PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Rivals: Hustling and Bustling

By Harry Haun
17 Dec 2004

Beaming proudly beside her was her husband, Michael Emerson, the original Oscar Wilde of Gross Indecency. He's just back from a long shoot below the Mexico border, filming the Zorro sequel, The Legend of Zorro, starring Antonio Bandaras and Catherine Zeta Jones. "He's one of those Pinkerton detectives on the trail," she says. "He always plays these nasty parts. I dunno why. He's the nicest person on the planet."

Extracurricularly, Preston and Letscher are paired in a December-due independent film, Straight Jacket, a comedy about a gay movie star of the '50s who weds a studio secretary.

Herb Foster, with a highly castable face that convinces in other centuries, supplies some local color early on as the boozer of Bath, replete with a red nose. "That was the idea of the flush makeup. He's behind the horse and with the stable guys, so he's drinking a lot."

Among the four footmen in the show is a Hero, as in the last (Nathan Lane) go-around of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. A tad overqualified, Jim Stanek concedes, "but I'm also covering for James Urbaniak, Jeremy Shamos and David Manis. The great thing about that is all are character roles. No one ever hires me for character roles."

There's another great thing about that—well, good and bad. "I turned down a new musical in Philly the same day that I got this offer. Ethan McSweeney directed the one in Philly, and it's supposedly a big smash. I was going to be the lead in it, but I turned it down because I could be home with my wife [Beth] and kids [Cameron, three and a half, and Mason, one year old on Dec. 23]. That's life. You have to decide. My agents fought me tooth and nail on this, but I wanted to be with my family during the holidays. That was first and foremost. And then, to be at Lincoln Center doing a play isn't so shabby either."

When it became apparent that The Frogs would not be jumping as far or as long as had been hoped, Lincoln Center Theatre's co-director, Andre Bishop, sent out some S.O.S.'s to various directors, including Lamos, who had helmed a successful production of A.R. Gurney Jr.'s Big Bill last year—and it was Lamos who suggested The Rivals.

"I had done a production of it about 10 years ago," he says, "and, when Andre called and said, 'I'm looking for ideas. Do you have something that you think might be good for the Beaumont for the holiday season?', I suddenly thought of The Rivals because I thought it'd sit well in the Beaumont. And I really love the play and knew it would be such fun."

McSweeney, who is on the brink of announcing the play he will be directing for Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre, confirmed the hit status of his Philly frolic, Chasing Nicolette, a new musical by Pete Kellogg and David Friedman, which opened Saturday there at the Prince Music Theatre and netted "a bunch of great reviews. Bronson Pinchot is headlining, playing a comic servant par excellence. We expect the show will run through the second week of January—and then, hopefully, at a theatre near you."

LTC is always good about having its past playwrights in attendance for its openings, hence the presence of Uhry, Gurney and William Finn. Gurney admitted an uncertainty about Grace, the Grace Kelly musical biography he and the late Cy Coleman were writing for director Michael Blakemore, but says he has "a few other irons in the fire."

Finn is toiling over a new musical with Rachel Sheinkin, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which his Falsettos director, James Lapine, will open Feb. 7 at Second Stage with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jose Llana and Celia Keenan-Bolger.

The composer confesses he's a bit surprised to be involved in the project and got involved in it in a highly roundabout way, thanks to another of LTC's favorite playwrights. "Wendy Wasserstein's nanny was in a nonmusical version of the show when it was done downtown. Wendy saw it and she thought that I'd be the right person to add music. She was right. I loved it, and I've been working on it about a year. Unlike most of my shows, this is a heterosexual date show. I don't know how I wrote this."

A new brain, perhaps.

Chip Zien, Finn's longtime friend and on-stage frog (in A New Brain), is also readying a musical, sharing villainy with Robert Sella in the upcoming Chitty Chitty Bang Bang .

Daniel Sullivan, a key director at Lincoln Center, caught The Rivals with two of the actresses he'll be introducing on Broadway (at the Biltmore) Feb. 3 in Donald Margulies' Brooklyn BoyAri Graynor and Mimi Lieber. "It's one of Donald's funniest plays," says the man who helmed Margulies' Sight Unseen and Pulitzer Prize winning Dinner With Friends. "It has a good deal of charm and it continues his identity search, which is always one of his themes—how you grow away from your past."

After that, Sullivan will devote himself a name-heavy Broadway revival of Julius Caesar, which, so far, has not gone beyond Denzel Washington for Brutus. "I had done a production of Julius Caesar down in San Diego, and last summer when I was at South Coast with Brooklyn Boy, I got into touch with Denzel and we talked about the possibility of doing it—not for this season, for next season. Then, about a month ago, just when the American Buffalo production I was supposed to do with Lawrence Fishburne started to get shaky in terms of financing, a movie that Denzel was doing fell through. It was one of those play-or-pay things where if you do another movie during that period when you would have been filming it, you don't get your play-or-pay, which was a huge amount of money. [$20 million, according to some published reports]. So he called and said, 'Let's do it now.' And that's how it's happening this season. It's coming together quite quickly."