High, which bowed at the Booth April 19, stars Kathleen Turner as Sister Jamison Connelly, the kind of nun only a Ken Russell could love — a salty-talking ex-addict who saw the light and, in several ways, kicked the habit. We meet her a nun-in-mufti, flying her own black-and-blue colors (black slacks and sweater, blue outsized men's shirt which, worn outside, makes a mighty muumuu).
Can this be Sister Act? No, that's next. This must be Sister Acting — and the first in a brief nun-run at Broadway. Three more sisters arrive next week in The House of Blue Leaves, but, regardless of what comes, what could equal Turner turning up the husk in her voice and delivering, like commandments, her particular brand of stainless-steel tough-love — between well-timed witticism, of course? And woe be it to a druggie who comes at her, stark naked and flying high, in rape mode.
The object of her affectation is 19-year-old Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit), the son of a prostitute and himself a strung-out male hustler who may have raped a 14-year-old boy before the boy O.D.'d. He is a mass of tics and twitches when he is brought to Sister Jamie by Father Michael Delpapp (Stephen Kunken), who runs the drug rehab center where she works and has his own reasons for rehabilitating Cody. Even without the aforementioned rape bid, it's a slow go as the not-so-good Sister — herself a recovering alcoholic not above backsliding — periodically comes down from on-high and haughtily informs her patient who's running the show here.
In their second Broadway outing in as many years, director Rob Ruggiero and playwright Matthew Lombardo have gone from Looped (Tallulah in a dubbing booth) to Really Looped (Jonigkeit acting out Lombardi's autobiographical nightmares). Valerie Harper's Tallulah was a serious Tony contender last year, and Turner seems set up for much the same sort of response. It's quite deliberate, Lombardo confessed later at the play's after-party at Tony May's SD26: "I think nobody's really writing terrific roles for women of a certain age — or even producing them, for that matter," he said. "We do a lot of revivals, we do a lot of new plays with leading male characters, and we still have this wealth of really talented actresses who really need great stage roles."
Rest assured, help is on the way. More star-turns for actresses are in his pipeline. "I'm working on an adaptation of six Greek plays called House of Atreus," he said. "I'm taking everything that happened in the house of Atreus and putting it in a two-act format. It's a star vehicle for a woman where she plays Clytemnestra in the first act and then she doubles as her sister, Helen of Troy, in the second. I wanted to do some kind of adaptation of something that was different from what I did before."
Properly glammed up for the party, Turner seemed grateful and pleased to be among the first divas on the Lombardi-Ruggiero launching pad. "Sister Jamie is an extraordinary character with such range," she told the press. "There's so much of both emotion and tension. The whole conflict of the possibilities of fate and the reality of addiction is such a fascinating premise, and it is such fun to play."
Did the fact that she had demons of her own at her beck and call help her get into the role? "No, I don't think so," Turner said after quickly turning the question over in her head. "There was a period where I abused alcohol, but, as I said to someone the other day, 'I played a hooker once too, but I didn't go out on the street to do it.'''
Her attraction was solely to the play itself. "I think it's very compelling. The characters are interesting. All three are flawed people. They're no saints or just-only sinners here. We're always all accessing, trying to find a way to manage our demons or find our solutions. That tough, ongoing battle is what this play is based on."
This is Turner's first Broadway outing since she threw that little after-hours soiree for the new faculty staff in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a good half-decade ago, but she expects to be back here next year with one of those one-woman shows that she likes to tour in. "Down with Tallulah," she said, with a theatrical wave of her hand, "we're moving on to Molly" [Ivins, the late Texas-liberal writer].
Fans should be braying at the bit, if the ones who have been greeting her nightly at the stage door in Shubert Alley are any barometer. "Oh, they're great," declared Turner before adding her Margo Channing qualifier: "As long as they've come and seen the play. If they're just standing there to get autographs . . . well!"
One of those fans is on stage with her every performance. "She's awesome — I mean, she really is," trilled Kunken. "I've been a fan of Kathleen's for a long time, and it's nice when that person meets your expectations of who they are. She's dynamic, she's inventive, she's completely irreverent, she's a cut-up. She takes her work incredibly seriously, but then she's immediately able to laugh at herself and poke fun at herself — and she's a great scene partner. She has a great understanding of an arc of a play and the way an audience works. Every now and then, she'll say, 'Let's shape this moment slightly differently,' and I'm constantly amazed how she's right."
Since his Tony-nominated performance last year in the last-to-arrive — first-to-fold Enron, Kunken has been busy in another medium: "I shot a Barry Levinson movie that's coming out this summer called 'The Bay.' It was originally called 'Isopod.' It's a cinema-verite horror movie. They're calling it an eco-terror film. I had an absolute blast working on it down in South Carolina. The conceit's like a 'Blair Witch Project' where it's all told with so-called 'found footage.'"
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Jonigkeit has been maturating for this Broadway debut as an actor in Philadelphia. During a break between Philly shows, he was flown to New York for a quick audition, which turned into five auditions that led to the pre-Broadway tour — Hartford, Cincinnati, St. Louis and now the fourth and final stop, Broadway. It sounds easy, but getting into such a shattered psyche as Cody's was hard labor, the actor insisted.
"There are things you have to dig up, and that's the most exciting role to play as an actor because it makes you challenge yourself in response to your own personal demons. The research was pretty extensive for this. I had to read a bunch of books, both on the personality of the addict and from the point of view of the family living with an addict. Also, Matthew has been an open book with me about his seven-year addiction. He's answered every question I've had — from the minutia and the physicality to the pangs and struggles and emotions one goes through. He has written a lot of himself in this character and a lot of the people he encountered along the way, and that has been remarkably informative, to be able to pick his brain about who those people were and what they did. I went to a couple of Crystal Methamphetamine Anonymous meetings. It was staggering to be around people who are so intensely drawn to something. It was really, really wild."
Husbands of stage and screen led the Turner cheering section on opening night — Bill Irwin, who won a Tony as her hen-pecked George in Virginia Woolf, and Michael Douglas, who has run the emotional gamut with her on film from "Romancing the Stone" to "The War of the Roses," were on hand, as was her "Serial Mom" director, John Waters, who will be hitting the road next week to promote the paperback edition of his latest book, "Role Models."
The silver-haired lady on the arm of Rex Reed recently shared a panel with him and Waters in New Orleans, discussing the roles of Tennessee Williams. Carroll Baker had one of his most famous ones, "Baby Doll," and officially says she's retired, but she's not a fanatic about it: "I just moved to New York from California three and a half months ago, so we'll see. I'd love to do theatre."
Her daughter, Blanche Baker, is meanwhile carrying the Baker torch in independent movies. "One of them she wrote, and it was very good, very funny." Character actress Lynn Cohen is going through Happy Days these days — the Beckett play. "I saw tapes of Fiona Shaw, Irene Worth and Charlotte Rae doing it, but, by the time I was through, I thought he had written it for me." Several regional theatres are interested in her playing it.
David Gallo was asked before the show what to expect from his High set design (which turned out to be one chair, two doors, two late-arriving brick walls and a black backdrop with twinkling stars.) He said: "Fluid transitions."
His next scenic stop is The Mountaintop in October at the Jacobs, with Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King. "It's a lot more than a Memphis motel room," Gallo promised. "The motel room is for about 90 percent of the play, and the last 10 percent turns into quite a theatrical tour de force. Visually, it just takes off at the end."
Other first-nighters included Tovah Feldshuh, Tony winners Elaine Stritch and Alan Cumming, Carson Kressley of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," Rachel York and Rachel Ann Weiss, Shubert kingpin Phil Smith, Pat Schoenfeld, producer-performer Michael Alden, The Drowsy Chaperone's Troy Britton Johnson, Lexie Galante from the upcoming Off-Broadway production of La Fartise and Nikki Blonsky.
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