More than the D was silent about Djuna Barnes. One of the glittering literati in Paris of the 1920's and 30's, Barnes won her rep with one book, “Nightwood,” and that rep rivaled Gertrude Stein as the foremost female writer of that scene. Then World War II broke out, and Barnes returned to the United States, moved into a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village and hardly left it for the next 40 years, eventually dying in 1982 at the age of 90.
"I've been in that room, and it's about half the size of this space," says Jane Alexander, using her left arm to saw in two the back room of Rachel's restaurant on Ninth Avenue.
Such is the size of the minuscule world she now inhabits in What of the Night — a play she penned with Noreen Tomassi and director-choreographer Birgitta Trommler, based on Barnes's writing — and this playing area has only slightly been enhanced by set designer Rob Odirisio, for dramatic purposes, to fill out the stage of the Lucille Lortel.
It's a nonlinear opus, so, within that area of focus, four decades are blithely bounced off the four walls, Alexander waltzing between time zones as Djuna on her 80th birthday and Djuna in all her gadfly glory in Paris with Stein and Hemingway and the Shakespeare & Co. set. She also plays the third role in the play, Thelma Wood, whose turbulent, doomed affair with Barnes was the autobiographical basis for the 1936 Nightwood. "Birgitta brought this project to me," says Alexander. "She comes out of the dance world in Germany — first as a dancer, then as a choreographer — and I've known her for years because she goes back and forth all the time. About two years ago, she said to me, 'I'd love to do a piece on Djuna Barnes with you.' I said, 'Who's Djuna Barnes?'"
Trommler explained that Barnes is very well known in Germany because her letters have been published there, but she is not remembered much in this country. She was sent to Paris by McCall's magazine in 1921 to do an article and remained for almost 20 years, becoming something of a literary rage, eventually confirming her talent with “Nightwood.”
After the acclaim, she became a classic case of galloping agoraphobia, fueled by alcohol, so, says Alexander, Trommler pitched the piece as how does a celebrity shut down all engines — "how does a woman with a book discovered and published by T.S. Eliot, hotly touted by Dylan Thomas and James Joyce, then become a complete recluse? What does she do with her time? In one room? Unlike a lot of one-person shows where a performer addresses the audience, this is as if you're peeking into her room — and into her brain, too."
What of the Night world-premiered last summer very much out of town — in a 99-seat theatre in Germany — in English, and Alexander thinks it was a hit. "It's hard for me to tell because the German audiences are so attentive and no matter what you do, they give you eight or nine curtain calls. You think you've done something great, then you go to other theatre and realize they're not discriminating, so I don't know. I really didn't think I'd be doing this play again, but I got hooked on this fascinating woman. Djuna Barnes is a fascinating woman, no matter how you look at it."
Plus, it's a part worthy of putting Alexander back where she belongs — on the boards of New York theatre. Save for the fleeting Honour, which logged up 57 performances at the Belasco in 1998, this is her first local sighting since she surrendered her Tony-nominated performance in The Sisters Rosensweig in 1993 to put in a four-year term, under President Clinton, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Therein hangs a tale — which she wrote ("Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics") and got published by Public Affairs in June 2000. The paperback came out one year later.
In her eight years out of office, Alexander has pursued a very specific acting agenda — "I wanted to do the great classic roles before I get too old to do them" — and she went after them like a buzz saw: Mme Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard at Princeton's McCarter, Christine Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra at Seattle's ACT and New Haven's Long Wharf and Mrs. Alving in Ghosts at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre. Behind each regional production was the hope of Broadway, particularly with Mourning. "I really, really wanted to bring that in," Alexander admits, "but Helen Mirren did it at the National, and they thought they would bring that in. Then, they decided they weren't and they weren't going to bring ours in, and that was that. It was all very disappointing."
Her best shot at Broadway during this period was in Neil Simon's play Rose and Walsh, which bowed in 2003 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, California, with Alexander and Len Cariou cavorting as fictional facsimiles of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. "It was a big hit in Los Angeles," she recalls. "We thought we had a sure winner. We really did because we could tell by the audience reaction. Audiences loved it. Then it became something else called Rose's Dilemma, and you know the story of that." [The rewrite belly-flopped at Manhattan Theatre Club, amid much acrimony between Simon and Mary Tyler Moore, who left the show.]
In any event, Alexander is glad to get back on a New York stage at long last. "There's a curious thing that happens when you leave what you're known for — your profession — and you become something else and you have so much publicity. There was not a day that went by in my four years at the NEA that I wasn't in the papers regularly because of the fight with Congress. You become defined as something else, and the public has a short memory. Only now am I getting back in people's minds as the actress that I really am."