It's no secret that Rich Little is a funny guy who can do impressions, but one of his biggest challenges is to incorporate that stand-up talent into a full evening of theatre. He's getting that chance by starring in The Presidents, a new comedy that premiered in Michigan in August, now followed by a major staging in upstate New York.
Written by Ron Nessen, who was Gerald Ford's press secretary, and Loren Paul Caplin, The Presidents had its world-premiere tryout at the Cherry County Playhouse in Michigan, Aug. 8-10. That production, somewhat expanded, arrived at the Helen Hayes Center for the Performing Arts Sept. 23 for a run ending Oct. 8. The show officially opening at the Nyack, NY venue Sept. 30.
Cherry County artistic director Bill Castellino has directed both mountings. Little has apparently expressed serious interest in taking the play to Broadway, though a Hayes Center spokesperson said (Sept. 26) it's more likely the show will tour around the U.S. for a year or so before making any further commercial moves.
In Presidents, Little plays eight U.S. chiefs, starting with John F. Kennedy up through Bill Clinton. Unlike the one-man stand-ups Little's been doing on TV and in Vegas for years, Little is accompanied by an actress playing all the first ladies, plus second bananas playing such politicos as Henry Kissinger, James Carville and Billy Carter. Structured as a play, the piece is narrated by a man who lived through this whole period, from Vietnam to the current era. "It's an overview of modern U.S. history," a Hayes spokesperson told Playbill On-Line. "And you can totally see how Little will be magnificent it it."
Before serving under President Ford, author Nessen was an NBC News correspondent during the Johnson administration. Co-author Caplin is a screenwriter who teaches screenwriting and creative writing at Columbia, New York University and The New School. Repeating her role from the Michigan staging is Elaine Bromka, playing the First Ladies and a character named Cindy Kostka. Rob Pruitt, Bill Whitefield and Willie C. Carpenter are new castmembers for the Hayes staging. (In Michigan, Herb Downer played Franklin Delano Washington, a fictional character; David Green played Bobby Kennedy, Robert McNamara, James Carville and others; and William Selby played John Dean, Billy Carter, Dan Quayle and others.
The rest of the 2000-01 mainstage season at the Hayes Center will include:
Nov. 4-19: The Odd Couple (the female version).
Dec. 2-23: Annie, the musical.
March 17-April 1, 2001: a world premiere, probably of a musical.
April 21-May 6, 2001: Alfred Uhry's Tony-winning drama, The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
June 2-17, 2001: A Chorus Line.
For tickets and subscription information ($149-$208) to shows at the Hayes Center, 117 Main Street, Nyack, NY, call (845) 358-6333.
In other Hayes Center news, stage actress Hayes, whose career spanned roughly eight decades, would have been 100 years old this coming October 22. To celebrate her career and spirit, the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center is launching a celebrity-filled gala on that night, with her son, James MacArthur, serving as honorary host.
Scheduled to pay homage are Barry Bostwick, Betty Buckley (Triumph Of Love), Zoe Caldwell, producer Robert Whitehead, Arlene Dahl, David Shire and Elaine Stritch (Company). Newly-announced additions (Sept. 28) include three cast-members from The Best Man: Chris Noth, Charles Durning and Elizabeth Ashley, and Bill Irwin, currently at CSC in Texts For Nothing. Further notables are expected to be announced shortly, though some previously-announced stars (including Loni Ackerman, Julie Harris and Bernadette Peters) have since had to cancel owing to other commitments.
Film and audio clips will be shown at the centennial celebration at the Hayes Center, which will be followed by a champagne and dessert reception. A pre-gala cocktail party at Hayes' scenic and historic estate, "Pretty Penny," opens the evening, which ranges in ticket price from $100 (show only) to $150 (show and dessert reception) to $1,000 (cocktail party included; room for 50 couples only) per person. For information call (914) 358-6333.
Hayes made her stage debut at age five and starred in such Broadway hits as To The Ladies, Victoria Regina and Mary of Scotland. In 1958 she starred in Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet at what had been the Fulton Theatre but was newly christened "The Helen Hayes Theatre." That theatre was destroyed in 1982 to make way for the Marriot Marquis Hotel, and a neighboring theatre was re-named the Helen Hayes. The comedy Dirty Blonde now plays at the Broadway Hayes venue.
According to press materials from the Hayes Center, Hayes once said, "I hope some day to have a little theatre in Nyack named after me -- the place where I have been happiest."
-- By David Lefkowitz
and Kenneth Jones