PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 'night, Mother

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 'night, Mother Considerable glitz and glitter attended the second Broadway coming of 'night, Mother Nov. 14, despite a subject matter dressed in mourning black.
From Top: Sutton Foster & Megan McGinnis, Denis O'Hare, Jane Krakowski, Barbara Barrie, Bobby Carnavale, Brooke Shields, Annabella Sciorra, Anne Pitoniak, Edie Falco, Brenda Blethyn, Marsha Norman, Michael Mayer
From Top: Sutton Foster & Megan McGinnis, Denis O'Hare, Jane Krakowski, Barbara Barrie, Bobby Carnavale, Brooke Shields, Annabella Sciorra, Anne Pitoniak, Edie Falco, Brenda Blethyn, Marsha Norman, Michael Mayer Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The glitz was given off by the Celebrity Concentrate that showed up at the Royale Theatre, starting with a special Tony Soprano convoy (Aida Turturro, John Ventimiglia, series creator David Chase and a roving HBO camera crew) that showed up in sympathetic support for one of their number who had willingly elected "to buy the farm." The glitter came later at the post-party, courtesy of full twinkle 'n' shine from Tavern on the Green's kilowatt box.

The lineup laid bare in this glare included Tony winners (Sutton Foster, Denis O'Hare, Frank Wood, Jane Krakowski, Williamstown's new artistic director Roger Rees, James Naughton, Andrea Martin), Tony hopefuls (After the Fall's Carla Gugino, Little Women's Megan McGinnis, the once and future Elvis of All Shook Up, Cheyenne Jackson), Oscar winner Timothy Hutton and various degrees of working actors (Barbara Barrie, Bobby Cannavale, Sheri Rene Scott, Wonderful Town's wonderful Brooke Shields, The Rivals' Keira Naughton, Annabella Sciorra, Fat Pig's Ashlie Atkinson, Democracy's Michael Cumpsty, White Chocolate's Lynn Whitfield, Charles Busch, Claudia Shear and the original Mother of 'night, Mother, Anne Pitoniak).

But the true star power of the evening was saved for the stage and shared by a pair of superb actresses, Edie Falco (a.k.a. "Carmela Soprano") and Brenda Blethyn, who work an intricate, powerful two-hander in perfect sync. Marsha Norman's Tony contending Pulitzer Prize winner of 1983 has, as plays go, a hell of an arc: It begins with Thelma Cates (Blethyn), the woman of the house, lamenting the lack of "Snowball" cookies in the cupboard and ends 90 minutes later with her lamenting the loss of a daughter, Jessie (Falco), the workhorse of the house, who, in the interim, has with calm resolve explained why she is considering suicide when her own particular rainbow is not nearly enuf. There is nothing the mother can do or say to stop the tragedy — though, heartbreakingly, she tries.

If you have tears to shed, let 'er rip! Two knowing craftsmen on stage tell you when. Indeed, the Tavern to-do was slow getting started because of major mascara repair after.

"Oh, you can hear the audience reacting," Blethyn admitted later. "I think if I were in the audience, I would feel that, too — just being totally objective. I'm not a Method actor. I always look at the character totally objectively. The performance is her. I don't have her problems. She has the problems. She has to get up the next day to an empty house. She has to carry on, do all those things she said she couldn't do. When you consider her past life — how she has endured an unhappy marriage, taking care of a daughter — you see she's resilient. She deals with it, gets on with it. This is just another thing she has to deal with." "My job is just to play the part as honestly as I possibly can — without patronization, without pity, without self indulgence — just to climb into her skin for an hour and a half."

The performance is Blethyn's first on Broadway. Her only stage appearance in New York was Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in a 1991 production of Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends, and she almost got back for the recent Talking Heads at the Minetta Lane. "I know it's a privilege for me to be here, and I'm very lucky it happened to me."

She's a little hard-pressed to explain how she actually wound up here, though. "For some reason known only to her, Marsha thought of me a long time ago to play this role. I didn't know the play at all. Then it was sent to me a couple of years ago by [director] Michael Mayer, who had seen me in a play in London [Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession]. It just seemed a bit of a pipe dream, and then when I heard that Edie was interested in playing it, we suddenly started saying, 'Oh, let's make this work. This can happen.' And here it is."

Blethyn's big post-play thrill of the evening — "awesome," she called it — was meeting her predecessor in the part, 82 year-old Pitoniak, who, like her original co-star Kathy Bates, vied for 1983's Best Actress Tony Award (Foxfire's Jessica Tandy waltzed off with it).

The evening was, of course, very deja vu for Pitoniak. "I saw how different the two actresses tonight were from Kathy and me," she said, "but that only took a couple of minutes, and then I got right into it. I thought they were terrific. They grew beautifully."

She recalled her first exposure to the play, which was a reading of the unfinished script, but minus the last 15 anguishing minutes. "Marsha had written up to the point where the daughter says, 'I have a box of things for you, Mama.' Kathy and I went over to her apartment on West 72nd, and there were Kleenex boxes around, and we read up to that point. You didn't know how it was going to end. We didn't know. Whether she knew what she was going to do after that, I don't remember. But the rest of it worked okay, then she went on and finished the play."

That was 21 years ago, and the play has in the interim shifted in its emotional weights and meanings — or maybe we just have, like that famous old Mark Twain quote: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years."

"Absolutely," concurred author Norman, who was seated with one of her playwriting students at Juilliard, Noah Haidle, whom she crowed proudly "has a show at Roundabout next season." "The setting for 'night, Mother is still 'Tonight,'" she said, but minimal tweaking brought it up to speed (random references to North Korea, decaf and cordless phones), but she thinks one can see (or, more precisely, feel) a completely different play.

"When you see it 21 years later, the world has changed," she said. "It really feels as if the play has turned itself around and come at it from the other angle. I see it from Mama's point of view now, not Jessie. You see it from a world that's quite comfortable talking about this sort of thing. When 'night, Mother came out, nobody said suicide out loud."

Currently, Norman is deep in musical theatre land. She is working on Princess Caribou with Jenny Giering and Beth Blatt. More immediately — like, "July or next season" — is her adaptation of Alice Walker's novel and Steven Spielberg's movie, The Color Purple, which world-premiered in Atlanta in September under the direction of Gary Griffin. He said he's going to address a Broadway-bound production as soon as he gets "an Encores! or two" out of the way at City Center (The Apple Tree for sure, and the other one in doubt).

Jim Carnahan, who has casting credit for 'night, Mother but claims he was only executing director Mayer's original ideas, is focusing on upcoming projects that have men in leading roles: plumping up The Pillowman with Billy Crudup, Jeff Goldblum, Zeljko Ivanek and lining up John C. Reilly to play Stanley to Natasha Richardson's Blanche in the Streetcar Named Desire revival. "Ed Hall [the director] is coming in this week and we'll do Stellas and Mitches and hopefully the rest of it," Carnahan said. "Then I get a vacation!"

Mayer, having devoted himself entirely to intense theatre work for the past five months (first with After the Fall and now with 'night, Mother), left Tavern early in the evening to make an early morning flight to the West Coast. Hardly a vacation. You might rightly wonder what could possibly follow such double barreled sturm und drang. "Why, he's doing a remake of 'My Friend Flicka,'" his agent, George Lane, told me with the straightest of faces. The Roddy McDowall horse movie?!? "That's right. No, really." He averred it was a great script — "I saw all the drafts" — but couldn't remember who wrote it. And of course Lane, the terrible tease, was not at liberty to say who will star in this born-again "oater."

At the hub of the party commotion was Falco, being pulled on from all sides but behaving generously and graciously to all, taking time to look after her grandmother and still play with friends and relatives and former co-stars. Kevin Geer, currently one of the Twelve Angry Men at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, and Frank Wood, of The God of Hell down at the Westbeth Theatre, constituted the contingent from Side Man, her first Broadway gig (it won her a Theatre World Award when she originated it Off Broadway).

It's more than slightly ironic that her two other Broadway appearances have been in roles originated by Kathy Bates, quite a dissimilar type of actress — Frankie in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune and the daughter in 'night, Mother — but it's a coincidence, she insisted: "Two times I was approached to do plays that she had originated by different people under totally different circumstances, and part of the reason that I agreed to do them was because my memory of them was so rich because of her performances in them."

"I've worked with Kathy before. She has directed me in an episode of 'Oz' and again in a pilot for 'Fargo' that I did years ago, so I called her recently to say I couldn't stop thinking about her because my memory of her performance in this is so infused into the rehearsal process. And she called me back and left me the most loving message." O'Hare numbers among Falco's almost-but-not-quite-co stars. "We did a reading of an Elaine May play that Dan Sullivan directed at MTC last year. I love her. I feel she's so incredibly versatile. She's really versatile. And that was a great performance tonight."

The Oscar that O'Hare has on his immediate horizon is Oscar Linquist, the thin-reed swain of Christina Applegate in Sweet Charity, which starts rehearsing Dec. 20 and will tour its way (from Minneapolis to Chicago to Boston) to Broadway, arriving here for previews April 4, 2005. "I did a workshop of it with Jane Krakowski so I already know what the part is going to feel like. He's kind of a funny nerd who ends up being not a nice guy. He's weak at the end, but humanly weak. It's a good journey. I only do dark musicals so, after Assassins and this, I'm done. There's not anything left. I've done all the dark ones."

Half of the forthcoming Little WomenSutton Foster and Megan McGinnis — were in attendance, and the action of the play was not wasted on them. McGinnis, who plays the doomed Beth, would in fact be well advised to order "a death scene like that!" Foster said she is continuing to research Jo March, who to many minds is the definitive Katharine Hepburn performance. "I've seen two out of the three movie versions of 'Little Women,' and I have the other one at home ready to watch. I'm also reading a Hepburn biography. The role changed her career. She was always trying to repeat what she did in that film."

Actor-playwright Charles Busch, who told The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, had a reading of his latest opus at and for Manhattan Theatre Club last week. "It'll be next season," he said. For now, there are more readings. "I'm the prince of stage readings, I think. A week from Monday, at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, I'm doing Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker — they have a series of readings of great American plays — and the week after that, on Nov. 29 at the Manhattan Center, I'm doing this fabulous concert version of Pippin. I'm playing the grandmother. When did I turn into Irene Ryan? I did one mother role — 'Die, Mommie, Die!' — and suddenly there are grandmother roles. I think very shortly that I'm going to have to do Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm just to get my age back."

Still wearing that honeymoon glow were playwright Jonathan (Geniuses) Reynolds and set designer Heidi (Dracula) Ettinger. He said he has three plays in the works, "one of which is a secret from her. One play is about abortion, and the other is about Roger Williams (no, dummy, not the pianist — "the 17th century religious guy who was the founder of church and state"). Ettinger is in negotiation to do another production of A Little Princess, this for Broadway next season. Her only Main Stem effort for this season is the Beach Boys clambake, Good Vibrations, and, for that, mum's the word. "It's going to be a big surprise," she promised. "There's a really good coup de theatre that happens, and I'm not giving it away." After that, she heads for L.A. Opera to do some Offenbach. "Secrets and surprises — that's what we go by," trilled Reynolds happily, signing off.

Actress Barbara Barrie, present in her capacity as mother of one of 'night, Mother's co-producers (Aaron Harnick), wore the benefits of a summer at the beach. "I'm on salary from Fiddler," she beamed sunnily. "They have to pay me for a year so I can't do another play. I've been doing television in Vancouver and a little Symphony Space, but no plays. I'm on a paid vacation. They fired me so they have to pay me. Isn't it great? I got a raise in October."

Avenue Q's Tony-winning lyricist, Jeff Marx, always ducks the question of what he's up to with a quip. Sunday night he claimed to be working on 'night, Mother: The Musical. The big first-act finish is something called "And I Am Telling You I am Going"...

Brenda Blethyn (left) and Edie Falco give their opening night curtain call
Brenda Blethyn (left) and Edie Falco give their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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