"The American Alan Ayckbourn" and "The British Neil Simon," as they are often referred to in their respective countries, seem to have been squared off for some sort of laugh-off showdown via revivals of what many consider their most successful comedies. I'm telling ya, it's a little like "High Noon" at eight o'clock!
Both plays find their merriment in mismatches. Simon takes the tack of two poker cronies batcheloring it a while after their marriages crash and burn, but Ayckbourn views the marital wreckage as works in progress—three couples in three kitchens over the course of three Christmases and three acts. First up: a wanna-be real-estate developer (Alan Ruck), whose fortunes reverse wildly between acts, and his little Mrs. Good Housekeeping (Clea Lewis), who develops a fondness of her own cleaning fumes. Next: a failed architect (Sam Robards) who fancies himself "a sexual Flying Dutchman" and reduces his cheated-on wife (Mireille Enos) to frantically failed suicide attempts. And finally: a fuddy-duddy banker (Paxton Whitehead) and his drunken trophy wife (Deborah Rush).
This is Manhattan Theatre Club's seventh fling with the densely prolific Ayckbourn, and MTC Artistic Director Lynne Meadow toasted him—in absentia—at the after-party held across the street at The Supper Club. "He was back in New York just last week," she said, "seeing the show and meeting the company and Joey [director John Tillinger, in his 17th (!) MTC assignment]. I call Alan the Moliere of our era. His descriptions of `happy' marriages will remain in our minds forever." The line landed with appreciative hoots.
Two octogenarian icons with ties to the cast gave out the greatest glitter on opening night: Walter Cronkite, on the arm of opera's Joanna Simon, was there to support Rush, his daughter-in-law, and Lauren Bacall came out for her son by the late Jason Robards.
"Yeah," she conceded when a reporter asked if she had a particular favorite in the cast, "I think it might be Sam. I've seen him in many, many different roles, and he's a marvelous actor. His talent has not even been touched. I don't know why it's not been touched yet, but it had better be touched soon." One thing in Robards' favor is his chameleon-like face, which doesn't really favor either parent. "I see some of my mother in him," said Bacall, "but the way he moves, how he uses his body, is very much like his father." What she didn't give a good review to was the first-night crowd. "This audience was a pain in the ass," she groused, "but opening-night audiences are a nightmare anyway."
Rosemary Harris, Bacall's co-star in Waiting in the Wings, attended the show with two co-star gal-pals, All Over's Myra Carter and Wings' Patricia Connolly. The day before, Harris began rehearsals with John Cullum, Gene Farber and director Blanka Zizka for Ariel Dorfman's The Other Side, which will be accorded its American premiere Dec. 6 on MTC's Stage One at City Center. "I play an old, but vigorous, lady," she chirped.
Farber, Dorfman and Zizka were, in fact, all in the opening-night wave, as were a number of other future MTC employees: Pulitzer Prize playwright Nilo Cruz, Rent director Michael Greif and actor Pedro Pascal (Beauty of the Father, which will occupy Stage II starting Jan. 10); playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Feb. 2 at the Biltmore), and actor Michael Tucker, who'll play a dad ("a role I think I can handle") in Robert Aguirre-Sacasa's Based on a Totally True Story (Michael Bush, MTC's third-in-command after Executive Producer Barry Grove, will direct its world-premiere).
Whitehead and Rush, a vaudeville-act card if ever there was one, are the seasoned farceurs on board Absurd Person Singular, "together again" for the first time since they were the burglar and the bimbo in the original 1984 edition of Michael Frayn's knockabout Noises Off. There's a lot of Noises Off in their current outing, what with kitchen doors opening and closing all the time on holiday revelers in the next room, but very little is done by the cast, according to Whitehead—"just snatches, nothing sustained."
He's quite familiar with the stuffy, old-guard prig he's asked to play here, the sort who uses "Old Sausage" as a term of endearment for his spouse of the moment and can't imagine why she takes offense. "Alan Ayckbourn writes very well for a certain type of Englishman, and I'm glad to be the spokesman. We both know him quite well, I think."
And he likes the fact that the play, by turns and acts, goes from comedy to farce to drama. "We do all three in this. The mood changes. It isn't quite a farce in the first act. It has farcical moments, but it's an in-and-out comedy. The second act goes quite farcical—with people getting electrocuted and attempting suicide. It's rather difficult to pull off."
He has the role originated by Richard Kiley, and Rush follows Geraldine Page into hers. "Geraldine and I worked together in a movie called Honky Tonky Highway. We played nuns—she was Mother Superior, and I was Sister Inferior—and we became very dear friends after that very long shoot. I felt that Geraldine was pushing me to do this role."
The other four cast members are relatively new to Broadway: Ruck recently did the Leo Bloom part in The Producers; Enos and Robards got Tony nominations for their recent Broadway debuts—she in the last Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and he in The Man Who Had All the Luck—and Lewis, an Off-Broadway fixture (Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight, Writer's Block, Last Easter), is just now getting around to her Broadway bow.
Robards and Ruck play great, big, fat, synthetic heels of the first water and spare us no soft focus. Robards dove in immediately ("I try not to behave that way in real life, so it's nice to have the permission to play someone like that on stage. That's what's great about acting."). But Ruck was slow to warm to the character ("For a while, I didn't like him because he's not really a very nice person, but I've gradually come to embrace him.")
If she had her druthers, Lewis admitted she'd rather not be married to someone like Ruck's character—but hastened to add that the actor "is the nicest person in the world."
She has, and gives, great fun for her extreme housewifery. "I like that she's sort of a dingaling—but very devoted to her husband. She is, I think, probably frustrated in the romantic department because he's so stern with her. But she finds solace in cleansers."
Enos spends her big scene emoting up a storm without uttering a word, eventually rousing her severely hammered guests from their gin-fueled stupor with a round of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Catatonic and suicidal over her hubby's philandering, she darts about from window ledge to knife-wielding to gas stove, desperately seeking a permanent exit.
Is it harder to find the comedy in that without words? "I think it's difficult in a different way," she opted. "It's definitely hard trying to figure out the balance, how to tell the story with what I need to do and not do with my body. But talking is hard in its way, too."
If she doesn't watch it (or, conversely, if she does), she could go through her Broadway career as a zonked-out zombie. "I know," she acknowledged with a laugh. "When I went in to audition for this play, Joey Tillinger said, `Have you always played the crazies?' I said, `No, actually, before Virginia Woolf, I always played the straight-as-an-arrow, strong-willed type.' He said, `Well, you've started your legacy of the crazies now.'" The Glass Menagerie's Sarah Paulson, who hugely enjoyed Rush's galloping dipsomania, said she was bound Dec. 27 for The Cherry Orchard in L.A. The Ahmanson production co-stars Annette Benning, Alfred Molina and Jason Butler Harner.
Coming the other way from Los Angeles to New York: Reefer Madness' Christian Campbell, filming his "Book of Daniel" TV series while scouting around for a play to do here, and Terrence McNally, in from the tryouts of Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, which is going extra innings (through Nov. 6) at San Diego's Old Globe. He admitted he didn't do a lot of research—or have to—in order to write her and-then-I-danced biography. "The only thing that I didn't know," he said, "was about her affair with Sammy Davis Jr."
Tony Roberts, arriving with comedienne Jamie de Roy, was showing some new-grown stubble. "They told me I should start," he explained, "they" being the Barefoot in the Park producers who've cast him as the bearded bohemian who romances Jill Clayburgh. "The last time we worked together," he said, "I had her arrested" (on "Law and Order").
It amazes him he'll be back on Broadway in this play. "I never dreamt in a million years when I was 24 and doing this play that anybody would ever think of me to play the upstairs neighbor," he said. He followed Robert Redford and Robert Reed into the lead, and played it for 17 months. Now—the day after Christmas—he will take it from the top again.
Roberts turns 66 on Saturday, but that's still too young to be confronted by one's own revivals. Still, he was the only one at the Biltmore Tuesday night to have genuine deja vu, having been in the original cast that opened the show at the Music Box on Oct. 8, 1974.
"There was a moment tonight when my character was on stage with the character played by Geraldine Page, and I can remember—only because it was prompted by seeing tonight's performance—how awed I was to be on stage alone in a scene with Geraldine Page, who was Goddess of Theatre at that time. Of all the memories that came flooding back, that was the one that was most vivid for me. I suddenly saw it and remembered that I had had that moment when it meant so much to me in my career as an actor. I'd arrived at a point where I was standing on Broadway next to Geraldine Page playing a scene.
"Larry Blyden and I left the play the same night to go on vacation, and he was killed in an automobile accident a week later in Morocco. It was a terribly sad time for us—Sandy Dennis, Carole Shelley, Richard Kiley. It was directed by Emma Thompson's father, Eric, who's no longer with us either. As a matter of fact, I believe the only two people from that whole production who are still alive are Carole Shelley and me. Everybody else is gone."