You can take the boy out of the dress, but you can't take him out of the kitchen, it seems.
In this critically cheered revival of R.C. Sherriff's largely autobiographical play of 1929, Mays putters about offstage, fastidiously whooping up exotic dishes for the tired and tarnished British brass, serving them with the elan of a five-star restaurant major-domo. It's madness, of course, but it's well-meant. "He's trying his best with limited resources."
Fancying himself a master chef with meager means is Private Mason's method of coping with his immediate reality: a dingy, dimly lit dugout that smells of cigarettes, whiskey, candle-wax and morning bacon, situated close to the frontlines near St. Quentin, France.
"This is a play I've wanted to do since I was 12 years old," confessed Mays. "I saw John McMartin and Edward Herrmann in it at Long Wharf Theatre, and it has been a 30-year-old dream of mine. I just love all the characters. It's like Chekhov, y'know — not a bad role among 'em. I wanted any role. I love this play so much. I simply told the director, David Grindley, 'I'm at your disposal, sir. Put me where you will.' And he did."
As fussy as Mays' Mason is about food preparation, that's how unfussy Boyd Gaines is as Lieutenant Osborne, preparing to meet his maker in all probability with a daylight raid behind German lines. Even here, he manages a stiff upper-lip and keeps the ache at bay. "That's David Grindley — that's really all his input," says Gaines, passing the credit along. "He is so passionate about the piece, and he found a bunch of actors who were equally passionate about it. We all dove in head first. He knows the play intimately, backwards and forwards. His overriding direction was 'Trust the play. The play will support you.'"
It seems only yesterday Gaines was a peach-fuzzed teen making raids on Porky's, then you blink, and here he is the most senior officer around, a stolid sounding board for the young soldiers. "The director said, 'He's a pipe-and-slippers man,' and I went, 'Okay. I know what that means.' I don't leave the stage for the entire first half. My character's the one who really listens all the time, so I get to enjoy these fantastic young actors — they're just so good — and some great veterans as well, like John Curless and John Ahlin."
Ahlin is the portly-plus 2nd Lieutenant Trotter who provides what merriment there is on this frayed war front (there is a surprising degree of it, by the way). "Almost the first words out of David Grindley's mouth is that Trotter brings on this energy," recalled the actor. "Everyone knows a Trotter, and I actually have been a Trotter most of my life. Life in the theatre can be drudgery sometimes. It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, 'The most important thing is deportment, how you carry yourself.' So years ago I made up my mind, no matter what the situation, to be positive and to push forward and to get through it. That's what Trotter does, and I think that's why people respond to him. He likewise — like everybody else in the trenches — is displacing what's really going on: There's this German army 50 yards away, intent on killing them all. How do you deal with that? You think of something else. Trotter eats and he tells stories and he cajoles. David Grindley said, 'It's so vital that you come on with all that energy' — so that's just how I approached it."
Despite the degree of believable British that is spoken here, only one authentic Englishman was imported for the play — Hugh Dancy as the haunted, booze-fueled commander of the group, Captain Stanhope. Like the two young 2nd Lieuies of the cast (Stark Sands as Raleigh and Justin Blanchard as Hibbert), it's his Broadway debut.
"I didn't have time to be intimated by that," Dancy admitted. "It was a very demanding part so I just had to get on with it and do the best I could." Stanhope happens to be the first leading role to be played by Laurence Olivier, who was 21 at the time. "I try not to think about that too much," said Dancy. "It's not helpful. It's a little crushing, in fact."
Like Olivier, Dancy has done screen time in court of Queen Elizabeth. He was Helen Mirren's Errol Flynn (Essex in the TV movie, "Elizabeth I"), and he has no doubts that Elizabeth II (i.e., "The Queen") will win Dame Helen the Academy Award on Sunday.
His newest movie opens here March 9 — "Beyond the Gates," about the Rwanda genocide.
"It's not an easy film to watch," he allowed. "It's a bit like this play, in a way, because it does actually repay in engaging with it. It's so much more powerful than your average film. I'm like everybody else when it comes to going to the cinema. It's easy to say, 'I'll watch this sequel or this light comedy,' but sometimes you get something very special."
The particular role that he plays in this tragic occurrence, he said, is "an amalgam of characters. He's the conduit through which we, as a Western audience and as people who might imagine ourselves in that situation, learn about the events of the genocide."
After these two projects, his next career move should be toward Death Takes a Holiday.
Sands, as the youngster who allows his schoolyard hero-worship of Stanhope to lead him into harm's way, could have been cast from his glossy. He has the unseasoned look of wet-behind-the-ears idealism that shatters quickly in a first fierce brush with combat.
As the company malingerer, Blanchard also has some quick growing-up to do on the battlefield. "It's not easy to bring yourself to this every night, and I don't want it to be," he admitted. "I always say I want to leave the theatre wringing wet so I put myself through the wringer of being this man. The men we represent are owed that, I think."
Richard Poe, who is seen as the god-playing colonel of the piece, fell in love with the play on first reading. "When they first sent it to me," he said, "I started reading it, and I could not stop. I read it in a sitting, and that's a pretty good indication the thing works."
Journey's End produced beginnings from the get-go. When it debuted as a play, it turned its author from a nondescript insurance clerk with some horrifying war memories into one of the last century's foremost dramatists of stage and screen. The play took director James Whale and actor Colin Clive to Broadway and then on to Hollywood where they would reteam, famously, a year later for "Frankenstein."
Now it has opened the door to Broadway for Grindley, who insists the play was not brushed-up and tweaked for U.S. audiences or even for his smash "dry run" in London.
"There are a couple of edits," he conceded, "but in terms of rewriting — no no no. It's about playing the text, about mining the text and giving it a reality and an authenticity.
"For me, personally, a key moment was when I recognized that they were engaged in a very modern notion in the trenches, which was displacement activity — i.e, in order to insure the war doesn't invade their minds, every character had a vigorous displacement activity to keep their mind off it. Trotter eats and makes people laugh. Stanhope drinks and works. Osborne listens. Mason creates with pitiful ingredients these extraordinary nouvelle cuisine menus. And the only person who can't do that is Hibbert, and, as a result, he can't live there any longer — he's got to leave because he's consumed by his fear.
"Once you latch on to that idea, it gives the show a vigor and an animation that previously seemed maybe a bit reflective, a little bit sober and slow — whereas with this production, and particularly with these actors, there's a dynamic and a drive. They need to tell a story, and they're constantly taking the audience by surprise. Particularly here. The reaction from the audience is incredible. They're listening harder than they had before, and they're laughing harder because I don't think they know the show. They've never heard of it.
"In England, it's a very well-known, tried-and-trusted war-horse. It worked there because we reinvented it for a contemporary audience. They didn't realize the show could be played in this way whereas here nobody knows what's going to happen next. As a result, they are much more engaged than I could possibly imagine. They're desperate to know what's going to happen next and desperate to release the tension when they're allowed to." Truth to tell, Olivier only performed Journey's End two times, according to Grindley. "Originally, it was given two staged performances — sort of like rehearsed readings — at the Apollo Theatre in London in front of the public, critics and also producers with the future hope of giving it a fully staged production. Nobody trusted it or wanted to produce it because it didn't have enough going for it. All the conventional producers said, 'Sorry, we're not going to put it on because it's about the war and that's only 10 years ago. It's still too close to home. There's no leading lady. It's an all-male cast. And it's not in this lovely English drawing room with French windows overlooking glorious English countryside. It's in a dug-out underground, lit only by candles. We can't do it.' And it was this maverick Maurice Brown who put on the show, but, by the time he committed to the show, Laurence Olivier had already signed up for Beau Geste so the original cast from the reading did the show, except Laurence Olivier who was replaced by Colin Clive."
Beverly Sills, of all improbable people, led the big — well, medium-sized — parade of first-nighters. Claire Danes was there (on Dancy's arm), and the I Am My Own Wife contingent included producer David Rosenthal and Pulitzer Prize author Doug Wright.
Director Christopher Ashley was spied chatting amiably in the aisle with his ex-Xanadu leading lady, Jane Krakowski. "I'm recasting as we speak," he yelled (meaning, in particular and with some urgency, her role). It wasn't an easy show for Krakowski to walk away from. "I'm glad people like the workshop because I had a great time doing it," she said, "but it conflicted with my '30 Rock' schedule and I couldn't make it work so I'm disappointed. My heart was torn. I loved both jobs, and I'm sad I couldn't do both."
Another Christopher heeding another NBC calling is Christopher Sieber, back from London's Spamalot and poised to begin a pilot tentatively title "Wildlife." "I play a head zookeeper who's very eccentric and egomanical," he said. It being an NBC-Universal enterprise, it will be shot in L.A. at Universal in "late March-early April, which is great because we booked a vacation to go to Hawaii for two weeks, and I think it's going to overlap. The best way to get a job is to book a very expensive, extensive vacation."
Annie Golden, from The Full Monty, was in the first big wave of opening-night celebs to stream through the doors of Bond 45: "I just saw somebody pushing by Lynn Redgrave. I said, 'Okay, don't be pushing Lynn Redgrave around.' She turned around, and she went, 'Oh, darling, he's on a mission.' I said, 'Yeah. To get a drink.' She appreciated that."
Deuce hasn't even begun official rehearsals, and already Marian Seldes is waxing eloquent about her co-star, Angela Lansbury: "Angela — isn't she an angel! You can't take your eyes off her beautiful face. We go down to Terrence's house [their playwright, Terrence McNally] and we do the play together, and I think it is the most wonderful face I've ever looked into. We love each other already. We depend on each other already."
Mary Stuart Masterson was present, with some unexpected news: "I just finished directing a film," she beamed. "It's in the blood." Her dad (Peter Masterson) directed her mom (Carlin Glynn) to a Tony (for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). Bruce Dern, Elizabeth Ashley and Kristen Stewart star in the picture which is, right now, between titles. "Today I changed the title from 'The Cake Eaters' to 'Bright Light of Day.'"
Not that the Tony nominee for Nine is turning in her Actors' Equity card: "I'm always looking for a play. That's my favorite thing to do. David Grindley, in fact, directed me in a play at the Old Vic called National Anthems with Kevin Spacey and Steven Weber."
Liz Callaway, off to Chicago in a week and a half with Malcolm Gets to do a concert version of Working for the Actors Fund, was raving about how powerful the evening's entertainment had been. Her husband, director Dan Foster, had seen the London version, with David Haig (an Olivier Award winner for Mary Poppins) in the Boyd Gaines role.
A New Brain's Michael Mandell and The Times They Are A-Changin's Thom Sesma both mentioned that the power of the play was strongly connected to the times we live in.
"You know why it held up so well?" said Sesma. "Because you had a director and a cast who trusted the material so completely. They treated it like it was brand new and didn't try to flesh it out with any sort of layered-on irony. They just let the play speak for itself."