In this second-Wind Broadway-revival of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's 1955 war-horse courtroomer, John Barrymore is in one corner and James Tyrone is in the other — or is that Cyrano de Bergerac on the left and Willy Loman on the right? What it is, of course, is two titan thespians chunking their Tonys at each other as opposing attorneys — Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy — locked in a state of suspender animation, popping and pulling at points of law, giving new meaning to the word mouthpiece as they gracefully graze their way through an illuminating night of theatre.
At stake here is the sanctity of An Idea, this being a lightly fictionalized account of the Scopes "Monkey" trial of 1925 in which Tennessee fundamentalists took to court a high-school teacher (John Scopes, called here Bert Cates) for contaminating teenagers with Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Plummer is the big liberal lawyer from back East who rises loftily to Scopes' defense, Henry Drummond (read: Clarence Darrow).
Upholding the literal word of the Bible, preaching to the converted, is Dennehy as Matthew Harrison Brady (otherwise known as William Jennings Bryan), a pompous Bible-thumper and three-time Presidential also-ran who revels in the palm leaves of the locals. Cynically on the sidelines, calling the play-by-play for the Baltimore Sun, is H.L. Mencken (a.k.a. E.K. Hornbeck), played here by a third Tony winner, Denis O'Hare.
Casting director Jay Binder has splashed about in the deep end of the local casting pool and reeled into some excellent character actors to populate Hillsboro — just to name a few in this cast of 34: Terry Beaver of The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Lanny Flaherty of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Beth Fowler of The Boy From Oz, Maggie Lacey of the last Our Town, Jay Patterson of K-2, Charlotte Maier of Dinner at Eight, Henry Stram of Titanic, Pippa Pearthree of The Miss Firecracker Contest, among many.
Typical of the overqualified citizenry who's happy to ride this Wind out is Bill Buell, last seen in The History Boys and here seen as the rube in overalls who's tapped for jury duty. "We have to get our brains together for the second act to just sit there in the courtroom," Buell admitted, "but the first act is a great journey, and I have just enough to do to feel like I have something going on." And, he conceded, it's not The Chinese Water-Torture Test to watch Plummer and Dennehy going at each other a good half-hour — a great half-hour — when Drummond puts Brady on the stand as a Bible expert and wears him out.
"The main goal is Christopher — to watch him," Buell said. "I've learned from him. When you get to be, after a while, a certain age — who can you still learn from anymore? And I've finally found someone again. I study him every night, the way he has cobbled together that role. I can't wait to have another big role myself. He is playing the age that he in fact is. Backstage, he's this dapper roue, but he makes himself look the age he is."
At 77, Plummer is a robust, charismatic figure of a man and moved to his own drummer at the after-party held at the Bryant Park Grill. He is a generous and thoughtful actor in a one-on-one interview situation, but it was plain he had no patience with the chaotic hoopla that followed the play. Masking his vague annoyance at the scene, he raced through the paparazzi gauntlet of TV cameras, sound bites and pesky reporters in a sprint.
It's hard to be insistent with a performer who had just given so profoundly at the office. "I have a good time every night," he said in passing (quickly). Did he have a favorite scene in the play, something he looked forward to every night? "Ah, no. They're all good."
The brilliance of the character gives off a good-guy glow — it won a Tony for the originator, Paul Muni, and Oscar and Tony nominations for Spencer Tracy and George C. Scott — so perhaps to deflect the white-knight card he has been dealt, Plummer plays the role in what looks like a state of perpetual discomfort (a la Gary Cooper, who had back pain during the filming of "High Noon" and got an Oscar for it). "It's those damn chairs," offered Plummer offhandedly. "If you had sat in one, you'd have a back problem, too."
Jordan Lage, who plays the token prosecuting attorney very much lost in Brady's shadow, seconded Buell's motion that this production was a valuable experience for a working actor. "It's a thrill because of Plummer and Dennehy," he agreed. "It's great fun to be on stage with those two legends. Both of them are just awesome in this show."
And that goes for the new kid on the Broadway block, Benjamin Walker, who is making his Main Stem debut as the forgotten man — on trial, Bert Cates. "It was a dream job to work with those guys," he said, "truly fantastic." (Walker was the original lead in Spring Awakening — Melchior — when the musical was workshopped for a one-performance bow at Lincoln Center a few years ago, and outgrew the role by the time it was Broadway-ready.)
Dennehy, who had hair a month ago when he did My Fair Lady's dustman Alfred P. Doolittle for six performances at Avery Fisher Hall, made the bald sacrifice and sported a baseball cap at the party. Physically he resembles his predecessors in the part (Ed Begley and Charles Durning on Broadway, and Fredric March in the movie), but he makes the character far more likable and accessible than the other Bradys. "Well, why not?" he shot back. "Why shouldn't he be likable? He's a Christian. He really believes. For example, he's the only person on stage who forgives the reverend for bigotry. He's willing to forgive anybody, including Drummond. He believes in his mission. His faith is only shaken at the end when Drummond's logic finally pierces through and does him in."
By lightening Brady's fanaticism and making him seem a rather friendly Everyman of the people, Dennehy gives the impression of being impossible to topple. But Doug Hughes, in an inspired bit of direction, takes the wind of his sails with the flick of a light switch.
"That was my idea — I did that," the director had no trouble admitting. "I had a very good time of this. It was a lot of work, but I had a wonderful time directing this play. I'd been thinking about it for quite a while. [Producer] Bill Haber and I talked about it over a year ago. I think the play does seem well worth reviving right now. It plays into a persistent issue in America. There's always going to be a conflict where deep religious belief is more important than the notion of rational thinking in America, progress, the advance of science — these things that are enshrined American values. They're continually in conflict.
"We were very confident about reviving it," he admitted, "and we've been truly heartened by the way it has been received — really, from the first night we've performed it. While we were still working and refining the play, audiences have been incredibly encouraging."
Hillsboro, as painted here by Hughes, is not all that different from Grover's Corners. "I do believe that 'Inherit the Wind Meets Our Town' is an apt description. I just felt it could be done cleanly and with the kind of invigorating speed if you dispensed with some of the literal scenery. Wilder is one of my favorite playwrights, and his credo about purely theatrical experiences that don't so much to do with scenery was on my mind."
Santo Loquasto's set deftly suggests both courtroom and church, replete with risers where 63 paying customers can sit onstage, helping the already sizable-for-a-drama cast give the illusion of a packed-to-the-rafters assemblage. As patrons file into the Lyceum, a gospel quartet is in full sway, led by David M. Lutken, that tall drink of water who appeared to good country-fried effect in Ring of Fire and Woody Guthrie's American Song.
Lutken's parents were present for the opening, and they were pleased their son followed their advice. "My pre-show hymns are the recommendations of my father and mother," said the good son. "My mother grew up in Canton, Mississippi, right next to the Baptist church so she heard them singing all the time." She suggested "Beulah Land," and her son said, "Well, I believe I can do that."
Lutken added, "I give all the credit to Mr. Hughes because he talked me into doing the job that he conceived of, which was to put real Baptist/Appalachian music into this play."
Of late, Lutken has been overseas doing a Guthrie show called This Land Is Your Land. "I'm going to the Edinburgh Festival in August with Woody Says, a new adaptation of the same material. Basically it's a one-man show, but I'll have my musician friends with me."
One of Lutken's gospel gals — Katie Klaus — just hit Broadway this year and has run a pretty dizzy gamut from Bob Dylan (The Times They Are A-Changin') to Stephen Sondheim (the young Sally in the Encores! Follies) to, now, this. O'Hare, who nimbly pranced out Hornbeck slightly to the right of Prof. Harold Hill, confessed he's having a field day with the character (as if you didn't already suspect it). "It's political, and I get to act. When was the last time that happened?" he asked.
Some of his best work is done without a word, just drinking in the court pyrotechnics. "It's great because the arguments are so intelligent and compelling, and the performances of Chris and Brian are so great that it's not hard at all to watch. Tonight was very easy."
His Hornbeck is following two Tonys (Randall and Heald) and, in the film, Gene Kelly. "It's hard being in someone's shadow like that, but to be compared to them is an honor."
The always-excellent Byron Jennings has a high old time of it as the heavy — the town's sanctimonious reverend. "It's a little difficult being the villain of the piece, but I have a very intense 15 minutes that makes the evening worthwhile for me. I enjoy it very much."
Caroline McCormick, the also-chronically-employed Mrs. Jennings, said she's opening Sunday at the Pearl Theatre in S. N. Behrman's 1932 opus, Biography. "It's a great old play," she said. "I can't believe it hasn't been done." (Its last Broadway run was 1934.)
"I play a portrait artist who paints all these famous people. Somebody asks her to write her biography. Then, all the men in her life come out of woodwork telling her not to."
Sixteen-year-old Conor Donovan, who won a Theatre World Award playing McCormick's son in Privilege and was a resident of Grover's Corners when Paul Newman stage-managed it, plays a Darwin-tainted teen in "Heavenly" Hillsboro.
Lately he has been busying himself with movies: "I was in Texas for a few weeks in the winter doing a film, 'Gary the Tennis Coach.' It's a comedy coming out this summer. Gary is Seann William Scott. I'm one of his players on a high school tennis team. It's a screwball comedy about all these kids he rounds up and turns them into state champions."
Jeff Steitzer, who plays the Hillsboro mayor and understudies Brady, keeps the Southern bluster to a minimum, he said. "At the audition, I was a little more Guy Kibbee. and then Doug slowly began taking all of that away. I guess he didn't want it to appear that we were making fun of those people. I grew up in the Midwest so I recognize those people."
The glamour goblet of the evening went to Jill Clayburgh, looking divinely sexy in a new gown. She just did a pilot titled, promisingly, "Dirty Sexy Money," having spent last year doing three plays in a row. She was beaming that the third of these — Keith Bunin's The Busy World Is Hushed — was rating award consideration. "Wasn't it fun that we were nominated for those Lucille Lortel awards?" she (actually) squealed. "It was a beautiful play. I was very happy. That play did not get the reviews I thought it deserved."
Second prize in the beauty department was snapped up by Clayburgh's daughter Lily Rabe. She's movie-making with DeNiro right now.
Christopher Evan Welch, himself award-worthy for his wonderful work in The Scene, said he will play Mercutio in the park this summer to Oscar Isaac and Lauren Ambrose's Romeo and Juliet. Camryn Manheim and Austin Pendleton will do nurse and friar.
Other first-nighters included Blair Brown and Marsha Mason (who, alliteration be damned, will team for the opening play next season at Playwrights Horizons — Brown to direct and Marsha to star), producers Barry and Fran Weissler, Fran Drescher, Annabella Sciorra on the arm of Bobby Cannavale (who's in talks about Terrence McNally's next, Unnatural Acts), Edie Falco (who's planning to be on Broadway next season in The Rose Tattoo), Joan Rivers, novelist Frank McCourt, Mike Wallace (who hasn't caught Stephen Rowe's uncanny impersonation of him in Frost/Nixon — Frank Langella invited him to the opening on April 22) and Brian Murray (McCarter-bound for Edward Albee's new play, Me, Myself and I, after the Gaslight aka Angel Street run at Irish Rep).