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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On the arm of the National Board of Review's Roy Frumkes was Elizabeth Shepherd, who understudies Patricia O'Connell's mysterious role in May's play — the same Elizabeth Shepherd who co-starred with Vincent Price in Roger Corman's "The Tomb of Ligeia" in 1968. "What a classy guy, such a brilliant actor," she said of Price. "He was, in every sense, a man of great style."
Jeannie Berlin, like Mom (Elaine May), juggles writer/actress hats. She's scripting a film called "Crackpot" (nee "Criminally Insane") and gave a good account of herself in Kenneth Lonergan's long-time-in-coming, very-fast-in-leaving second feature, "Margaret." "Very few people saw it," she admitted. "They pulled it. Kenny's brave enough to put the truth out there. They wanted a lot of people much more famous than I for my part, and he hung in there and fought for me, and I got it."
Statuesque Tony winner Cady Huffman has two irons in the fire as well: She'll be Lorraine Sheldon, movie star, to Jim Brochu's Sheridan Whiteside in the Peccadillo Theatre Company's revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner Nov. 25-Dec. 18 at Theatre at St. Clement's. More immediately, she's a tall contractor in Empire, a musical about the building of the Empire State Building, which director Matt Lenz is workshopping at Juilliard's Clark Studio Theatre. "We're doing three presentations next Thursday and Friday," she said. Fred Applegate, Michael Rupert and Ashley Brown co-star.
Douglas McGrath, who wrote " Bullets Over Broadway" with Allen, revealed he's writing and directing a pilot that hopefully will return Nathan Lane to television. "Nathan is one of my favorite actors in the whole world. We met during the filming of 'Nicholas Nickleby.' I created this series for him so I think it's gonna be just right. He plays an actor in New York City named Jasper Fallon, who's never been able to get his career going because all the casting people say, 'You're just a little too much like Nathan Lane.' He has this curse over his life so he goes back to Texas to look after his father, and, while he's there, he gets involved with a community theatre, where he thinks, 'Well, I'm a big New York actor,' and, of course, they have an equal amount of contempt and suspicion.' We're going to shoot in December."
Seminar's Hamish Linklater was checking out the comedy competition. "I think we will go laugh for laugh with Relatively Speaking," he predicted, throwing down the gauntlet. "We go into tech on Sunday. We're desperate for an audience. Can't wait to get the real laughs, not just from stage management." Other first-nighters included Rachel York; Bye Bye Birdie's Gina Gershon, in steep stiletto heels, with Griffin Dunne; a svelte Kathy Najimy; Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, who'll play Galileo at CSC in January; Joy and Regis Philbin; the equally married Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormick; Oscar nominee Holly Hunter with Gordon MacDonald; comedian-actor Richard Kind of the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man"; Coen's brother, Joel, and sister-in-law ( Frances McDormand); Arianna Huffington; the director's cousin, Aida Turturro; A Little Night Music's Hunter Ryan Herdlicka; Tony Roberts of " Annie Hall"; Dallas Roberts of "The Good Wife"; Max Minghella with Kate Mara; our next Nicky Arnstein, Bobby Cannavale; the gifted Bob Dishy; Film Forum kingpin Bruce Goldstein; AMFAR's Dr. Mathilte Krim; Joyce Van Patten; Michael Badaluccio; gossip Liz Smith; "Singin' in the Rain" co-director Stanley Donen; producer Harvey Weinstein; Tom Cavanaugh, currently lensing the "Royal Pains" series in the Hamptons; Natasha Lyonne with Waris Ahluwalia; Altantic Theatre's Neil Pepe and Mary McCann; the show's understudy-for-seven, John Rothman; Fisher Stevens; and Angela Lansbury.
Meet the players and director of Relatively Speaking: