Think of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre as a three-ring circus, and the vehicle that just pulled in there Oct. 20 as an overstuffed clown car. Out they tumble all evening — this merry and determined band of actors (16 in all), spreading themselves over three one-acts with the all-purpose, umbrella handle of Relatively Speaking.
John Turturro, the actor debuting as a Broadway director, is ringmaster of the evening, cracking the whip over the crackerjack cast tearing through Ethan Coen's Talking Cure, Elaine May's George Is Dead and Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel. The sheer population of these plays, in these financially strapped times, amounts to a small, rarely seen spectacle.
Press covering the event were cautioned not to speak, relatively or otherwise, to the three pedigree playwrights, but publicists are such alarmists — and this sheltered trio mingled like mortals among the first-nighters who partied at the Bryant Park Grill.
Allen, who at one point has ten certifiables running in circles around Santo Loquasto's sleazy motel set, was singing the praises of his go-for-broke cast.
May's praise was more centrally located on her star, Marlo Thomas, whose new widow's weeds don't disguise her me-me-me agenda: "Wasn't she wonderful?"
And Coen was taking his new Broadway status in stride: "I don't know if it's more pressure doing Broadway. It's a bigger house. Is that more pressure? It's a different thing. It's still this strange thing of actors making it work for the audience." His next stage move is Off-Broadway, opening Happy Hour for the Atlantic Nov. 16.
Thomas' last Broadway gig was The Shadow Box 17 years ago, but she has hardly been inactive: "I did the national tour of Six Degrees, and Virginia Woolf at the Hartford Stage, and something with F. Murray Abraham called Paper Doll at the Pittsburgh Public so I'm always in the theatre. I'm just not always in New York, and I'm very happy to be in New York."
And New York is happy to have her back, in a deliciously ditzy role only an Elaine May could design. "It's a wonderful part that she wrote, and I loved playing it," Thomas said. "It's a wonderful sense of humor that she has. She also has a wonderful sense of pathos. She's written a woman running away from loss — I think we all understand that—and then, at the end, she finally accepts it. I think why the audience laughs at her so much is that they see how fast she's running away from it."
Thomas' husband, Phil Donahue, considerately basked in the shadows while she took the paparazzi pounding. When asked who was his favorite in the play, he wryly replied: "I loved the woman with the beautiful blonde hair." That would be "That Girl" in a wig. "That ending is a draining scene, and she pulls it off," he beamed.
One of the evening's top acting jobs came from the woman who returns Thomas' serve, the ever-reliable Lisa Emery, who plays the terribly taxed, exasperated Good Samaritan. "I like everything about that character," the actress said. "I love that she tries so hard to be nice and finally reaches a breaking point."
"When they said comedy is hard, they're not kiddin' — I had no idea!" sighed Caroline Aaron, one of the hard-driving engines in Allen's play. "I said to Julie Kavner the first week of previews, 'Have you ever been in anything that's so funny that's so painful?' because that's the way it feels. I know people say this all the time, but this is a ridiculously great group of actors. Everywhere you look, there's an A-plus person, and everybody's a team player."
"What's not to enjoy?" Grant Shaud shrugged blissfully. "The audiences are amazing. The actors are amazing. The plays are amazing. Woody was very involved in this. We kinda took the play apart with a fine-tooth comb and sorta analyzed the jokes, deciding what works and what doesn't, what to hit. It made it all better."
The designated bride in Allen's play, Ari Graynor, gets a little giddy about the crowded stage where she now toils. "That's a lot of people on stage, especially now in theatre," the actress duly noted. "It's so rare to have anything more than a four-hander, just financially-speaking, so it's very, very exciting to be part of a company like this. It's like performing at a rock concert or something. You take off, you're on this ride, the laughs are coming and you can't look back. The playing is so fast, and you have to stay so focused as a group. There's no such thing as staying in the moment and thinking about it. You're just in it the whole time, which is fun."
Julian Schlossberg, the show's lead producer, seemed to grow visibly relieved as the party wore on — and with cause: "We know now that The Times is very good, and John Lahr is very good, and, frankly, that's all I really need — for our audience. With Spider-Man, it would be different, but for this kind of show, you want The Times and you want The New Yorker, and we have 'em."
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