PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Bridge & Tunnel: Broadway's U.N.-Doing

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Bridge & Tunnel: Broadway's U.N.-Doing Play One for the brand-new Broadway year has a cast of one, although you could have conceivably missed that fact from the way Sarah Jones fragments into multi-cultured characters and bounces them off the walls of the Helen Hayes Theatre, where on Jan. 27 her solo show, Bridge & Tunnel, settled in for a limited run through March 12.
Sarah Jones; Meryl Streep; James Naughton; Kim Cattrall; Natalie Portman; Jeffrey Wright; Bebe Neuwirth & Roger Rees; Oskar Eustis; Sheila MacRae.
Sarah Jones; Meryl Streep; James Naughton; Kim Cattrall; Natalie Portman; Jeffrey Wright; Bebe Neuwirth & Roger Rees; Oskar Eustis; Sheila MacRae. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Keeping up with the Joneses is quite an undertaking, given the global net she has thrown out. There are 14 distinct individuals on view, and they crazily criss-cross boundaries of age, gender, ethnicity. The stage is a world, to reverse Shakespeare a bit, and the 32-year-old monologist is comfortable in every corner of it—turning on a dime from a homeless urban usher to a Pakistani emcee who is as funny as an accountant (which he also is) to a worldwide procession of minority groups who step up to the mike to have their say.

We are at a poetry jam in a drab little neighborhood cabaret in Queens. Streams of multicolored Christmas lights stretch out from the stage in an act of desperate merriment, and the banner in the center confounds us with the message I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.T.O.O. (which is pronounced "I am a poet, too"). The bill of fare includes a stooped Eastern-European Jewish woman, a disabled Mexican-American union organizer, a Jordanian woman with a memory of The Beatles, a Haitian-American social worker, a Jamaican performance artist, a Chinese-American mother, a Vietnamese-American hiphop poet.

Meryl Streep, who knows a thing about accents (and has earned an unprecedented 14 Oscar nominations without repeating an accent), quite naturally fell in love with Bridge & Tunnel and produced it at 45 Bleecker where it ran for a sold-out seven months. For Broadway, she has backed back a bit and left the producing to others, content with the role of lead cheerleader. Hers is the first quote of a contented customer to make the ads ("If there is one show you should see on Broadway, it's Sarah Jones' gift to New York!").

There is, to be sure, more where that came forth, and Streep was most forthcoming when she lent her considerable celebrity to opening night, looking smashing in a stunning silver frock. "Sarah was, like, insanely good tonight," she opted. "Y'know, you hope for a good performance on opening night. You really don't hope for any more than that because the nerves are so much and the hype and the worry. You just hope that the bones of the performance will be there and will sustain. If you do a great performance on opening night, it's unheard of. It's really kind of annoying to other actors to watch it. She knocked it out of the park tonight. I wish I were her mother because I couldn't be prouder."

The vibes were mutual, according to Jones, who was understandably tired but blissed out about her first official night on Broadway. "I had a wonderful time," she admitted. "I felt like I was surrounded by friends and family and, in the purest sense, New York—you know what I mean? I just felt New York. That whole New York energy was there tonight. "Anyone who is a live performer has those transcendent moments where there is some kind of agreement between the performer and the audience. I felt like I walked into a kind of understanding this evening. I walked out, and there was just an understanding we were going to participate. It didn't feel like a one-person show. It felt like a 601-person show."

Also racking up a Broadway debut was Tony Taccone, who directed the dynamo. "I'd say directing Sarah Jones is a little bit like managing the Yankees: You get out of their way and let 'em play. She's really got such astonishing gifts, such strong instincts, such unique talents, my job is a little different with her than it would with a normal actor."

And did he feel a little ganged-up-on by the fact that Jones was also the author of the piece? "Sure," he conceded, "but she's also very open. She's one of the most open people I've ever met. She's hungry for feedback. She always wants notes. She's very available and interested in hearing what the outside eye has to say so it has been a great collaboration. One of the reason she's such a transformative personality is that you can't find Sarah in the piece. You just see these characters, and you fall in love with them." Streep's first exposure to Jones was at an Equality Now benefit held at the United Nations. That experience—and the fact that Jones is a graduate of The United Nations International School—conspired to give Broadway its first U.N. opening night party.

The post-show supper was held in the spacious fourth-floor Delegates Dining Room, which plays beautifully at night, overlooking the East River with Brooklyn blinking on the distant horizon. The spare, spread-out area really does look like the room where Philip Ober is fatally stabbed right in front of Cary Grant in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

Of course, getting to the room was an interesting ordeal, with first-nighters queuing in coagulated clumps for a series of security checks. "What a melting pot!" cracked one seasoned first-nighter, seeing all the usual suspects in endlessly undulating lines. Another wag advised James Naughton not to bring up "the Willy Brandt" thing from last season.

Naughton is in a musical frame of mind these days. The Naughton Family Singers (him, son Greg, daughter Keira) are set for an American Songbook gig Feb. 25 at the Allen Room at Columbus Circle. Then, the two-time Tony winning bread-winner will press on solo with an engagement at Feinstein's at the Regency, starting toward the end of May.

"Sex and the City"'s Kim Cattrall and Angels in America's Tony Kushner either didn't make it through the security clearance or didn't try, but they were at the theatre, cheering.

Kushner could find himself Oscar-nominated on Tuesday for co-authoring Steven Spielberg's Munich, and he's already deep into Screenplay Two—an original based on an incident that actually happened to the young Eugene O'Neill. "Jack Nicholson was a really great O'Neill, but he'd be too old to play him as a 23-year-old. I should watch his performance again, but Reds is not available on DVD. I want to find out why."

He hasn't titled his new screenplay yet. "It has, like, eight titles, and I haven't settled on one yet. I had a wonderful time working on Munich, but I'm still going to do plays. In fact, I have a new play in the wings now—and a new musical. Next, in the park this summer, I'm doing Mother Courage and Her Children with Meryl"—and with his Caroline, or Change collaborators, director George C. Wolfe and composer Jeanine Tesori.

Cheerleader Streep also jacked up the opening-night guest-list with some of her famous friends, such as Natalie Portman, who was her daughter in the park two years ago in The Seagull, and Jeffrey Wright, who, like Streep and Kushner, got an Emmy for Angels.

"Meryl was spreading the word about Sarah back when we were doing Angels in America," Wright recalled, "but this was the first time I've seen her. She's fantastic."

For the time being, he's cooling it on stage and concentrating on film (M. Night Shyamalan's next, Lady in the Water, and The Visiting with Nicole Kidman). "I have some physical ailments right now that I'm trying to sort out. I'm 40 years old now. My body's falling apart so I have got to get myself back in shape before I get back on stage."

Portman, who's doing press for a film coming out in March (V for Vendetta) and has three more movies lined up to do this year, doesn't know when she will get back to the stage, but she was sufficiently fired up by Jones' tour de force to hope it will soon. "It's amazing that she goes seamlessly from one to the next, and each one is so specific. You know exactly who that person is. It's the best acting I've seen in a very, very long time."

On Jan. 30 at New York City Center, Wright, Portman and Streep will all be making contributions to "The Public Sings: A 50th Anniversary Celebration," a one-night-only event celebrating the musicals produced by The Public Theatre. So, too, will Eartha Kitt, Elaine Stritch, Lea DeLaria, Lillias White, Savion Glover, Mary Testa, Ben Stiller, Marc Kudish, Adriane Lenox, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Norm Lewis, Billy Porter, Idina Menzel, Rosie Perez, Donna Murphy, Cynthia Nixon and National Dance Institute. Surprisingly, Streep does have some authentic musical history with The Public, having done Kurt Weill's Happy Times and Elizabeth Swados' Alice in Wonderland. "People are not singing things what they sang," revealed Streep. "They're mixing it all up. I'm singing something from Hair and doing a duet with Mike Nichols, believe it or not—unless he develops a chronic illness before Monday, which he has threatened to do."

Roger Rees and Bebe Neuwirth, often together since he directed her in The Taming of the Shrew ("Shakespeare bonds people, y'know," sez he), were lavish in their praise of Jones, once he got some joshing out of his system. "Is this off the record?" he asked, glaring indignantly at a reporter's tape recorder. "It's a remarkable show. Everyone should come and see this. What a great lesson in acting—and humanity—this is." He's putting together his second season as artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and she's hoping for another production of Here Lies Jenny, the Weill musical he directed her in. "We've added new material, and we're building up for another run."

Rick Elice said, so far, he hasn't collected a dime on the Jersey Boys smash he wrote with Marshall Brickman, but he's bracing for a windfall—and he's not resting on his imaginary income. "Marshall and I have written another musical, which Tommy Tune is going to choreograph and direct," he said. "We're going to launch it at the LaJolla Playhouse in the summer of 2007. In the meantime, Marshall and I are going to write a play this spring—a very funny play. It's a really good idea. You're going to like this."

Other first-nighters: Celeste Holm, The Public's Oskar Eustis, Roundabout's Todd Haimes, Star Jones Reynolds (who arrived at the theatre with Tamara Tunie and Lisa Davis in a tank-like "conversion van"), Anjali Bhimani, producers Martin Richards and Randall Wreghitt, Amanda Plummer and two three-time repeaters of Bridge & Tunnel, emphatic fans of Broadway's new star: Sheila MacRae and Anthony Edwards.

"I saw it downtown on Bleecker Street, and then I brought my wife to the first Broadway preview," said the "E.R." ex. "We met Sarah that night and her husband Steve, and they invited me to come on opening night. I said, 'Well, my 12-year-old son has to see this' so I brought him." (Brian Edwards heartily approved.) "We moved here four years ago because we wanted to raise the kids here in New York. I'll be doing some stage work. I just have to find something new and a reason why I'd give up weekends with my kids."

One last note on how seriously Streep cheerleads. So the new star in town could make a fashionably late Star Entrance, Streep made herself accessible to one and all—even posing with people with disposable cameras. All this while the band (an aggressive Haitian aggregation) played loudly on. Hey, it kept the press away. Only people rushed forth.

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