Starry, Starry Nights

By Harry Haun
June 4, 2009

Fonda. Gandolfini. Sarandon. Radcliffe. Lansbury. Screen favorites stepped into the footlights of Broadway in 2008-09.

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A good 45 minutes after the curtain falls on Blithe Spirit at the Shubert Theatre, another show commences in Shubert Alley. It's called Exit the Star, and in it Angela Lansbury demonstrates to new generations of performers how a Star takes leave of the theatre and her adoring fans. It's a little something she picked up in Star Training 101 as a teenager at M-G-M, and it still kicks in if the occasion calls for it.

La Lansbury opts for the personalized approach, signing autographs and chit-chatting with the happy mob that lines the barricades from stage door to shiny limo. When the car engine starts up in anticipation of the star's entrance, the collective pulse of the crowd quickens, and they're off to the races, exploding in cheers and applause the minute she appears. Her graciousness to her public is warm and regal.

Hollywood never knew what to do with a glamorous character actress. There were three Oscar nominations and 18 Emmy nominations along the way, but no cigar. However, Broadway audiences embraced her and made her a Star in a dazzling run of four iconic, Tony-winning portrayals (in Mame, Dear World, her Gypsy revival and Sweeney Todd) — plus, there was a nomination to grow on for her 2007 Broadway comeback (after 24 years) in a non-musical called Deuce. This season there was the revitalizing intervention of Madame Arcati, Noλl Coward's eccentric spiritualist, and she went after the part with an unbridled, all-stops-out comic gusto you would never suspect from an 83-year-old.

"I know," she says, "but, once you're an actress, it's very hard to decide that you're not going to do it anymore. We're in a business where we're allowed to keep working. In the theatre. Not in the movies, and not in television — but that's all right. Bye bye to those. We are now in the form which suits us best because theatre is illusion. That's what's so marvelous about theatre. I hope it will always be that way. That's why I'm awfully comfortable coming back to the theatre. It is make-believe."

Stage door barricades were up again all over town this season, with A-listers crowding into the Broadway limelight and radiating some of their own. At the Eugene O'Neill, they were up for Jane Fonda in Moisιs Kaufman's 33 Variations, her first Broadway outing in 45 years. "It wasn't like I decided I wanted to do theatre and went looking for a play," she says. "The play looked for me, and the play found me at just the right moment in my life."

In the play that ended May 21 after its scheduled limited run, she was a musicologist with "Lou Gehrig's disease" exploring what Beethoven was thinking, to have squandered his genius and last days on an unworthy project.

"I never dreamed that I would becoming back to Broadway. I received this play, and what it said — what it's about — is something I was dealing with in a book I'm writing on aging." The cane the 71-year-old actress used on stage she uses off-stage as well.

"I'm happy to be in this community. I was too young before. I didn't realize what it was. Being here on Broadway now makes me realize what an important, beautiful community theatre is. It's different from Hollywood. It's partly because we're together so much for so long — through the rehearsal process and the playing. I like that feeling. And it feels so moving to be part of this community. I love it."

Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush, also celluloid mainstays, won their Oscars a year apart — in point of fact, she presented him his — and now they're going for stage gold in Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King. It's his first Broadway appearance ever and her second (her first since An Evening with Richard Nixon . . . 37 years ago).

Rush, who co-translated King into a slapstick tour de force, tumbles the king out in some inspired physical comedy. "I only do it on stage — I would never try that in my own home," he laughs. "There's a great clue in Ionesco's script where he just says, 'The king keeps falling over,' and I thought, 'This is one of the key images for all the great philosophical and ecological and spiritual and burlesque routines that he writes into the play.' The fact that the king is physically unstable, I think, is a terribly interesting clown idea." And he plays it accordingly, tempering pratfalls with pathos.

Tony winners Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen spent their film breaks on Broadway in Impressionism, and it was the play (by Michael Jacobs) that made them do it. "Sometimes, you read something that's so well-written it just speaks to your own life, and that's what this play did to me," she says. "I had no intention of doing a play, but [director] Jack O'Brien asked me to read it. I did, and I was incredibly moved by it and thought 'I can't not do this play. I can't not do this character.'"

Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage is a strenuous dramatic workout that rates (and receives) four stars, three of whom (Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and Marcia Gay Harden) have been mostly busying themselves with big-screen fare. The fourth (James Gandolfini) became a household face with a decade on the small screen. Gandolfini would rather not go into his Tony Soprano past, preferring to say he has "moved on," and that co-star Daniels has attested to in the press. "I see the guy working the character [in God of Carnage], that's what I see," he told The Post's Barbara Hoffman. "The audience sees something else. At our first preview, the genuine love and affection poured across the footlights for him. It was like an audience waiting ten years to say, 'Thank you for that show.'"

Another who came to Broadway this season with a radical image-alteration was Daniel Radcliffe — but try to tell that to his Harry Potter public who stormed the barricades nightly outside the Broadhurst where he was appearing as a deeply deranged young man in a revival of Peter Shaffer's unsettling psycho-drama, Equus.

When asked why he'd play a chap who indulges in a catalog of Potteresque no-nos — nudity, smoking, watching porn, using the F-word, attempting to do the F-word and driving a spike into the eyes of six horses when he sexually short-circuits — Radcliffe would get on his high-horse and respond in italics: "Because it's a great play."

And furthermore: "The thing about the Harry Potter following — because it is based around books — they're a really literate, smart bunch of people so there are very few Harry Potter fans out there who object to me doing this. Most of them are getting really into this, and, if I'm bringing new people to theatre, then that is a good thing."

This feature appears in the Playbill of the 2009 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 7.