STAGE TO SCREENS: Merkerson, McDonagh, Stritch, Balaban, LaVoy

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Merkerson, McDonagh, Stritch, Balaban, LaVoy
 
This month, we speak with S. Epatha Merkerson (Come Back, Little Sheba); Martin McDonagh ("In Bruges"); Elaine Stritch (At Liberty at Café Carlyle); Bob Balaban ("Bernard and Doris"); and January LaVoy ("One Life to Live").

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S. Epatha Merkerson, a 1990 Tony nominee for August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, returns to Broadway as Lola Delaney in the first Main Stem revival of William Inge's 1950 play Come Back, Little Sheba.

Kevin Anderson, who received a 1999 Tony nomination as Biff in Death of a Salesman, plays Lola's husband, Doc. "He's quite fabulous," says his co-star. The Manhattan Theatre Club production began previews Jan. 3, at the Biltmore, prior to a Jan. 24-March 30 run.

S. Epatha Merkerson and William Inge's niece, Jean Inge.
photo by Walter Willison

Last summer, Merkerson played Lola at L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theatre (where Inge's niece, Jean, praised her performance). Says Merkerson, "We have five new actors for Broadway. Our milkman (Matthew J. Williamson), the neighbor, Mrs. Coffman (Brenda Wehle), and the postman (Lyle Kanouse) are all the folks from L.A." For Come Back, Little Sheba, which established the Kansan William Inge (1913-73) as a leading playwright, the writer used his Aunt Helen and her dentist-husband, Uncle Earl (Mooney), as prototypes for Lola and Doc. He had earlier been inspired by his aunt and uncle for characters in his first play, Father Off from Heaven, which closed out of town and was later revised as the Tony-nominated The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer (the original Lola and Doc) both won Tonys. Booth co-starred with Burt Lancaster (15 years her junior) in the 1952 film version, directed by Daniel Mann (who had made his Broadway bow with the play), and she became the first actress to win an Oscar for recreating a Tony-winning role. (Jose Ferrer was the first actor to receive an Academy Award for reprising his 1947 Tony-winning role in the 1950 movie version of "Cyrano de Bergerac.")

Best-known as Lt. Anita Van Buren in TV's "Law & Order," Merkerson just began her 15th season on Dick Wolf's crime drama — giving her the longest tenure among the cast, in addition to being the first African-American actor in a primetime series whose character has enjoyed such a lengthy run. "It's lasted longer than I ever thought," she says. "It took me eight years to put something in my dressing room.

"A great thing about [the series] is I always wanted to stay in New York; it has afforded me the opportunity. Because I'm a co-star, I have a lighter schedule, which lets me do other things. I can work on a really good show that has a lot of integrity, playing a character that people so identify with, and so trust — and I can do theatre."

Playing Lola, I remark, is the latest example of "color-blind casting." However, Merkerson objects to that term. "I prefer not to use it. To me, that insinuates that I don't exist. It says that you're not looking at me. It's just different casting. What you're getting is a new perspective on an old story. Let's put it that way. We're not dealing with that issue. I think that once people come into the theatre, they'll see it. Then what they'll do is just follow the relationship of this couple.

"To me, 'color-blind' says that I'm the only one with color up there. The truth is, I don't mind being a black person. I am an African-American woman. That says who I am; it gives the tone of the person that I am. It speaks of me inside a culture that I really love. I'm very proud of who I am, and where I come from."

Inge's next three plays, following his debut, were successes: Picnic, for which he won the Pulitzer; Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (both were Tony-nominated).

Checking an Internet Movie Database (IMDb) item's accuracy, I ask if it's true that Merkerson, as an expression of endearment, uses the phrase "Sweet motherf---er." As soon as I say "sweet," she responds with a thunderous laugh. Exclaims Merkerson, "I blame Jesse Martin [Ed Green on "Law & Order"] for that! I'm not going to deny it. There's a huge difference between Lieutenant Van Buren and me, and it's probably our mouths. But I fault Jesse L. Martin for [revealing] that." She laughs vigorously.

Recently, it was learned that the "S" in her name stands for Sharon. "It was kind of a fun secret. I used to say it meant Sweet, so you'd think of me as 'Sweet Epatha [E-PAY-tha].' Some guy I went to high school with, unfortunately, blabbed what it meant. That really pissed me off. Now, it's all over the Internet. That knucklehead took away my 'Sweet' joke.

"He even claimed that we dated. [Laughs] That's how memorable he was." I interject, "In that case, the knucklehead would not be a 'Sweet...'" Declares Merkerson, "No, he would be a real one! [Laughs] I have legally changed my name — now, it is 'S. Epatha Merkerson.'"

While she "wasn't familiar with [Sheba] as a play," the movie version is a favorite: "I'd always watch it when it was on TV. I haven't seen it in some time, which was helpful, because Shirley Booth is so identified with this part; hers is considered the definitive performance. The play hasn't been on Broadway since Shirley Booth."

In 1984, the (then-Off-Broadway) Roundabout did a production of Come Back, Little Sheba, starring Shirley Knight and Philip Bosco. A 1977 television adaptation co-starred Joanne Woodward and Laurence Olivier. A musical version, Sheba, tried out in Chicago in 1974, with Kaye Ballard as Lola; and in 2001, Donna McKechnie did the musical in Westport, CT.

Nanny in HBO's "Lackawanna Blues" (Feb. 12, 2005) marked Merkerson's first leading film role. Writing about it in my January 2005) column, I prophetically stated, "They should start now to polish the awards that Merkerson so richly deserves..." Among her many wins for the cable movie were an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award. She's also won a Helen Hayes Award (The Old Settler) and two Obies (I'm Not Stupid; Birdie Blue).

Youngest of five, Merkerson was born in Detroit. Her initial appearance on "Law & Order" remains her "all-time favorite episode." During the first season, she was seen in "Mushrooms" as Denise Winters, a mother who works nights as a cleaning woman, and whose 11-month-old baby is killed.

Upcoming is a feature film, "The Six Wives of Henry Lefay," in which Merkerson appears with Tim Allen. "Pinch me," she says. "I'm doing all the things I said I wanted to do — and having a grand time doing them."

Part of her "grand time" is again being on the boards in Come Back, Little Sheba. She tells me that "it's a solid play. There's a nostalgia — which, I think, is really wonderful — but it talks about alcoholism, depression, menopause, and loneliness. Those things were not really talked about [in 1950]. William Inge's play still has resonance." (So does she.)

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Martin McDonagh
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Not only has Martin McDonagh received a Tony Award nomination for each of his Broadway plays (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore), but also he won an Academy Award for the 2005 Best Live Action Short, "Six Shooter," which he wrote and directed. Now, McDonagh's making his feature-film debut by writing and directing the darkly comic drama "In Bruges." Set in the historic city of Bruges (pronounced broozh) in the Flemish region of Belgium, the action centers on Irish hit men Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) who, following a London assignment that went wrong, are ordered by their boss, the vicious Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to lay low for two weeks in the storybook setting, where much of its medieval architecture remains intact.

Is it true, I ask, that the picture was inspired by a trip McDonagh made to Bruges? "To some extent," he says. "The first thing that struck me was how cinematic the town is." I ask if the character of Harry is based on anyone he knows? Admits McDonagh, "That's actually my brother; he's a bastard. [Laughs] For two tough guys to be scared of another guy, Harry had to be sadistic."

Congratulating him on the movie (to be released Feb. 8) being selected as the opening night (Jan. 17) presentation at the Sundance Film Festival, I quote the administrator who termed it "a quintessential Sundance film — it's brutal, philosophical, funny, and totally original." Replies McDonagh, "What a lovely thing to say — and I agree with all of it. [Laughs]

"It also has a lot of sadness. It would be great if that comes across, too." It is depressing, I agree, in that so many characters get killed. "Yes," he responds, "but not in a depressing way. And they all deserve it. [Laughs] Overall, I hope [the film] is enjoyable and fun. While I wanted it to be sad in places, I didn't want it to be sentimental."

Similar to his plays, the film features colorful characters using off-color language. "Technically, the plays don't have a curse word in them," he insists. "The characters say 'shite' and 'feck.'" They're a lot gentler than 'sh-t' and 'f--k.' My grandmother once called me, 'A fecking shite.' [Laughs] Not really."

McDonagh, who was born in London to Irish parents, likes New York very much, and is "thinking of moving here in a few years." I'd heard that, in an interview, McDonagh claimed that he was through writing plays. Is that correct? "I might have said that as a joke. But I'm going to write a new play, and an older play of mine will be performed in New York next year." Does he have a new film project? "I've written a couple of screenplays that are ready to go. But I think that I want to take off a year or two."

Ralph Fiennes' character has an "In Bruges" scene involving a ticket seller (Rudy Blomme) who gives him grief. Viewers know, but the ticket seller doesn't, that there will be a severe consequence. "Actually, the violence in that scene," explains McDonagh, "is in Ralph's eyes. You know what's going to happen. That's the joy of writing. I'm a complete coward, but you think: What would I have done in that situation?" Although I dislike violence, I found the confrontation scene very funny, I ask McDonagh if he knew why. Laughing, he answers, "Because you're a sick person."

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Elaine Stritch
photo by Denise Winters

"I've gotten so relaxed in front of an audience — sober — that now I'm afraid that I'm not afraid. You can't win!" The sardonic reflection comes from the inimitable Elaine Stritch, who has long since won the battle of the bottle, and now fortunately seems to have conquered her deep-rooted insecurity. Once again, she's doing her Tony-winning show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, though this time she's in a cabaret setting — at Café Carlyle, through Jan. 19. I saw the show twice at the Public Theater and twice on Broadway, and having her just feet away, rather than rows removed, adds a magical dimension to a captivating performance.

Stephen Holden's New York Times review observed, "The experience...is far more intimate than in a theatre." States Stritch, "But you do have to sacrifice the respect that is alive and well in the theatre. I had a heckler tonight, a woman who had too much to drink.

"I'm saying, 'I got an opportunity to audition to be understudy to Ethel Merman.' She goes, 'Oh, boy!' So, I raise my voice. [Speaking louder:] 'It was in the play...' She gets the message. She gets scared, and shuts up. Then she takes a few more swallows of wine. By the time I get to Noel Coward [stories], she's ready to go again. But I don't deviate [from the script]."

Previously, Stritch has done two cabaret acts at Café Carlyle, and it was her idea to do the autobiographical show on the small stage. "I told James McBride — he's the boss of the joint, and a great guy — 'I think it will work,' and he said, 'I know it will work.' So, it's thanks to James McBride [manager of the Hotel Carlyle, where Stritch has long been a resident.]"

Was it difficult learning the show again? "Very. The first time around, I had a brilliant director, George Wolfe, and we were discussing things all along. I worked every day for a month [re-learning]. I had the script in bed with me. I learn lines lying down; I try to kill two birds with one stone. If I forget a line, I have my script and a flashlight right by my bed.

"Then I get a chum to come over and cue me. That helps. I have company, and I get reactions. I must say it's a good script. I love the word 'seamless,' and it is seamless. John Lahr helped me in picking things I should do and things I should delete [when we created it originally]. He's a very good writer.

"My favorite line in the show is [Lahr's]: 'A existential problem in tights.' I thank him from the bottom of my heart. Naturally, the stories are all mine, and I tell them the way I tell them. I don't tell stories the way John Lahr teaches me. Bullshit! I know how to spin a yarn. But boy, was he helpful!"

Stritch has earned a lot of praise (and a third Emmy) for her very funny, recurring role as Alec Baldwin's mother in the NBC sitcom "30 Rock." Will she be returning to the role, following the (eventual) end of the writers' strike? "If they ask me, I think I might go back. I'm glad if people enjoy it, but sitcom acting is not for me. It's not the type of entertaining that I like to do." She once almost landed the part of Trixie on "The Honeymooners" — "but Jackie Gleason and I sounded too much alike [in delivery]."

"Two's Company" co-starring Donald Sinden, was one of three British sitcoms that Stritch made during the years she lived in England. It was recently released (in its entirety, 1975-79) on DVD. "I wrote all my own stuff," notes Stritch. "They'd give me a script, and I'd rewrite it — Americanize it." She's not especially fond of the At Liberty DVD: "It could have been a lot better. We made it in London, and the producing people were a pain in the ass."

She describes her music director-accompanist, Rob Bowman, as "brilliant!" Continues Stritch, "The other night, I went up on a name in 'I'm Still Here.' I sang, 'I've been through...' You be me, and I'll tell you what Rob did." Following instructions, I say, "I've been through..."

Stritch as Bowman sings, "Brenda Frazier," and as herself sings, "And I'm here." She says, "The audience cracked up. Rob's right there for me, all the time. But I rarely forget a line."

Prior to At Liberty winning a Tony Award, Stritch was nominated four times: William Inge's Bus Stop (her 1956 dramatic debut), Noel Coward's Sail Away (1962), Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company (1971), and Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (1996).

Next up for Stritch is a BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame. "It's a small part," says Stritch, "but I wanted to do a little bit of Beckett. They asked me to do [Beckett's] Happy Days, but I didn't want to go through that [where she'd be buried up to her neck in sand]. I'd rather be in a different venue of sand. Like the Hamptons."

* HBO's "Bernard and Doris" (Feb. 9, 8 PM ET/PT) was directed by Bob Balaban who says that the film's budget "was more than I've ever spent — for lunch."

The "labor of love" required called-in favors, loaned-out jewelry, and borrowed clothing. "We ended up with a three-week [shooting] schedule, two very large stars, and a teeny-tiny budget."

Hugh Costello wrote the screenplay, which is an imagined take on the real-life relationship between alcoholic Irish butler Bernard Lafferty (Ralph Fiennes) and billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke (Susan Sarandon).

Were there any challenges for Balaban? "The same as with any movie. How do you make sure that there's something living and breathing on the screen? Two great actors who loved working together made that job very, very easy, and brought something to the screenplay that was magical. My job was to not get in the way. And, if Susan and Ralph needed anything, to help."

Chicago-born Balaban made his Off-Broadway debut as Linus in 1967's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He left the musical to make his Broadway debut (playing two roles) in Neil Simon's trio of one-act plays, Plaza Suite, starring George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton, "one of the best people in the world." On the first day of rehearsals, director Mike Nichols offered Balaban a role in his next film, "Catch-22." Balaban's movie debut, however, was in 1969's Oscar-winning Best Picture "Midnight Cowboy," which he filmed during the run of the Simon comedy.

As a panicky gay student, he encounters the hustler portrayed by Jon Voight ("wonderful to work with") at a seedy Times Square movie house. Balaban claims that, even though "the sexual experience [scene] happened completely off-screen," it earned the film its X-rating. "It's very tame compared to what happens in movies now." The only X-rated film to receive an Academy Award, the rating was reduced to an R (with no deletions) after winning.

Nichols had envisioned Balaban in the role of Milo Minderbender in "Catch-22," but following a reading, he decided that the actor was better suited to play the crash-happy Captain Orr. (Jon Voight was cast as Milo.)

Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" cast Balaban as a cartographer who serves as scientist Francois Truffaut's translator. His account of the filming was published in 1978, and in an updated 2003 version, "Spielberg, Truffaut & Me: An Actor's Diary."

After appearing in Sidney Lumet's "Prince of the City" (1981), Balaban apprenticed himself to the director for a behind-the-camera course, as Lumet filmed "Deathtrap" (1982). "It was one of the most interesting things I've ever done. [Lumet's] a great teacher!"

Among Balaban's many directorial credits is "The Exonerated" (Court-TV, 2005). He had also "directed and produced [and for a time appeared in] the Off-Broadway stage version, on tour, and in London."

TV fans fondly remember him as Russell Dalrymple, the fictitious NBC president, on five "Seinfeld" episodes (1992-93), and as the real network head, Warren Littlefield, in the 1996 cable movie "The Late Shift" (based on the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman, as to who would be Johnny Carson's late-night TV successor).

His other Broadway acting credits include Gogol's The Inspector General, for which he earned a 1979 Tony nomination, and David Mamet's three-character 1988 play Speed the Plow, in which he and Felicity Huffman succeeded Ron Silver and Madonna. Most recently, Balaban appeared Off-Broadway in Mamet's 2005 Romance.

Married 30 years to writer Lynn Grossman, they have two daughters, Mariah ("a real-estate broker") and Hazel ("a sophomore at Barnard").

Besides acting, directing, writing, and producing, Balaban found time to pen six children's books about a bionic dog named McGrowl. Upcoming is an April HBO movie, "Recount," which is "about the 2000 election and the Florida recount. I play Leo Ginsberg, lead consul to Bush-Cheney."

Vanity Fair's (February issue) coverage of "Bernard and Doris" states: "Sarandon delivers a virtuoso performance...Fiennes is heartbreaking in his portrayal," and New York Post TV-critic Linda Stasi observed (Dec. 26, 2007) that the movie is "so good that it's too bad you have to wait until February to see [it]."

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January LaVoy

January LaVoy alternates between stage — at this time last year, she was Off-Broadway in August Wilson's Two Trains Running ("second to none, so far in my career") — and TV, where presently she plays Noelle on the ABC weekday soap opera "One Life to Live" (2 PM ET). LaVoy says that "75 percent of my scenes are with Erika Slezak [whose father, Walter Slezak, won a Tony Award for Fanny]. She's been on the show 37 years [in March]. I've never met anyone quite like her. She's so professional, so talented, so generous. It's rare to work with someone who's all three."

"We do the equivalent of a one-hour episode a day," she explains. "Primetime shows take 12 or 13 days to shoot an hour episode. Unless things go wrong, they use the first take. In that way, it's very much like live theatre."

Among LaVoy's TV credits are all three "Law & Order" series, and her stage roles include Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, Grace in The Piano Lesson, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, the Player Queen in Hamlet, and Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac.

Born in Connecticut, she was named for the character January Wayne in Jacqueline Susann's novel "Once Is Not Enough." A December baby, she once asked her mother, "If you didn't want me to be an actress, why did you name me 'January'?"

A graduate of Fairfield University, LaVoy won a full scholarship to the three-year graduate program at Denver's National Theater Conservatory.

"One Life to Live" shoots in Manhattan, a month in advance. "My parents, who have moved to Maine, are thrilled that they get to see me a few times a week [on TV]. My mother calls and says, 'Your hair looked so nice today.' I say, 'Thank you, but that was my hair a month ago.' Right now, I'm in a very good place. I'm in my favorite city — and working."

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VARIOUS AND SUNDRY

The Jan. 13 scheduled ceremony for "The Golden Globes", my favorite reality-TV show, has been cancelled, because actors refused to cross the writers' picket lines. In its place, NBC will televise a press conference, on which winners will be announced. Let's hope that this doesn't start a trend, with press conferences naming the SAG and Oscar winners, and people holding up sketches of gowns that actresses would have worn.

Several of the TV shows in the running for Golden Globes feature Tony winners: "Pushing Daisies" (Jim Dale, Swoosie Kurtz), "Damages" (Glenn Close, Philip Bosco), "30 Rock" (Jane Krakowski), "House" (Robert Sean Leonard), and "Mad Men" (Robert Morse)...Film versions of two Broadway musicals ("Hairspray", "Sweeney Todd") are in competition for Best Musical.

I'll write about the new "A Raisin in the Sun" movie in my next column. But the film bows Jan. 23 at the Sundance Film Festival, the first network production ever to play there. It stars the 2004 Broadway cast: Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad, and Audra McDonald.

Portraying the mother of Denzel Washington in Golden Globe-nominated "American Gangster" is gifted veteran stage and screen actress Ruby Dee, and convincingly playing a Federal agent in one scene is Broadway's Young Frankenstein, Roger Bart

My favorite imaginary double feature that I'd love to see in lights on a marquee somewhere? "Sweeney Todd" and "There Will Be Blood."

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Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between artists who cross freely between theatre, film and television. Michael Buckley has written this column since 2002. He may be contacted at stagetoscreens@aol.com.

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