PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Prymate Tackles Issues, Poses Challenges

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Prymate Tackles Issues, Poses Challenges It may have been just I, but the electrical fireflies swarming around Tavern on the Green seemed to be blinking less than their best last night — as if they were bidding goodbye to the Broadway season ending with the May 5 arrival of Prymate.
From Top: James Naughton and Phylis Frelich, Heather Tom and Mark Medoff, Bob Steinberg, Andre De Shields, Jim and Julie Dale, Jean-Claude Baker, Lynn Whitfield, Jane Alexander, David Tom, Priscilla Lopez and Kwame Jackson
From Top: James Naughton and Phylis Frelich, Heather Tom and Mark Medoff, Bob Steinberg, Andre De Shields, Jim and Julie Dale, Jean-Claude Baker, Lynn Whitfield, Jane Alexander, David Tom, Priscilla Lopez and Kwame Jackson Photo by Aubrey Reuben

In any event, the wistful wattage was hardly uncalled for. Tavern saw more first-night wing-dings and wind-downs during the past year than any other elegant eatery — seven in all, said professional party planner Suzanne Toback — and now, for the next few months, it's safe for the tourists to trespass.

Phyllis Frelich signed in the season last July with the Deaf West Theatre's revival of Big River (albeit, in the smallish role of Miss Watson), and now here she was at the finish line, signing out in a star part Mark Medoff had written for her — a deaf scientist engaged in a life-and-death tug-of war with her former boss and lover (James Naughton) over an elderly ape he wants to use for AIDS research. That makes it a season that spanned from Tom Sawyer to Heather Tom, a two-time Emmy winning actress who shows up on the scene to complete Prymate's triangle and translate all the slings 'n' arrows flying around.

Even sweeter and more sentimental was the fact that Prymate premiered at the Longacre, where two dozen years ago Frelich and Medoff started as a Tony-winning team with their Children of a Lesser God. "You know, when I heard we'd do this at the Longacre, it sent chills up my spine," Frelich said through her interpreter. Clearly, she counts it as home.

To Medoff, winning the prizes for Best Play and Best Actress was a kind of double-ring ceremony. "When I wrote Children of a Lesser God and saw her do it, I thought, "She's as good as anybody alive on stage." I became close with her and her husband, Bob Steinberg, who did the Prymate set, and I said, 'I'm going to write for her.' And I have.

"And it hasn't been all that difficult to write for a deaf actress," Medoff admitted. "I did a deaf Scrooge for her [A Christmas Carousel]. In 1988, The Head of Its Enemy was at Manhattan Theatre Club. And I did a play at Deaf West in L.A. called Road to a Revolution." These plays will be published next summer in a collection titled "The Dramaturgy of Mark Medoff: Five Plays Dealing With Deafness and Social Issues." In addition to his 26 plays (When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder among them), Medoff has written 11 screenplays, and "I probably dislike them all equally," he proffered — and that included his Oscar nominated adaptation of his Children of a Lesser God: "The older I get — and as I look at it as years pass — the less it annoys me. But it did annoy me. I felt that in the play the political material was handled much better than in the film — and, when we disagreed, they moved me off the film and did some rewriting that I didn't appreciate."

But it was still an award-winning role: Marlee Matlin, in Frelich's part, got the Oscar. In Prymate, Andre De Shields is Graham the Gorilla — a tricky task which he carries off with considerable care, craft and dignity, thus heading off controversy at the pass. "For me," admitted the author about the inflammatory issue of casting an African American as an ape, "it's a noncontroversy." The idea was the director's, Edwin (The Great White Hope) Sherin, who had worked with De Shields on a "Law & Order" and suggested him for the part to Medoff. "It doesn't matter to me who plays it," the author insisted. "I never cared. I just told Ed I wanted an older actor, someone approximately Phyllis' age."

"We didn't think about it till we got to Tallahassee for the tryout run. Someone raised the issue, and I thought, 'Oh, I see. Yeah, I can see where that would be a problem.' So we decided André should speak to the issue. He said, basically, 'Should gorillas also be the province only of white actors?' I thought, 'Well, okay, I guess that's the end of that!'"

De Shields, schooled in Grotowski-based pre verbal physicality at Chicago's Organic Theatre in the '60s, went after the role as if it were Hamlet and not well-modulated hoots and hollers, moving with an animal instinct informed by a great dancer's physical skill.

"I'm not a dancer, Harry — you should know this by now," he gently contested. "I'm an actor who gives the illusion of dance and song." Whatever, it's a career-lasting illusion, and his strutting through Ain't Misbehavin' still haunts the memory (and the Longacre).

"What helped me with the role was very specific research, just getting information," he said. "I started with the American Museum of Natural History because they have the Prymate Hall there. It is outstanding taxidermy. Then I went up to the Bronx Zoo where they have a harem of 47 living gorillas. The silverback in that harem is called Timmy, and he's the one that I based my character Graham on. Timmy has four mates and 22 children.

"Then, during my first week at Florida State University where we tried the play out, I worked with a Gorilla Behavior Specialist. And maintenance is done with my therapist, Courtney Franklin, who's responsible for my physical fitness. Twice a week we meet, Tuesday and Thursday; on Wednesday and Saturday I meet with my massage therapist."

Robert Walden, one of "Bloody Mama" Shelley Winters' brood (like De Niro), originated the Naughton role in Florida and now understudies it. He's now grayed and goateed in a Great White Hunter way, recently relocated here from L.A. and looking for stage work. His last was a play above the Promenade called Tammy Can Fly. ("It couldn't," he said.)

Next up at the Promenade (June 15) is Jim Dale, seated at the party with wife Julie and director Frank Dunlop, who steered him through Scapino 30 years ago and is now steering him through Address Unknown, a two-character play based a 1932 correspondence of letters that was banned in Nazi Germany. "We started rehearsing Monday with William Atherton," said Dale. "It's a very, very, very powerful play."

Chez Josephine's proprietor Jean-Claude Baker, made the play and party, escorting the HBO image of his mom, gorgeous Lynn Whitfield. Her critique: "It was an interesting play with marvelous performances, but I feel physically concerned about humanity . . ."

Still glamorous Sally Ann Howes, flying high that her old"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" movie will be arriving as a musical on Broadway in the spring from London, said she went over for the show's first night, "and — would you believe it? — I took the last bow on the stage of the Palladium. I said, 'That's what I'm going to do for the rest of my life: Let everyone else work, and then I'll come on for the applause.'" Nice work, and you can get it, girl! The celebrity turn-out, like Tavern's lighting, was a little on the low-voltage side: Jane Alexander was playing Mrs. Sherin and not really fielding any professional questions, but smiling nevertheless and looking elegant as usual. Broadway-bowing Heather Tom was flanked by her also-thespian siblings, David and Nicole, and their parents. Also spotted about: Leonard Nimoy, Tony winner Priscilla Lopez and — has it come to this? — Kwame Jackson of "The Apprentice." Maybe it is time to sign off and start afresh.

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