British Actor Who's Done Everything from Hamlet to Monty Python Returns To Broadway in "School for Scandal"
"I'm the slimy, double-dealing hypocrite," Simon Jones announces at the outset about his role in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1777 comic romp, "The School for Scandal," but the cheeriness in the declaration sorta sours on second thought: "A number of my friends have said, `Oh, that's the perfect part for you.' "
Which is Jones being, simply, Simon. He's not above getting a good laugh at his own expense, but even in his self-deprecating mode, his wit remains as dry as the proper Sardi's martini. In fact, coming at you in the crispiest King's English on American shores, that disorienting orienting-remark seems like something to be devoutly desired. Indeed--as he does Joseph Surface, the play's backstabbing prime mover--it is: "Because this villain is often played as a cold-eyed snake, I've decided it's more fun to actually see the agony he's going through--not to get the audience's sympathy, just so they can see how his mind works. Otherwise, there's no real sense of catharsis at the end."
Surface gets his, in what is often referred to as The Famous Screen Scene in the second act, when the play's principals descend on him--all with special axes to grind--and he has to juggle and/or stash them around the premises, carefully tailoring the conversations that follow, so they won't upset his own gossip-driven apple cart. "It's one of the funniest scenes in the canon," insists Jones, "and it's our duty to make sure it stays up to that standard."
His fellow standard-bearers come from three different sources, this revival being the first team effort of the National Actors Theatre, the Great Lakes Theatre Festival and The Acting Company. The project has paired the artistic directors of the first two--actor Tony Randall and director Gerald Freedman--with members of the latter (including two--Mary Lou Rosato and Norman Snow--who were in a famous 1972 "The School for Scandal" Freedman directed with Juilliard graduates like Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, David Ogden Stiers, David Schramm, Mary Joan Negro and Sam Tsoutsouvas); co-starring with Randall and Jones in the current resurrection at the Lyceum are Kate Forbes and Philip Goodwin. Prior to its Broadway arrival, the production got its acts together out of town--at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival in Cleveland--alas, at the height of its recent World Series fever. Jones recalls a couple coming backstage to congratulate him on opening night. "The lady said, `I did miss a few lines of dialogue,' then felt it necessary to explain that her husband was, in fact, listening to the game through earphones. One does lose a few of the punchier jokes that way. Then, there would be performances where car horns would go off, celebrating victory downtown, and noisy fireworks in the stadium."
It was inevitable that the 45-year-old Brit would fall in with Randall's dream of an American repertory company, since his own acting roots go back to rep--to "dark, satanic mills in Yorkshire," then to fortnightly rep at Crewe, Cheshire and three-weekly rep at the Derby Playhouse. West End, happily, ended his rep days, and his performance in the original London company of "Privates on Parade" was deemed good enough to reprise for the movie version (unlike the play's star, the brilliant Nigel Hawthorne, who was replaced by John Cleese).
"John and I spent much time sitting around chatting during the filming, and I remember him saying, `I think we have more to talk about. Why don't you come and play a few more lines in 'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life'?' I said, `Well, there isn't much to do. You all play every part, including the women.' He said, `Yes, but occasionally we write sketches with seven people in and need somebody to deliver the odd line.' At the end of the shoot, he said, `We may not have made you a star, but at least we taught you how to overact.' "
"The Meaning of Life" led to other films fashioned by Python players Michael Palin ("American Friends") and Terry Gilliam ("Brazil" and the forthcoming "Twelve Monkeys"), and it led to marriage--to Nancy Lewis, the American manager/ publicist for Monty Python. "Her main principal function was that she knew all the seven combination locks to the hospitality fridge, so obviously she became a magnet on my attentions." They live in a lovely apartment on Central Park South. Son Timothy is six.
Jones will gently jostle your memory with the "little-known fact" that the last Broadway Hamlet before the Tony-winning one by Ralph Fiennes was his, "and it also had the benefit of being short"--very short: "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet," the curtain-raiser for "The Real Inspector Hound." ("I was described as `dizzying,' I think, by The New York Times.") Both antics were the work of Tom Stoppard, and Jones is in several ways the perfect Stoppard spokesman. He made his Broadway debut in one Stoppard ("The Real Thing" with Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close and Christine Baranski) and did another ("Hapgood") in L.A. He also served Michael Frayne well in "Benefactors" with Close again, Sam Waterston and Mary Beth Hurt. "It was the only play in that season to actually make any money."
He has played Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" productions in Florida, Michigan and New Jersey, and he co-starred with Joan Collins in a hellbent-for-Broadway revival of "Private Lives," dining out for years on the anecdotes that produced. "We played these huge auditoria around the country--in a bizarre itinerary where we crisscrossed the country, filling in slots wherever there were. We were heavily miked everywhere. In Miami the laughs seemed to be a bit thin on the ground, and we thought it was the acoustics. Later, we learned the ushers kept going around, hushing people because they thought it was disrespectful."
His favorite, and perhaps best-known, performance was that of "Bridey" in the prize-winning British miniseries, "Brideshead Revisited." Rarely has such an unexciting character been set forth in such an endearing fashion. The bland design of the role would have frightened lesser actors away, but Jones displayed the craft that gained entry for himself as well as for the audience.
Essentially, he says, he's up for anything. "You never know how something will turn out. In fact, I think it gets worse as you go along. It's not, then, just accepting work that comes along because you need it--that's a given--it's the right thing to do. The more you do, the better it is. If you're Sly Stallone, you get a lot of different scripts, and you must decide which will enhance your reputation. If you make bum decisions, you're stuck. It doesn't get easier."
That's why Simon Jones, character man, can plead guilty as charged to "slimy, double-dealing hypocrite" and take no small amount of pride in that fact.
-- By Harry Haun