PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: First Sight of New Season With Sight Unseen

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: First Sight of New Season With Sight Unseen I don't know how to break it to all the revelers and award-givers dancing around the pyre of the Broadway season just passed, but a new one just kicked in May 25 at the poshly renovated Biltmore Theatre—sight of the opening of a new production of Donald Margulies Sight Unseen.

From Top: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Anna Deavere-Smith, Victoria Tennant, Jack McGee, Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormack, Daniel Sullivan, Laura Linney, Ben Chaplin, Jeffrey Carlson (left) and Euan Morton, Anthony Edwards, Maura Tierney, John Benjam
From Top: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Anna Deavere-Smith, Victoria Tennant, Jack McGee, Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormack, Daniel Sullivan, Laura Linney, Ben Chaplin, Jeffrey Carlson (left) and Euan Morton, Anthony Edwards, Maura Tierney, John Benjam Photo by Aubrey Reuben

You know this from the iconic sight of "Bonfire of the Vanities" novelist Tom Wolfe, looking all serene and summery and which-way-to-the-Hamptons in his signature bow-tie and white suit, waiting in the wrong line in front of the theatre for tix, chatting up an intellectual storm.

At least Victor Garber, opting for lightweight taupe attire for the night, found the press-coddling line, but then he is showbiz savvy—even longing a bit to be back on the boards here. "Well, right now," he sighed poignantly, "I'm unavailable" (translation: his television series, "Alias," is still going great guns). Then his face brightened with a happy postscript: "I'm doing A Little Night Music in L.A., with Judith Ivey and Zoe Caldwell. July 7 we open for three weeks at the Dorothy Chandler." The thought becalmed him.

Lending celebrity to the first opening of the 2004-05 Broadway season were Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Anna Deavere-Smith, soap's Erika Slezak, Victoria Tennant, Jeannie Lobell, Jack McGee, Carolyn McCormack and Iron's Lisa Emery.

The title of the play they had all come to see is a misnomer of sorts, and a deja vu misnomer at that. Manhattan Theatre Club introduced the play to New York and is now reviving it, just as it introduced and revived Margulies' The Loman Family Picnic. This fact makes Margulies the pet the Club has revived the most. The current revival marks his sixth MTC production. (Ironically, the other plays of his MTC launched went into revival runs, too—in different venues: Collected Stories and What's Wrong With This Picture?)

The resurrected Picture, which marked his only other Broadway outing, ran a scant 12 performances with Faith Prince. Entering the Biltmore, Margulies pointed to the spot—the Brooks Atkinson, across the street from the Biltmore. "It has only taken us 12 years to get to Broadway," the author declared later when MTC chiefs Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove passed him the mike at the after-party at Crobar on West 28th Street. His usual dire mood during a production, he said, had "been strangely upbeat" this time around—a change he attributed to Daniel Sullivan, "the director with the velvet glove whose signature is that he has no signature. He is someone who instills enormous confidence in actors to be fearless. He reveres writers and honors the words.

"This has been a wonderful homecoming to Manhattan Theatre Club for me. Sight Unseen was my breakthrough 12 years ago, which coincided with the breakthrough of Miss Laura Linney. The fact we are now here together is very, very important to me."

In the original production, Linney played the abrasive German interviewer who baits a famous Jewish painter with an inflammatory line of inquiry. Now she has stepped up to the leading lady, playing her in two different time zones—the artist's college girlfriend and an archeologist's underloved wife.

"I've always said the test of a good play is that you can revisit it later on and play a different role," Linney proffered, "but this is the first time I've actually done it. I must say it has been wonderful to come back to this play and find new depths and emotions in it."

She was particularly proud she negotiated those sharp, difficult turns in time—a zigzag of 20 years or so—without a wig, just with period costuming (by Jess Goldstein) and acting skill. "I remember, when I played the reporter, people kept asking if that was my real hair."

Linney looked very much what she was—the golden girl of the evening—and, accordingly, was protected like precious cargo while she ate and socialized by a barrier of hulking human bruisers. Actors like Campbell Scott (camouflaged behind a gray beard) and Tony-contending Ben Chaplin filed by to pay their respects, along with a still-persisting Taboo twosome (Jeffrey Carlson and the also-Tony-nominated Euan Morton) as well as a couple of "ER" regulars on the case (Anthony Edwards and Maura Tierney).

Flanking Linney were some old theatre pals-turned-TVstars: Garber on the left and John Benjamin Hickey on the right. The latter is a Juilliard classmate and Crucible co-star.

"I am home now," said Hickey, a tad wistfully. "My poor little TV show ["It's All Relative"] got canceled. Now, I'm looking for something to direct. I'm taking a play I did at Playwrights Horizons last year to Dallas Theatre Center—Bad Dates with Julie White. She did it at the Huntington in Boston and just got the Elliot Norton Award for it."

This time out The Terrible Teutonic Journalist is played by Ana Reeder, who is not German at all. "I'm from Mississippi. My whole family is from Mississippi," she said, presenting two cases in point: her stepmom and her little sister. She also presented her beau, Jason Bulter Harner, "a wonderful actor," and his resume: "He was in that Bill Irwin thing, Mr. Fox: A Rumination, and The Invention of Love on Broadway. And he's going to do The Glass Menagerie down in D.C. He'll be Tom to Sally Field's Amanda."

With all the Southern belle introducing, Reeder had to be reminded this was her Broadway debut. "It does feel a little bit different," she allowed. "It's a slight altitude change, but the work feels essentially the same. I'm real honored to step into this."

Byron Jennings, ordinarily the most urbane of Barrymores and Cowards on stage, plays Linney's art-hating archeologist hubby—his thickest Brit, yet! "I'm having a shamelessly good time," he admitted, reveling in the unexpected casting. "I love this kind of role, and the more of these roles I can do, I resist being pegged as far as what kinds of things I'll be asked to do. I'm always on the lookout for roles that will show different sides of me."

He credits his inclusion in this production to director Sullivan, with whom he started some 30 years ago in Shakespeare. "With Dan, I don't audition. He called me up. I will do anything with him at anytime anywhere. He's one of the greatest directors working."

Sullivan, who directed Ben Shenkman to a Tony nomination for Proof, tapped him for the amorously conflicted artist of Sight Unseen when a movie commitment bumped Liev Schreiber out of the castbox.

"It is quite exhilarating and still quite scary [to do this play]," the actor confesses. "I think all of us have talked about this. I know that Laura feels this way—that, after two weeks of previews, it's rare to feel so nervous and unsure of your footing this far into a run each time you do the show. But this is a good thing because the show is so delicate and nuanced it has to be genuinely discovered and explored each time. And this means that there may be moments that you love that don't necessary come back each time." Shenkman is the other cast member who has to roll with the big age punches. The actor is 35, comes on as 39 and ends up 22—a roller-coaster ride if ever there was one.

Next order of business for the busy Sullivan is the L.A. transfer to his recent hit, Intimate Apparel, to the Mark Taper Forum with the entire cast intact. (And, yes, he does feel some vindication when, after Margo Jefferson's pan in The New York Times, the rest of the critical community rose up as one and named it The New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play of the Year.) "We'll go in July, and we'll open there at the end of the month.

"And the very next day after we open that, we will start the next Donald Margulies' play, Brooklyn Boy. It's about a midlife Jewish novelist. Adam Arkin is going to do it. We'll start it at South Coast Rep in September, and then we'll bring it to MTC in January."

Whether he's Brooklyn Boy or not, Margulies has a home at Manhattan Theatre Club.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben