That two-time Tony-winning Texan, Judith Ivey, has returned home -- not to her biological home, but to her professional home: the New York theatre. From the look on her face, beaming back at you across the table at a diner on Amsterdam, all is right with the world.
“It’s as if we never -- well, we didn’t really leave,” she tries to explain. “We always had this apartment. There were long stretches of time where we weren’t in it, but we never sublet it. We came back just often enough that it never felt like we left, so that now that we’ve come back, the dry cleaners and the guy at the deli and the fella where we get our photos developed -- all those people say, ‘Hey, how ya doing?’ It’s like we never left.” Home started out as the tiny bachelor pad of her husband, TV producer Tim Braine, and as their family increased (one of each), spread to the whole floor. Now, they’re two-and-a-half floors along into taking over the whole building -- which has come in handy since last September when they made the big move from the West Coast to the Upper West Side.
If asked why she came back, Ivey lightly throws out, “I get to have the luxury of saying, ‘I turned down one Broadway show too many’” -- but, truth to tell, the real reason she’s back is that her husband’s company expanded enough for him to head up the East Coast office. Whatever the reason, now that she’s back in place, we’re all in for better theatre.
Exhibit A: Voices in the Dark, a thriller-diller by John (Agnes of God) Pielmeier, directed by Christopher Ashley and produced by Ben Sprecher, William P. Miller, Aaron Levy and Mindy Utay for a rare summer opening (Aug. 12) at the Longacre. Raphael Sbarge, John Ahlin and Peter Bartlett are co-starred, and every one of them is suspected of dire deeds.
“I think this play is so appealing for me because it has such a potential for being fun as well as challenging, and I just know that this reflects the fun I’m having living in New York again.” She polled some of the people who participated in the play’s New Jersey premiere and asked them point blank if people actually screamed. Their three-little-words response -- “Grown men scream!” -- was music to her ears. “My greatest fear in doing this play, ” she confesses, “is that the audience is going to scream, and I’m going to jump.” The theatrical thriller is a notoriously difficult genre to bring off onstage, which is why so few candidates (Deathtrap, Wait Until Dark, Sleuth) have come forth, but this fact is precisely a point of interest for Ivey. “That’s why it intrigues me,” she admits. “I’ve never done anything like this before -- been in a murder situation -- not even Arsenic and Old Lace. This is not a whodunit. It’s more of a whodunit to. You wonder who is going to get murdered. There’s no crime solving going on here. It’s not the Agatha Christie approach where you see a murder committed at the beginning and then try to figure out who did it.”
Ivey, the picture of practicality, plays an audio Ann Landers of the nineties -- a radio talk-show therapist plagued by a spooky caller who says he has killed all these women and needs her help. First he calls her on air and then, more sinisterly, at her isolated cabin in the Adirondacks where she retreats to weigh whether she should give up her show and focus on her failing marriage. Before long, the cabin creaks with red herrings and real menace.
The angst-ridden, emotionally tangled Ivey she has placed on New York stages during the past nine years -- in Jon Robin Baitz’s A Fair Country and Martin Sherman’s A Madhouse in Goa -- comes in stark contrast to the happy face she has shown America in four television series (“Down Home,” “Designing Women,” “The Five Mrs. Buchanans” and “Buddies”).
“I love television,” she declares flat-out. “I love, particularly, the half hour sitcom format. It’s a great way to have a life and make a living. I like the speed of it, and since I love comedy, it fulfills all of that for me. But you do have to go and chew on something else. That’s why I always came back to New York, and the plays I chose to do tended to have a kind of dark side to them. I was so hungry for something like that. It gave me a balance.”
Does she miss the sunny life of California? She shakes her head gravely. “I went out there -- I always say, ‘kinda under duress’ -- because I agreed to do a TV series that they said they would shoot in New York. Then, of course, they turned around and said, ‘We can’t shoot the first season here,’ which meant I had to go out there. Then it got picked up, and they said, ‘Well, it’s not a big hit, so we’ll do the second season here and then we’ll move it to New York.’ Well, by that time, I lived in California.
“So I didn’t ever make the decision to move there. Then one day I went ‘My God!’ -- it was nine years later -- ‘I live here.’ There were things I ended up liking about it, and I think I was a very lucky actress. I worked a lot out there. I just feel more comfortable here. I think I know who I am better in New York. It’s more my speed. Literally, speed. I have a little more energy than California requires. That eats away at you in California -- ‘Let’s see now, maybe I can strip all the woodwork in my house!’ -- but in New York the energy gets used up.”
Ivey earned her Tonys for Nell Dunn’s Steaming (1983) and David Rabe’s Hurlyburly (1985), but even more she cherishes the chances she got to work with Jason Robards (Park Your Car in Harvard Yard) and Geraldine Page (Blithe Spirit). If she has to name a favorite role, it would be the mother of George Furth’s Precious Sons. People still come up to her with praise for that performance -- although a less than-ringing endorsement from The Gray Lady rang down its curtain prematurely before it could log up a decent run.
“Reviews are not for me,” she says. “After a show closes, that’s when I read them. I never read them while I’m doing it. I know if I’m doing a good job or not. Usually, I think I’m much worse than what anybody ever says. Reviews are for people buying tickets.”
What a pity one of Broadway’s best actresses is the last to find out how good she really is.