Perhaps it was inevitable that Zoe Caldwell — who "makes theatre" (her own personal little idiom for "acting") — and Yasmina Reza — who made Art (her Broadway-debuting, Tony-winning play) — would eventually cross paths and make beautiful music together.
What is unusual is that it took an Italian–American director (the actor John Turturro) and a Polish–American translator (the playwright David Ives) to achieve this distinguished alliance of the Australian actress and the French dramatist …in something titled A Spanish Play.
Classic Stage Company is currently flying all of these eclectic national colors — and proudly, returning Caldwell to the New York stage for the first time since her 1995 performance as Maria Callas in Master Class. That won her her fourth Tony Award.
Her third Tony was for one of Callas's most famous roles, Medea, and rather fearlessly she had her Tony-winning predecessor in that part, Judith Anderson, play her nurse. Her second Tony performance was as the Scottish molder/mangler of young minds in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Her primary source of inspiration for the performances above was Robert Whitehead, a true gentleman of the theatre. He produced the first and last and directed the second, and he was Caldwell's husband for 34 years and the father of their two sons, Sam and Charles. One of Broadway's most prolific and respected impresarios, he produced the original productions of The Member of the Wedding, A View From the Bridge, Separate Tables, The Visit, A Touch of the Poet, A Man for All Seasons and A Few Good Men. When he died on June 15, 2002, Mister Class went out with Master Class.
Not unlike Norma Shearer without her Irving Thalberg, Caldwell profoundly felt the absence of the number one person in her audience and fled the spotlight. "It's been hard for me to get back into life, really — let alone theatre," she admits. "I hid, is what I did."
But not successfully. A creature of theatre since she played, at age nine, Slightly Soiled, one of the Lost Boys, in a Melbourne Peter Pan, Caldwell did benefits about town and occasional openings; she even acted, albeit out of town, as Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music — first at Ravinia with Patti LuPone, then with the L.A. Opera with Judith Ivey. "I had to join the musicians' union and was very impressed with that, but I can't sing." (Ah, but to hear "Liaisons" in her wood-rasp voice is heaven!)
Would she be willing to do it again for the East Coast? "Nooooo. I did it in Los Angeles with a mahvelous conductor and a mahvelous cast, and I thought, 'My goodness me! This is a big prize to be given.' I knew I must stop there. I doubt if I'd ever do it again. I mean, who knows? I'm just inching my way back into theatre."
The play's the thing — always — and it's pulling her back home, to the theatre. "I'm coming back because it's a play I really loved reading, and I admire Yasmina's work enormously. Then, when I saw what the company was! To be given a chance to be part of a company again, it is Big Time." (For the record, her company of co-stars consists of Larry Pine, Denis O'Hare, Linda Emond and Katherine Borowitz.)
"It's just five people, something to do with the theatre. Actors. They're doing a play — A Spanish Play. They speak to someone — the audience or someone — about their thoughts as a person, but the line between who they are as a person and how well they're cast grows smudgy. Fact is, you're not sure all the time. You get suckered in with them in real life."
What was her attraction to her character, the diva in residence? "She's over 70, which I liked. I thought she was a feminine creature. You want to swat her every now and then because she's also very annoying, but you don't ever want to stab her."
And what does she think the audience will make of A Spanish Play? "I hope they laugh. It should be a comedy. But who knows — till you've played with the audience in front of you? It could be a comedy one night and not so funny the next night."
Words of wisdom from the woman who won her first Tony for Slapstick Tragedy. "Do you know why I got that Tony? Because I did exactly what the playwright had written, to the last comma, question mark. Whatever he asked of me to do, I did, and that's why I won the Tony - not because I'm some rich and rare person - just because I followed the playwright, and the playwright happened to be Tennessee Williams."
Still, a "rich and rare" fact remains: She has never lost a Tony. "I haven't?" she blanches, sincerely astonished. (Only Angela Lansbury equals that four-for-four record.) A shrug. "It doesn't hold water for the rest of your life. You get older and less able to do a cupful."
Putting her foot back on a New York stage is a big step for Zoe Caldwell. There are no plans for step two. She opts for understatement: "I'm jumping into the water, and, if I drown, then I won't have any more plans. If I swim, I'll maybe have some [plans]."
(Harry Haun pens Playbill.com's On Opening Night columns.)