Alan Arkin, one of the best underplayers in the business, is not given to overstatement -- onstage or off -- so it's surprising to find him reaching for superlatives when asked if he and Elaine May had ever worked together before their present team effort at Off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre, Power Plays.
"Thirty years ago, we were considered two of the best improvisers at Second City [in Chicago], but we'd never worked together -- so they finally got us on the stage together, thinking, 'Oh, boy, this is going to be something.'" His voice slips into the third degree of gravity at this point. "We were responsible for the single worst improvisation in the history of Second City. I think it's in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest, and worst, improvisation ever done."
The only reason he brings it up now is that Power Plays is intended to be their public atonement. "This is our way of, hopefully, redeeming ourselves," he ventures tentatively.
The flop sweat was so intense that long-ago night that the two have -- until now -- operated in separate universes. Arkin moved from Second City to Broadway, which he, in character, chose to Enter Laughing, winning a Tony Award as a facsimile of the young Carl Reiner and following that with another acclaimed performance in Luv. As irony would have it, those were the first two (of only five) films May did as an actress -- and Arkin was not in either, having pressed on to Oscar-nominated performances in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
When they weren't acting, they were directing -- in different mediums: May started onstage, winning a Drama Desk Award for directing Adaptation, and moved on to helming films like A New Leaf and Mikey and Nicky, leaving the theatre to Arkin, who staged two Jules Feiffer opuses (Little Murders, which he redid as a film, and The White House Murder Case, which won him an Obie for direction); he also staged the original production of The Sunshine Boys (which, in its current revival, features his second son, Matthew, as the enabling nephew).
When these two comic spirits switched to a third profession, it was again the same: writing. May most recently scripted The Birdcage and Primary Colors for her former onstage comedy partner, Mike Nichols, to direct -- and now Arkin is finally putting his oar in as a playwright of a third of the Power Plays.
If the reception the Plays got in their Seattle liftoff is any yardstick, Arkin and May are well on their way back into our good graces as a creditable combo. "It was very successful," says Arkin, returning to his understatement mode. "We got standing ovations almost every night. I don't know whether we deserved it, but the people there seemed to feel we did. No, I can't be wildly unhappy about that. Better to have a standing ovation than to have people walking out."
Power Plays is a three-ply assault on the funny bone -- one part Arkin (Virtual Reality) and two parts May (The Way of All Fish and In and Out of the Light) -- and all three are briskly stirred by Arkin the director. Of his first playlet, he is predictably parsimonious. All he'll say, in fact, is that it's about two men meeting in an empty warehouse and the resulting comedy "is a cross between Ionesco and Mamet, if such a thing is possible." Given their own charred history as a comedy team, how did Arkin know he could finally share the same stage with May as both an actor and a playwright? "I didn't know," he confesses quickly. "I hoped." As it turned out -- happily -- she was a dream to direct. "I think our senses of humor dovetail. When I look in her eyes, I feel that we're working from the same place."
Is there a common theme that connects his play with the two of hers that follow it? Kinda, he says: "The first two are definitely about power struggles or related to power struggles, and the third one is only loosely related to that idea."
Beyond content, there is a very primal link in terms of casting. In his opus, his co-star is his son, Anthony Arkin; in the first of hers, playing the docile secretary to May's high-strung executive is her daughter, Jeannie Berlin. (Berlin is the only daughter to have actually been directed by her own mother to an Oscar nomination -- as the very abbreviated bride of The Heartbreak Kid.) Then, all four join forces for the farcical finale, a family-affair free-for-all that takes place in a dentist's office.
Arkin has three sons -- "all actors, and," he is happy to note, "all working." First-born Adam is an Emmy-nominated regular on "Chicago Hope"; when he made his Broadway bow in I Hate Hamlet, he won a Theatre World Award as one of the year's most promising newcomers, and it was presented to him by a proud papa, who had won his for Enter Laughing. Matthew, as mentioned, is in The Sunshine Boys, making his Broadway bow, and Power Plays has put Anthony on the Off-Broadway map. "He got wonderful attention in Seattle," is all his dad will say. The two recently did a well-received short film, Samuel Beckett Is Coming, with the patriarch calling the camera shots.
"Adam was the only one of the three for whom it was an early calling. Matthew became a lawyer, then decided about five years ago he couldn't stand the law. He told me his worst day as an actor was better than his best day as a lawyer."
Arkin doesn't think that Anthony looks like him, and the nepotism is not really necessary to make Power Plays work, but "it is kinda nice that Elaine and I are both working with our offspring." The family casting, he insists, came about totally by chance. "I wrote a fairly long one-act play, and I asked my friend Julian Schlossberg if he'd like to hear it read, just for fun. He said, 'Sure,' and he invited a bunch of people, so I asked Tony that afternoon if he wanted to read it with me. We rehearsed it once and did the reading. Then afterwards, Julian came running up, and he said, 'It's wonderful. Let's do it.' Elaine was right next to him -- she's his closest friend, I guess -- and she said, 'If you and Tony are going to do it, I'll write a piece for me and Jeannie.' That's how it happened."
And that's how Power Plays at last put to rest an improvisational fright-night, re-uniting "two of the best improvisers at Second City." Arkin & May -- Together Again!
-- By Harry Haun