Samson Raphaelson's 1934 Christmas Day present to Broadway — Accent on Youth, an old-fashioned play with feelings and funny lines about a playwright's midlife crisis — looked surprisingly young and accessible for a 75-year-old relic when Manhattan Theatre Club unwrapped it April 29 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. It definitely helped having David Hyde Pierce on hand, gingerly demonstrating how they used to do comedy back then. An old soul with the impeccable timing of a Swiss watch, he took the Tony last year for another slice of vintage theatrical life, Curtains, in which he played a show-savvy Boston police lieutenant getting to the bottom of a heap of corpses accumulating backstage. Here, he has been promoted across the footlights to a 53-year-old chap, writing — and living — a May-December romance with his secretary (Mary Catherine Garrison), a mousy little thing who blooms into a full-blown leading lady who recycles lines she'd uttered off-stage.
"I actually asked for glasses," confessed Garrison after the show at the opening-night party at Espace. [In olden days, by simply removing her glasses, a plainjane could abruptly blossom into a beauty for the male of the species.] "I said, 'Please let me have 'em.' But they said, 'Everything's in the part — everything but glasses.'"
Her schizophrenic change in character is pretty wide and well marked by the play's two acts — from a love-suppressed dowdy who takes dictation to a self-assured actress six months into the run and mistress of her own fate. "I get to do everything in one night every night," she trilled. "It's such a dream. It's a dream part for me.
"I think she's really smart. She has no family so she's finding her way in the world. She's willing to look inside herself and grow and change. She's weirdly brave." A short, sexy blonde who could have been brought up on charges of scene-swiping from a supporting position many times (but particularly in Rabbit Hole, Assassins and Top Girls), Garrison is the star being born here. "This is my first lead, and I can thank Dan Sullivan and Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove for that," she said, citing her director and MTC's twin rulers. "They were very generous. We did a reading of it about a year ago. It was one of those readings where, as readings sometimes are, it was just magical, and they put it in the next season. It's been an absolute joy to work on from the very first minute we started. It's a lovely group of people. David Hyde Pierce — there's nobody more generous or more kind, as a person or on stage."
Director Sullivan remembered that reading well. "She and David really hit it off — I could just see that they were a great match together," said the man with The Eye. "I think anybody in the theatre will notice what she has done in the past, but she certainly hasn't done starring roles. Part of what's great about this character is that she's someone who's in the background and then emerges and takes over the play."
The scene where she does that is Sullivan's favorite: "I love the end of the first act when Mary Catherine tells him that she's in love with him and breaks down. That's a gorgeous piece of writing — so heartbreaking and hilariously funny at the same time."
The play goes down so well for contemporary theatregoers that it seems tweaked for a modern sensibility. "Did we change the text?" repeated Sullivan, making certain that he heard the question right. "Not really. We did just a couple of things. At the very ending of the play, we changed a line. Joel Raphaelson, Samson's son, helped us out a bit. It wasn't treated as sacred text, but basically it's the original text."
Pierce knows only too well the elusiveness of the play. "It's been really difficult to catch this play because it's so many different things," he admitted. "It's not slapstick, it's not screwball comedy, it's got all these serious elements. Finding the pace, finding how to get the emotional stuff in, hasn't been the easiest thing in the world."
He credited director Sullivan with waving him aboard this project. "I'd never heard of the play. I'd never heard of the playwright. And one of the things I'm so grateful for is, in the course of working on the play, I got to know who Samson Raphaelson was in the sense of his work. I watched several of his movies. 'Trouble in Paradise' is one of the great movies of all time. I'd never seen it, and no one has ever heard of it."
He admitted he admired Sullivan's velvet-glove approach to actors. (The director was one, once upon a time.) "He directs the show in a way where you don't feel directed, and so the show continues to grow and change and live after he steps away —after we've finished previews and gone into opening. He has put together a company of actors who are able to do that. We can play with each other on stage, and, if things start to happen differently, we go with it. It has been cast perfectly."
Pierce also enjoys Raphaelson's deliberate, but delicate, mix of theatre life and real theatre life. The funniest line occurs when the male ingénue (David Furr) feels himself slipping under Garrison's spell and bolts out of the business for a simple ranch life in Wyoming. "Well, Dickie," says Pierce on getting the news, "I'm sorry you're going to leave the show, but I'm glad you found yourself before you became a character actor." On another occasion, Pierce walks in on the young lovers kissing and announces that he came back for his cane, post-scripting poignantly as he moves for the door, "You may not know it, but that was a curtain line." Fade to black and curtain. Ultimately, he winds up writing the dear boy's proposal, a la Cyrano. "Raphaelson does that a lot in the play — these back-and-forth lines that are theatrical but also fit the situation — like, telling the young boy, 'The stage is yours.'"
The inestimable Charles Kimbrough appears to be in his "Frasier" phase these days — from playing Pickering to Kelsey Grammer's Higgins for the New York Philharmonic My Fair Lady to butlering for Pierce — which is hardly enough time on this coast for a character comedian this funny. He met his wife, Beth Howland, doing Company, and they have been keeping company ever since — but on the West Coast where TV has claimed them. "I keep telling Beth that I really want us to be New Yorkers," he relayed wistfully. "We've always been New Yorkers, mentally, but we found ourselves in L.A. Both of us did shows — hers ["Alice"] for nine years, mine ["Murphy Brown"] for ten years — and it's hard to uproot yourself after that long."
[flipbook] So why come east to butler for Niles Crane? "There are bad butler parts, and there are good butler parts, and this is a great butler part," he noted in italics. "The only thing that I know about him is that he had been in service, and his father and grandfather had been in service in England. In the '30s — well, it started with the '20s, the big boon with the money. What became a very posh thing for people with money to do was to hire English manservants. Then, they began to appear in movies. He's an Englishman transplanted very easily to New York, and he's found in his employer someone that he has an intuitive understanding of and feeling for — and they're kind of an odd couple. In a sense, they're a bit telepathic with each other. They know each other that well. And there are interesting things in his past — like, he wanted to be a boxer as a young man. There are a lot of unexpected corners.
"I don't think there's a play quite like it. It's not a typical '30s comedy, by any means. There's a vein of sadness that runs through it because of his solitariness, really. He separates himself as a playwright. He says it himself. He says, 'That's what I do. I write plays.' And it kind of isolates him from even his closest relationships because he's always writing a play about them even when he's playing a scene with them."
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Lisa Banes is another recovered theatre soul from the vineyards of West Coast television ("I'm back — what the heck, right?"). She puts a shine to the cameo of an actress "of a certain age." The wicked way she tips her lesbian hand is a caution. "This cast is fabulous," said Banes. "We're breathing life into a play that deserves it."
Rosie Benton is the more age-appropriate actress making a play for Pierce — a part in which Lilli Palmer handily stole one of the movies made of Accent on Youth. "That's what I heard. I haven't seen it, but I've had people mentioning it to me."
Benton's character is less lucky, making a grand and dignified exit holding a wastebasket full of discarded red roses. "Years of acting school, and there I am, actually with a wastebasket," sighed Benton, self-amused. "Oh, my God, it's so fun to do this part. I feel actors live their whole lives trying not to act like actors. For once, it's fun to really get to do that. It's license to kill — be as dramatic as I want to be.
"And that opera gown Jane Greenwood has given me to wear. I don't even have to think about it. That great dress at the end is a blast. I love Jane for that gown."
When the curtain rises on the handsome '30s-vintage office that John Lee Beatty provides Pierce, Byron Jennings is sitting center-stage perusing a script with great disdain, pulling you back to that period with The Great "Profeel," reminding one if not actually of John Barrymore at least of Warren William (Julian Marsh in "42nd Street"). He comes this close to a huffy exit when Pierce appears and charms him into the part (not an old lech at all but a middle-aged romantic searching for a genuine relationship.) The character stays and plays and becomes a matinee rage. "He's a character who doesn't really have that much stage time," allowed Jennings, "but I particularly love — as an actor — to have the arc that I have in the play — from a very tight actor who is trying to get a job but not wanting to do something that is against his principles to a guy who has totally let go of everything and has become a kind of drunk bon vivant and is out on the town all the time, trying to figure out new ways to apologize to his wife for having been on a bender for so much of the time. And then you get him in the third act where he is completely mellowed and he's kinda happy with his life and his wife. It's a great kind of evening for me."
A cluster of the Curtains cast showed up in support of its Tony-winning headliner, Pierce, and twinkled brightly around the party: Debra Monk with Steel Pier beau Jim Newman, Jason Danieley and wife Marin Mazzie, choreographer Rob Ashford and Edward Hibbert with The 39 Steps director Maria Aitken.
The latter is currently plotting a New York production of Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms . . . Hibbert just inhabited Mrs. Warren's Profession at the McCarter for director Emily Mann and is now working on a very hush-hush one-man play. . . Newman is Broadway-bound after the first of the year, along with Joe Nichols and Tony winner Carlin Glynn, in Pure Country from the writer-director of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Pete(r) Masterson. . . . And the Tony-nominated star of The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, Dee Hoty, said she's "waiting for that phone call" to join Pure Country. . . . Mazzie is hopping A Streetcar Named Desire to the Barrington Stage Company Aug. 6-29 in a production directed by Barrington's artistic director, Julianne Boyd, and co-starring Christopher Innvar, Sara Surrey and Kevin Carolan, but, before that, Ashford's Streetcar Named Desire will take him to London where he will open July 28 in a version that will star Rachel Weisz, Elliott Cowan and Ruth Wilson.
Tony winner (for Doubt) Adriane Lennox just got back from Atlanta where she filmed Sandra Bullock's "Blindside" — in time to start shooting "The Sorceress' Apprentice" here with Nicolas Cage. "I haven't been doing much theatre," she said, "but The First Wives' Club comes up in June in San Diego. We're doing a production of it at the Old Globe with Karen Ziemba, Kevin Morrow, John Dossettt and Barbara Walsh. We're supposed to have a small reading of it May 11." Francesca Zambello, who plopped The Little Mermaid down in the Broadway pool, is directing.
Lyricist Susan Birkenhead isn't in idle, waiting for her Charles Strouse-Bob Martin musical, Minsky's, to hit town next season. On June 1, there will be a reading of the musical she has done with composer Henry Krieger and book rewriter Daniel Goldfarb, Radio Girl. It's based on "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" — not the classic Kate Douglas Wiggin novel but the radically overhauled screenplay for Shirley Temple's '39 film. The people who produced Grey Gardens are behind this.
Also first-nighting-it were Charlayne Woodard, record mogul Clive Davis, jazz vocalist Gregory Generet and actress-wife Tamara Tunie (that's GG&TT for Twitters), actresses Geraldine Hughes and Becky Ann Baker, Proof's Tony-winning author David Auburn, directors Walter Bobbie and Erica Schmidt, twice-Tonyed Swoosie Kurtz and producer-publicist Jim Baldassare, Carol Kane, playwright Theresa Rebeck and her amusing muse Julie White, former Friedman flak Bob Ullmann, columnist Michael Musto (who discreetly slips out of his flip-flops during the performance but puts them back on for intermission), Buck Henry, playwright Liz Flahive, "Sheer Genius" host Rene Fris, keeper of George S.'s flame Anne Kaufman Schneider, NY1's working critic Roma Torre, producer Daryl Roth (who, along with Ostar Productions and Rebecca Gold / Debbie Bisno, enhanced the Art Deco elegance of this production), Charles Busch plus his allergist and the allergist's wife, Mrs. Byron Jennings (actress Carolyn McCormick), Anna in the Tropics' lead actress and its Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daphne Rubin-Vega and Nilo Cruz, attorney-producer John Breglio (have you caught his "Every Little Step" documentary on his A Chorus Line revival?), Frances Sternhagen (who's wrapping a couple of "Closer" episodes) with Gareth Saxe (who's inching closer to New York with A Moon To Dance By — from Pittsburgh to New Brunswick's George Street Playhouse) and Paul Anthony Stewart.
"I never thought I'd be in a starring category — I always assumed I'd be in supporting — but they can put me wherever they want to put me," said Daniel Breaker about his puzzling Drama Desk nomination as Shrek's jackass sidekick. "You know, my wife [Ruined director Kate Whoriskey] got a Drama Desk nomination, too." This particular evening, she had cast herself as nurturing mom and stayed home with their sick infant. An unexpected duo, these two: she helms Pultizer Prize plays, he plays sassy donkey to Brian d'Arcy James. "Power couple of New York, right?" Breaker cracks about their laughably incongruous image.
Others present included A. R. "Pete" Gurney and John Tillinger, the man who'll direct the revival of his play, Children, this summer at Westport with Judith Ivey, Katie Finneran, James Waterston and Mary Bacon. Gurney's next "gig" will be The Grand Manner, which Mark Lamos will direct at Lincoln Center in December.
Robert Osborne, your genial Turner Classics Movies host, was itemizing how many movies he had seen based on Accent on Youth: There was the one in 1935 with the play's title with Herbert Marshall and "Saliva" Sidney, there was a musical remake in 1950 with Bing Crosby and Nancy Olson, "Mr. Music," and there was the nonmusical remake in 1959 with Clark Gable and Carroll Baker, "But Not for Me," where Ella Fitzgerald gorgeously addresses the title tune over the opening credits.