PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Country Girl — Welcome to the (Same) Theatre

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Country Girl — Welcome to the (Same) Theatre Theatre lovers united April 27 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre for a chewy slice of backstage strife, which Clifford Odets cutely and bucolically called The Country Girl.

Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand, Chip Zien and Peter Gallagher, Anna Camp, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Remy Auberjonois and Mike Nichols.
Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand, Chip Zien and Peter Gallagher, Anna Camp, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Remy Auberjonois and Mike Nichols. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The older first-nighters recognized the rallying place as the beloved old Royale, and they were reminded of the spirits that still inhabit the building by the décor of the last scene — a star dressing room only a few feet away from the one it purports to be.

Plastered about the place are posters of the Royale's past attractions — Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie (peddling subscriptions to "The Homemaker's Companion" to friends unfortunate enough to answer the phone), Martita Hunt in The Madwoman of Chaillot, Margaret Rutherford in The Importance of Being Earnest, Paul Robeson in Othello — a production that cost Desdemona (Uta Hagen) her marriage to Iago (Jose Ferrer), Queenie Smith in Every Thursday, John Barclay in The Pirates of Penzance

This particular evening belongs to Frank Elgin (Morgan Freeman), who is making a triumphant comeback, after a few alcoholic backslides and confidence meltdowns that have made mortal enemies — then lovers — of his entire support system, his wife Georgie (Frances McDormand) and his director, Bernie Dodd (Peter Gallagher).

Suddenly feeling like the most useless person in the audience, director Dodd retreats to Elgin's dressing room where he finds Georgie blithely knitting. He can't help but ask why she isn't out front watching her husband fulfill his finest hour.

"On opening night," replies Georgie, "I don't need to sit out there with all of those nabobs and critics." In delivering the line this particular evening, McDormand stepped slightly outside of it, cocked her head to the side and looked at the audience. It brought the house down, and she was still fielding compliments for it hours later at the Tavern on the Green after-party. "I had to do it," she giggled. "I had one night, right? That's the only chance I get. Our maestro was very, very pleased about that."

"Our maestro," of course, was Mike Nichols, who hasn't directed a drama on Broadway since Death and the Maiden in 1992 and a revival since Uncle Vanya in 1973. But Odets' 1950 lace-free valentine to theatre life carried special resonance for him: "I always wanted to do this play, even when I was a little kid," Nichols said on opening night. "I don't know why. I just like it. I like the idea. I like the idea of the great actor being a big baby, too. I was looking a long time for Morgan and I to do something together, and so was he. He found a movie that didn't work for me so well, so I got him interested in the play. That's how we started, and he wanted Frances and I said, 'What a great idea!' I wanted Peter because we had worked together in the past."

Elgin's festering insecurities would seem to run counter to Freeman's image of manly assurance, so why would he want to take on the role? "Why not?" he shot back after the opening performance. "I don't know. I'm not supposed to know. Mike says, 'Let's do it.' I say, 'Okay, it must be one of his bold moves.'" It has to be said that, from the beginning, the actor doesn't coast on his solid screen persona. From the moment he tentatively steps on stage to audition, his brow is ruffled with concern, and he's all too quick to chuck it all. "Well, see? I was told I was coming on too strong." From first to last, he surprises.

Diane Sawyer, Julia Roberts, Amy Adams, Steve Martin, Ellen Barkin, Lily Rabe and Denis Leary with Ann Leary.
photos by Aubrey Reuben

In the title role that won a Tony for Uta Hagen and an Oscar for Grace Kelly, McDormand delivers a multi-level performance — a self-effacing and supportive wife who remains steadfast even when her weak and panicked husband portrays her as a manipulative heavy. "You ride him like a broom," concludes Dodd. "You're a bitch." Gallagher completes the triangle as the hard-nosed director who myopically confuses the good Elgin with the bad one because of his own anguished past (a bitter divorce and a boozy father). "You can't do much if you don't have a great part, and I finally have a great part," he said. "It's the second time I've worked with Mike. [They did the original Broadway production of The Real Thing together.] That was the draw for me. For 24 years, I was hoping I'd get another chance. I adore Morgan. Frances and I have worked together before in movies — 'Short Cuts,' 'The Player.'"

Remy Auberjonois plays the oft-forgotten man of the theatre, the playwright, and does it with Odets-style hair. "I'm doing my best echo of Odets. I'm not doing him per se, but physically I knew I had the curls so I figured why hide my light under a bushel?" Auberjonois got to speak with Walt Odets, the late author's son who was around for a week in the rehearsal room and witnessed the result on the final critics' performance, and they talked about the kind of playwright Odets was presenting here. Auberjonois said, "Every time my character leaves the room, Morgan's character says, 'I love that kid. Not a spot of ego in him.' And I think that was Odets' little joke about himself.

"I think Odets has given this playwright an insightfulness, but I also think he's got a naiveté that's fun to play. He's that thing — he's a writer, he observes, he sees people, he gets people, but then there are whole things that, as people do, we don't get."

Anna Camp, who last season won a Lortel nomination for her performance in The Scene, makes the big step up to Broadway as the airhead ingénue Elgin contends with. And what could be better than having your debut directed by Mike Nichols? "He is so wise and has a fantastic sense of humor. Every day in rehearsal was just wonderful. He told me to twirl a lot. He likes twirling. He mentioned a little bit about Katharine Hepburn flitting in and out whimsically in her early films."

Nichols also steered Chip Zien to a different take on the not-very-nice producer. "Right from the get-go," he said, "Mike was saying, 'The producer is always the cigar-smoking, bald, angry guy. Let's find some other way to go.' So we tried to show a history between my character and Bernie Dodd — that we'd done shows together, we love each other, we fight with each other. That's why he's reaching in my pockets all the time for a lighter — tapping me on the forehead — doing things. We were trying to find ways in which it would show that we've had some sort of relationship. Little things like that became sorta the whole kind of idea of what my little part is."

The poster art for The Country Girl marked the return to show business (from advertising) for artist Paul Davis, whose broad-stroked theatrical posters provided the distinctive look for The Public for two decades (The Cherry Orchard and Sam Waterston's Hamlet come immediately to mind). Returning to Tavern on the Green was something of a sentimental journey for him and his wife Myrna. They got married at Tavern 42 years ago.

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz gets Playbill credit for "Material Revisions" to The Country Girl. "Sorcerer's Apprentice," perhaps? "Friend of the Court," he countered. "I was an extra pair of eyes. Mike and I did some tiny adjustments here and there, tiny curatorial ones. And I came to rehearsals occasionally and said wonderful encouraging things as though there was a living playwright."

As for his own writing, he is just putting the finishing touches to the book of a big musical. He was so excited about it he couldn't contain himself — but did, dammit.

Bob Boyett, who is producing The Country Girl with Bill Haber, The Shuberts, Daryl Roth / Debra Black and more money bags than you can shake a sawbuck at, said he has dibs on the Jacobs Theatre next: "We'll do 13, Jason Robert Brown and Dan Elish's new musical. It'll come to this theatre the first week in September." The show, directed by Jeremy Sams and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, plays an engagement in May at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre. Boyett expects to use basically the same cast and crew. True to its title, he says, "It's about a young man who's 13, about to have his bar mitzvah and living in New York with his mom and dad. His father leaves with an air hostess and his mom moves to a small town in the Midwest, and he has to reorient his whole life. Essentially, it's sort of a coming of age story."

The most pronounced British accent among the first-nighters belonged to David Grindley, who helmed last season's Tony-winning Best Revival (Journey's End) and this season's Pygmalion. "I'm just here for some meetings at the moment," he said. "At Manhattan Theatre Club, I'm hoping to do the Richard Greenberg play, The American Plan, which will happen in the fall. I became acquainted with Richard's work when I saw Three Days of Rain at the Donmar Warehouse in London with Colin Firth, David Morrissey and Elizabeth McGovern — and I was quite blown away. Then when I bought the collected works of Richard's, this was a play I really thought was great. I've been trying to do it for a couple of years so we'll see what happens."

And speaking of Three Days of Rain, the star of its Broadway production — Julia Roberts — returned to the scene of her drizzling debut (back in '06 when it had been freshly christened the Jacobs). It was a show of support for Nichols, who helmed her recently in "Charlie Wilson's War." The paparazzi went into eye-popping ecstasy.

Her co-star in that flick, Amy Adams, also got the flash bombardment. "I'm here for Mike and for Frances, who I just worked with in 'Miss Pedigrew Lives for a Day.' It was a blast. She's a wonderful lady, and I'm just so happy to be here." Enough to seriously consider doing some theatre? "Oh, I would love to. It's always something on my mind."

Natalie Portman motored into the theatre as if she was on a moped, indifferent to the pleas of the fotogs, and Steve Martin similarly slipped in unnoticed, hiding his signature white locks under a hat. Who says people don't wear hats anymore?

Also attending: Stanley Donen and Elaine May, David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary, Joel Coen, Barry Dillon and Diane von Furstenberg, Ellen Barkin, Tina Louise, Lily Rabe, Jan and Tony Walton, Michael Greif, Jack O'Brien and Marsha Mason, Celia Weston, Rob Ashford, Heather Randall, John Benjamin Hickey, Jamie deRoy, Liz McCann, Peter Shaffer and the luscious-looking Diane Sawyer.

The cast of <i>The Country Girl</i> takes its opening night bow.
The cast of The Country Girl takes its opening night bow. Photo by Aubrey Reuben