"No cockroaches!" exclaims Jean Smart from her first-class accommodations at the American Airlines Theatre, new home of New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company. "And all this space. It’s not anything like a normal New York dressing room."
Co-starring in a revival of Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, which inaugurates the venue this Wednesday, she needs the room. Her character, the vainglorious actress Lorraine Sheldon, does not hook up with her comedic co-conspirator, the tart-tongued critic Sheridan Whiteside, till deep in Act II. But hers is a grand entrance, befitting her outsized presence—and it’s not just that Smart herself stands 5'10". Everything about Sheldon is big: Her heels, her hair, and most of all her fur stoles, so extravagant in length they seemed to have been carved off a werewolf.
Not to mention her enormous eyelashes, the last remnant of what Smart calls her "armor" as she dresses down between the Wednesday matinee and evening performances. "It’s too tough to pull them off and put them on again," she says, sipping from a bottled water at a neighborhood food court, where she has gone for a break with a reporter. "And, you know, looking like this with them on, I can go out and make some money on Times Square…"
Aided by a cast of clowns led by Nathan Lane, a ringmaster as Whiteside, it is unlikely that Smart will have to resort to unlawful means to put Dinner on her table. Under the spirited direction of Jerry Zaks, on a Tony Walton-designed set that mimics the fine interior detailing of the venue, the show fits right into what was once the Selywn Theatre, where many a thespian like Lorraine Sheldon trod in its heyday. Smart, who played Marlene Dietrich in the Broadway and television versions of Piaf, enjoys the theatrical glamour of the late 30s, when Dinner was first performed.
"The hair, especially. It’s period hair, `Ginger Rogers, Gal Reporter' hair,'" she smiles, before slipping into her imperious Sheldon voice for a brief lecture to the male scribe sitting across from her. "Uncomfortable? My hair, my costuming? I am a woman, and we are used to being uncomfortable. It is the price you pay to look good -- it doesn’t occur to us that this is a bad thing. You can go to the most formal occasion, meeting the Queen of England or visiting the president at the White House, wearing socks and slacks -- this is…incomprehensible…to a female, to wear that kind of attire and be considered dressed to the nines." Dropping the intonation, she admits, "I always have to make sure when I go onstage that my seams are straight, which I get a kick out of; I never do that in real life." Smart is performer of many voices, most notably Southern, her accent for the homespun Charlene on the popular sitcom "Designing Women." For as polished as her current grande dame act is, however, she leaves the hauteur behind as she speaks into a cell phone, arranging to meet up with her husband, actor-director Richard Gilliland, and their 10-year-old son in the interval between the day’s shows. She met Gilliland when both co-starred on "Women."
"I don’t like to stay away from the New York theatre community for too long, and this was the perfect opportunity to come back from L.A., where we live: My son’s out of school for summer, and Richard was directing a workshop here of Ernest Thompson’s The ----- Responds, the male answer to The ------ Monologues, which is going to be remounted this fall in a bigger theatre."
It should be noted that while Sheldon would have no trouble filling in the blanks with the words “Penis” and “Vagina,” Smart, amusingly, chose to glide over the anatomical terms in conversation. As well as several voices, there are several sides to Smart. Her light side is well-known; she just picked up a guest actress Emmy nomination for an episode of “Frasier” last season. There is also a darker side to her roles, which she would like to plumb further. Mixed in there as she juggles her schedules is her favorite part, workaday mom. Ann Sheridan, Warner Bros’ "Oomph Girl," played Sheldon in the 1941 film version of Dinner—does Smart consider herself an "Oomph Girl" of the new millennium? "Yes, you bet!" she laughs, a sound that comes deep from within her throaty register. "If the honor is available, I’ll take it."
Smart, who grew up in Seattle, has garnered a few accolades before these most recent ones. A graduate of the University of Washington, she made her stage debut with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then hit the repertory route, with stops including Pittsburgh, PA, and Hartford, CT. A favorite was the farthest-flung, Alaska Repertory Theater in Anchorage. "It’s a beautiful theatre and we did a great play, Ted Tally’s Terra Nova, the story of Robert Scott and the race to the South Pole. It was all these Arctic explorers and me, the woman who stayed behind in England. I remember touring glaciers when we were weren’t working -- and all of us getting so fat. I think there’s something about that latitude where your body says, `Pack it on! It’s 10 degrees outside! You’re at the end of the world!'"
From the ends of the earth, she made it to the epicenter of the theatre world, New York. Piaf, on Broadway, and a Drama Desk-nominated turn as a lesbian intellectual in the Off-Broadway play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove followed. There have been other New York plays, notably Nicky Silver’s Fit To Be Tied, but West Coast work and family matters have kept her busy for long stretches. "It’s good to be back with this play, because I’ve always liked the part of Lorraine, and I remember watching my older sister in the part of Miss Preen in a school production when I was 13. It’s vivid in my mind. So when they said Nathan Lane, Lorraine Sheldon, Jerry Zaks -- whose direction just bowls me over -- I said, without a second thought, `When do we start? I’m there.'"
Though best known for comedy, Smart maintains an affinity for tough dramatic roles. Once she left "Designing Women," a string of significantly less cheery TV movies followed -- borderline retardation, gay husbands, schizophrenic husbands, the works. In one, "Overkill," she played the real-life role of prostitute Aileen Wuornos, whose plunge into homicide earned her the dubious distinction as America’s first female serial killer. "I felt bad for the families of her victims, and for her, too -- she had absolutely no say in the film or how it was being done, and I’ve always wondered if she saw it and how she felt about it," Smart recalls. "She’s an unfortunate -- doomed from the start. She’s still on death row and if she’s ever executed, I’ll feel very conflicted about it," she adds, trailing off pensively.
On the big screen, she recently won an Independent Spirit Award nomination for a caustic turn in the Miramax film "Guinevere." "I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can look at my work, rather than the horror of seeing myself on a giant screen and saying, `Oh, God, why did they choose that lighting? I’ll never work again,'"she laughs.
Further into darkness, Smart says one of her top professional goals is to reprise Lady Macbeth, who she played in a "very passionate, sexual" vein in Pittsburgh years ago. "And if I had known Kelsey Grammer was going to do it recently, I would have begged him for the part," though that production failed to survive the curse that befalls the Scottish play.
On the upbeat side, she has a new career goal: Musicals. Smart came to New York to audition for Annie Get Your Gun before accepting her Dinner date instead, after Christine Baranski opted out. "I’m a pretty good singer, and I had great fun in L.A. with the Reprise production of Promises, Promises, with Jason Alexander. Musicals are something I never tried when I lived out here -- an acting coach I had told me they were not `legitimate theatre' -- but I find them addictive."
All this must be worked within quality time with her family. Her toughest production was her son: Smart, a diabetic, was advised against childbirth, but that drama, chronicled in People magazine, is well in the past. She is protective of his privacy, though he is less so with hers. "Most of the time I get, `You look like that girl on "Designing Women." Did anyone ever tell you that?' And if he’s with me, he’ll say, `Well, that’s her.' On the subway recently, I was talking to a person who didn’t recognize me, and he said, `Haven’t you seen her before? She was on "Designing Women!" He’s become my press agent."
And her toughest critic. "I took him to see my latest movie, `Disney’s The Kid,' the other night," she relates. “I had a really great scene with Bruce Willis that lasted for about nine minutes when we shot it, but it would up being more like…two…in the final edit," she says, gamely. "When the movie was over, I asked him what he thought, and he said, `Oh, fine, but your part was so small…'"
With that, it was time to rejoin her family, then prepare for the evening performance -- which calls for her (hair, heels, and all) to be stuffed into a sarcophagus at play’s end. "It’s nice to be in there, because Nathan and Lewis J. Stadlen are brilliantly funny together, and when I’m out there with the two of them it’s hard not to laugh."
She may have the last laugh, though, on her spic-and-span dressing room, and its next occupant is advised to scan the premises for some Smart remarks. "I’m thinking, how can I break this place in?" she asks. "Ahh, maybe a little graffiti on the wall, behind the cot…"
-- Robert Cashill