgh, Matthew Morrison, Susan Kelechi Watson, Todd Haimes, Walter Bobbie, Jane Alexander, Amy Irving, Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott and Blair Brown.
Way-farers: Richard Greenberg, Doug Hughes, David Rabe and Jill Clayburgh, Matthew Morrison, Susan Kelechi Watson, Todd Haimes, Walter Bobbie, Jane Alexander, Amy Irving, Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott and Blair Brown. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove, who produced Greenberg's last two Broadway outings (The Violet Hour and the Tony-winning Take Me Out), were in attendance along with Roundabout biggies Todd Haimes and Gene Feist, directors Kathleen Marshall (who's doing the next AA opus, The Pajama Game), Scott Ellis and Walter Bobbie, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and a strong outpouring of actors like the freshly Emmy-ed Jane Alexander, Anthony Edwards, Tony Roberts, Margaret Colin, Eli Wallach (in a baseball cap) and Anne Jackson, Amy Irving, Michael Arden, Jim Dale, T. Scott Cunningham and Simon Jones. Like I said, The Family of Theatre.

Above and beyond the support to Greenberg, it's safe to say most of the above were there to welcome back to The Great White Way a wonderful, much-missed star. When Broadway last saw Jill Clayburgh, she was simpering as best such could in an amorous arm-pull between Frank Langella and the late Raul Julia in Noel Coward's Design for Living—then, there was a blink of two decades—and now she's back, playing (as she does in real life) a mom to twentysomethings. The ones in the play come with complications.

Specifically, she plays something of a cuisine queen who authors cookbooks and runs a tight Martha Stewart kitchen. (For exercise, she spends much of the first scene preparing an exotic salad that requires 49 different ingredients.) She lives with her fuddy-duddy hubby (Richard Thomas, himself a long way down the road from John Boy Walton) and their three now grown, adopted, internationally checkered children (Take Me Out's James Yaegashi, The Light in the Piazza's Matthew Morrison and The Story's Susan Kelechi Watson). The last two have just returned from 17 months abroad—with some of those aforementioned complications which upend home-and-hearth. The less said, the better.

Otherwise, there seems to have been no interruption in service in the style and wit departments. Clayburgh glides gracefully, in her blonde and willowy way, above the churning conflicts of her children as if she has been honing her art to a fine point all these long years out of the limelight. She said she hasn't, but then again what would she say?

This: "It felt better tonight than I had remembered," she admitted, obviously relieved to be at last out of the starting gate. "Opening night is always a little nerve-racking, but I did have a good time. I did. I'm certainly glad to be back—and I'm back for the rest of my life." (Next stop is Barefoot in the Park, a revival of Neil Simon's play, which goes into rehearsal the day after Christmas with Amanda Peet, Tony Roberts and Patrick Wilson.) Thomas, since switching coasts last year, has been something of a daring young man on the flying trapeze in terms of continuous theatre employment, but he hasn't a clue what's coming next—beyond an installment in a Stephen King anthology series that TNT will film in January. "But, fortunately, this play will keep us busy until December. It's a fun play to do. Not only is it funny, but it's funny with meaning—with a lot of meaning."

Mind you, he didn't say it was easy. Given the kind of controversy that the comedy courts, the sledding gets a little rough and dodgy in spots. "Well, you know, making a souffle is difficult. A souffle is a hard thing to make because you have to be light, you have to have a lot of flavor, and you got to know you've had something when it's over—it's getting all those elements together, not laying too much into the drama, not keeping it too much on the surface, not intruding on the reality of the characters. All those things will give you comedy. I mean, that's not just this play, either. But we had a director who is an absolute genius. We have been very lucky indeed."

Said genius director, Doug Hughes, is also the most sought-after in town, the natural consequence of the award windfall (Tony included) that Doubt brought him last season. This fits into his oeuvre like an outcast—a contemporary comedy unlike what he usually does. But "I loved the play, and the company couldn't have been more delightful to work with. I've always wanted to work with Richard so it was a grand experience all around."

His best touch was the bright idea of bringing Clayburgh back to Broadway. "We did All My Sons with Richard Dreyfuss at Westport, and she was just magnificent in it. So, when I read this play, I thought it would be a perfect role for her. I think it's a great fit."

No rest for the weary, however. "Tomorrow morning, I'm training my eye on A Touch of the Poet. We start rehearsals on Tuesday." This particular revival of Eugene O'Neill's classic will open, aptly or unaptly enough, at Studio 54 on Dec. 8 and will find Gabriel Byrne, an O'Neill advocate since his Tony-nominated Moon for the Misbegotten, again following one of Jason Robards' most famous portrayals. (Robards lost the 1978 Tony to Hughes' real-life Da, Barnard Hughes.) Completing the cast: Dearbhla Molloy, Emily Bergl, Byron Jennings, Kathryn Meisle, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Randall Newsome and, moonlighting from his administrative duties at Irish Repertory, Ciaran O'Reilly.

After that, in February, will be a rematch with the Tony-winning author of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley—a military training-camp drama called Defiance at Manhattan Theatre Club, from whence came Doubt. Chris Cooper starred in a workshop of Defiance in July with Dana Delany, Chris Bauer, Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jeremy Strong and Trevor Long. Most have reenlisted for the New York run. But not Oscar winner Cooper. Not yet anyway, said Hughes. "He was marvelous, so we are hoping."

A Naked Girl on the Appian Way is one of six plates Greenberg has twirling this season. He has plays being done in London (the West End premiere of The American Plan in November), in Chicago (The Well Appointed Room, which Terry Kinney will direct starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton Jan. 12-March 12), in Washington D.C. (Bal Masque, which John Vreeke will direct for Theatre J) and in New York (The House in Town, which the ubiquitous Hughes will start previewing May 11 at the Mitzi Newhouse). Then there is the Broadway revival of Three Days of Rain, starring Julia Roberts. Rumored to co-star is Bradley Cooper, from the Fox series "Kitchen Confidential." "He's a wonderful actor," says Greenberg tantazilingly, "but there's an official announcement coming later." (Does this make me chopped liver?, I wonder.)

Not all of Naked Girl's comic commotion comes from the immediate family. Some comes from next door: a lady novelist and the cranky ex mother-in-law she has been sadistically saddled with. Veteran Ann Guilbert was the clear winner on the laugh meter on opening night and was basking in that glow. "It's not all bad," she clucked contentedly. "It's a fail-safe part. She's got a mind of her own and says what she thinks."

Leslie Ayvazian comes on strong too as the novelist. Erica Jong was her working model for the character, but, true to tell, the actress has some legitimate writing credits of her own (Nine Armenians, for one). Her latest is called Lovely Day, and it will premiere in January for The Play Company, directed by the actress, Blair Brown. "I was asked to do a play the other day, and I turned it down because I couldn't do both," said Brown. "And, all of a sudden, I got really scared. But I couldn't really take it on and go to all the designing meetings I have to and all the casting meetings. We have designers now but no cast."

David Rabe, who heretofore has only been seen at the openings of his own plays, is suddenly a first-night fixture, with wife Clayburgh and daughterLily Rabe both going on all career cylinders. "I know," he smiled, helplessly happy. "It's very exciting." Lily showed up in Mom's corner late, having "given at the office" (the Lortel where she and Judith Light act out a mother-daughter saga from England called Colder Than Here). "I didn't see it tonight, of course, but I've seen it twice," she said, "and I'm proud of her." There was no door prize for this, but the nod for the shortest skirt on the premises was a micro-mini number worn—well worn—by Carolyn McCormick. "My husband keeps trying to protect me," she laughed. Hubby has a forthcoming Touch of the Poet about him: Byron Jennings. While he toils in the O'Neill, she will be giving Harold Pinter proper pause in the Pinter double bill at the Atlantic, The Room and Celebration, Nov. 9-Jan. 1. The actors took the summer off and got in some Quality Time for their sons.

Marin Ireland of Manuscript and Jason Butler Harner of The Paris Letter did the couple thing, too. They're currently rehearsing Rinne Groff's odd little opus about TV's beginnings, The Ruby Sunset. It's the first play Oskar Eustis has directed since become the artistic director of The Public. It bows there Nov 1, co-starring Richard Masur.

Arguably, the most employed couple in the room were a couple of theatre's prize gifts to the movies—Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson. Both have films coming at you like comets, and one of them overlaps (the film version of Craig Lucas' The Dying Gaul).

Scott's cinematic bounty includes Duma, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Saint Ralph and Crash. Clarkson has Good Night and Good Luck and a remake of All the King's Men in which she has Mercedes McCambridge's Oscar-winning role. The latter was filmed in her hometown of New Orleans. "I had a shot at a screening of it the other day, and I couldn't because it is just too difficult for me right now," she said. "Everyone in my family was affected. They're all alive. They've suffered losses, but they'll recover. I went home to New Orleans for a week after the hurricane hit. It was devastating, but I have great hope. I know New Orleans better than any place in the world. I know it'll come back. It has to."

Clarkson has no immediate plans for plays but has in the past been the pet muse for Greenberg as well as for Nicky Silver, who was in the well-wishers camp on opening night. "I'm writing television," he said by way of explaining his absence on the boards, "doing these little pilots, sending them out there. But I haven't abandoned The Theatre." He pauses a thoughtful beat. "Well, I might have. I think I may be semi-retired."

The cast of <i>A Naked Girl on the Appian Way</i> bow.
The cast of A Naked Girl on the Appian Way bow. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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