STAGE TO SCREENS: Mercedes Ruehl, the Macy-Mamet Connection and Remembering Brad Sullivan

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11 Jan 2009

Mercedes Ruehl
Mercedes Ruehl
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
This month we speak to The American Plan's Mercedes Ruehl, look at William H. Macy's history with David Mamet, and bid farewell to actor Brad Sullivan.


Fans of Mercedes Ruehl are in for a triple treat: Her Broadway opening night (Jan. 22, at the Samuel J. Friedman), as Eva Adler in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Richard Greenberg's The American Plan, is book-ended by TV appearances — a guest-star stint as a judge on "Law & Order" (Jan. 14, NBC, 10 PM ET), and playing Janice Lever, mother of Jake (Adam Kaufman), in "Loving Leah," a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie (Jan. 25, CBS, 9 PM ET).

What attracted Ruehl to the role of Eva? "She's very strong. There's a lot of meat on the bone. German Jews saw themselves as superior to any other Jews — in terms of cultivation and education and background." One of Eva's lines refers to the resort clientele: "It's good to stay in touch with the lower life forms."

Produced twice at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1990 (in January, again in December), with Joan Copeland playing Eva, the play — which, says Ruehl, is "very well written; funny, sly, ultimately very touching" — is set in 1960, at a Catskill-Mountain lake resort (with a final scene ten years later). Directed by David Grindley, it has a cast of five: Eva, daughter Lili (Lily Rabe), their companion Olivia (Brenda Pressley), and two young men, Nick (Kieran Campion) and Gil (Austin Lysy).

Native New Yorker Ruehl has a history with the Catskills: "I know the area very well. As a girl, my mom [a teacher] went there every summer. When I was a child, I did, too. One of my great uncles married a German woman who turned a big farm into a guest ranch. Both my mom and my dad [an FBI agent] grew up in the Bronx. I grew up in New York City and Scranton, PA — both places my dad was posted, two years at a time. My mom's family was Irish and Cuban; my dad's, Irish and German. My last name's German."

Still, a German accent was one of the challenges in playing Eva. "And the language itself; you're speaking as one who's learned English as a second language, so there's grammar, and the awkward placement of words in sentences. She also has a certain manipulative quality that has to be deft, not heavy-handed.

"It's a wonderful cast," declares Ruehl, who's especially praiseworthy of Lily Rabe. "Working with Lily is lovely. She's a very, very responsive and talented girl — a hundred percent present, which is harder than it sounds."

(For those who may not know, Rabe is the daughter of Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe. Her previous Broadway credits are Steel Magnolias, for which she earned a Drama Desk nomination, and Heartbreak House.)

Believes Ruehl, "You should be an actor, only if there's nothing else you can be happy doing." Early childhood is when she knew that she could be happy as an actor. "It probably started as a bid to get attention, but it morphed into something much, much more."

Growing up, she admired many actors. "I'd be afraid to tell you a few, and leave some out. The first time I saw a Broadway show — I was in grammar school, I guess — it just blew me away: Tammy Grimes in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

"A couple of years later, at the Olney Theatre, in Olney, MD, near where I lived at the time, actors from Catholic University — which had a very distinguished drama department during those years — put on summer stock. The Catholic University graduate students were some of my favorite actors. That's where I saw my first Tennessee Williams — Streetcar Named Desire, and my first Edward Albee: Sandbox and The American Dream. [She's appeared in many of the playwrights' works.]

"Early in my career, when I wanted to remind myself what great acting was, I would take a look at Simone Signoret in 'Ship of Fools' and Greta Garbo in 'Camille.' Those performances were so completely inhabited that it would bring me back into myself again.

"In college, I saw Zoe Caldwell do The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie [on Broadway]. Isn't she wonderful? I'm a great admirer of Zoe's. All of this gathering storm of strong actors and strong plays made me even more aware that this is what I wanted to do. Each of those performances is still indelible in my mind."

Still indelible in my mind is a Lost in Yonkers scene, where Ruehl, as Bella, crossed stage right to stage left, delivering a few lines of dialogue, to try to make a point to her domineering mother (Irene Worth).

Though the action lasted only moments, each was pure magic, as she moved the audience from laughter to pathos. While playwright Neil Simon and director Gene Saks deserve credit, it ultimately was Ruehl's expertise that made the scene fly. Like the Wright brothers, her flight was brief, but quite memorable.

"Bella's character came to me in a dream," states Ruehl. "She just showed up one day. That was one of the oddest experiences in my life. Working with Irene [Worth] was just great." Fortunately, they both reprised their roles in the film version. Kevin Spacey who (like Ruehl and Worth) won a Tony for the comedy, was not cast in the movie. Richard Dreyfuss played Spacey's role, as Bella's brother, Louie. "At the time," explains Ruehl, "Kevin's star had not ascended to the zenith it's in now.

"Thinking back, it's ironic. Kevin [who since has won two Oscars] was extraordinary! Dreyfuss was wonderful, too!" (At the present time, Spacey is directing Dreyfuss in Complicit, a world premiere that opens Jan. 19, at London's Old Vic.)

Ruehl's other awards, thus far, include an Oscar and Golden Globe ("The Fisher King"), the Clarence Derwent (Other Peoples' Money), a Drama Desk (Lost in Yonkers), Outer Critics Circle (Lost in Yonkers; The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?), and Obies (The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Ensemble; Woman Before a Glass).

Except for Bette and Boo, Ruehl's honors followed her success in two back-to-back 1988 releases. "My first major movie role," she recalls, "was as the mother [to young Josh, whose character turns overnight into Tom Hanks] in 'Big.' I remember watching [Hanks] in the scene where he first sees himself, as an adult, in the bathroom mirror.

"He did at least 12 takes, Every time, he did something different; every time, believable. I was astounded by his level of concentration: Boy, that's really a superior practitioner of this craft!

"Right after that was 'Married to the Mob' — my first really big film role." She almost lost that role, however, due to another roll: "Down a countryside knoll. I was obviously trying to impress some young man — in my 'toujours young, toujours gai-ety.' I ended up, cheeks to toes, with a case of ravaged poison ivy.

"Then, I got stuck in a traffic jam, and was late for the first reading. The director, Jonathan Demme, called me and asked, 'Do you really want to do this?' I said, 'I really do.'" She played Connie, jealous wife of mafia boss Tony "the Tiger" Russo (Dean Stockwell). Claims Ruehl, "It turned out to be one of the most fun shoots I've ever been on — before, since, ever."

To date, which experience, has brought Ruehl the most satisfaction? "You get satisfied in different ways. Of course, Lost in Yonkers; certainly working with [director] Terry Gilliam in 'The Fisher King.'

"The screenplay [by Richard LaGravenese] was witty, more or less perfect — one of the few I ever worked on that didn't have to be retooled, or re-doctored. And it was satisfying working with that particular group of actors [Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Amanda Plummer, David Hyde Pierce].

"Doing Medea at the Denver Center — the Robinson Jeffers translation [of Euripides], the one Zoe [Caldwell] did on Broadway — was maybe the first truly satisfying thing in my career. Zoe came to see it. Last spring, working on [artist] Louise Nevelson, in Edward Albee's Occupant, was powerful. By and large, doing Edward's work just swings you out on a big old learning curve."

Married to artist David Geiser, their son, Jake, is 11. "He's seen me in a lot of movies," his proud mom tells me, "and has seen just about every play I've done [since he was born]." I can't resist asking how he liked The Goat. "He was only four then. He came with his dad, and watched bits of it, when I came on. He wasn't very interested. Jake's become a very good theatregoer, at a very early age. He's very quiet and attentive.

"Recently, I did Viva La Vida! [by Diane Shaffer], at Bay Street [the Sag Harbor, NY, theatre]. It was about [artist] Frida Kahlo. I'll probably be doing another play there this summer — Dinner [a dark comedy, by Moira Buffini], which was very successful on the West End."

Is there a difference between portraying fictional characters — such as Bella, Medea, and Serafina (The Rose Tattoo) — and those who lived: Louise Nevelson, Frida Kahlo, [art collector] Peggy Guggenheim (Woman Before a Glass)?

"On the premise that all art is autobiographical to a degree — a dancer's, a violinist's, clearly a writer's — an actor's art is autobiographical. You bring part of your own story to any part you play, and weld it to the story of the character written by the playwright.

"When you're playing a real character, you have one more autobiography to respect. [Laughs] Three tributaries are flowing into the river — such as Nevelson, Albee, and yourself. All three egos have to be served, or else the character doesn't really come alive."

Among her TV work, Ruehl appeared as station manager Kate Costas on five episodes (1995-96) of "Frasier," and — "like every other actor in New York, I've done some 'Law & Order' shows." She's also played the mother of Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) on "Entourage." Ruehl's "talking about doing two films in the spring [The American Plan ends a limited run March 15], but neither one is set."

Ruehl points out that the title, The American Plan, refers "to the opulent menus of the Catskill hotels in the '50s and '60s. Resort guests got three meals a day [part of their room rate] — all you can eat, all day long." In a funny sequence, Ruehl's character recounts, in great detail, how a guest consumed a large repast. For theatregoers, The American Plan provides food for thought — and lets them see Mercedes Rule!


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