PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: On Golden Pond: Joneses Don't Joke Around

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08 Apr 2005

James Earl Jones; Ernest Thompson; Leslie Uggams; Linda Powell; Colin Powell; Terrence McNally; Audra McDonald & Michael Cerveris; Brian Stokes Mitchell; Lillias White; Dionne Warwick; Oksana Baiul
James Earl Jones; Ernest Thompson; Leslie Uggams; Linda Powell; Colin Powell; Terrence McNally; Audra McDonald & Michael Cerveris; Brian Stokes Mitchell; Lillias White; Dionne Warwick; Oksana Baiul
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

What is it with these Joneses who play it straight and get laughs with no apparent effort?

Last Thursday it was Cherry Jones professing she didn't have "a comic-timing bone in my body," although her nunsense in Doubt leaves considerable doubt of this. "You just can't go wrong with those lines," she claimed, passing the buck back to the source. "John Patrick Shanley [the now Pulitzer Prize-winning author] laid 'em out on a silver platter."

This Thursday it was James Earl Jones insisting "I don't do comedy," less than an hour after doing just that—or, at least, regaling (with commendable consistency) an opening-night crowd at the Cort. He doesn't "do comedy" in Ernest Thompson's autumnal antic of 1979, On Golden Pond, which opened there April 7 for a revival.

"When did you see me do comedy before?" he thunders—er, wonders—his Voice of Verizon bouncing off the walls of The W Hotel-Times Square's Blue Fin bar where first-nighters gathered to celebrate. So it's nice, when crossing laser-swords with Darth Vader, to be able to cite "Claudine" (20th Century-Fox, 1974), his only known comedy.

Instantly, Jones breaks into that mile-wide smile of his that someone would actually remember this lighthearted little gem. "Oh, my God!" he exclaims, nudging his wife (and last Desdemona), Cecilia Hart. That's the one where he's a garbage-man courting Diahann Carroll, a housemaid and overburdened single mom (of six). On Golden Pond was intended to be a reunion of the two stars, but Carroll bowed out before the Kennedy Center engagement because of a back problem and Leslie Uggams quickly bowed in.



Jones concedes Claudine but says comedy is completely conditional for him. "It takes a set-up," he says. "See, I'm a straight man. If you don't set it up, there aren't any jokes. The writing and the people you work with—that's what makes comedy. We got direction from our director [Leonard Foglia] never to play for laughs. If laughs happen, then you wait for them—like traffic, you know. If you don't wait for them, there'll be an accident."

He gets his license to kill comedically from the character, an octogenarian curmudgeon who, since retiring from teaching college English, has been showering his loved ones with a lofty, leveling cynicism previously reserved for his ill-equipped students. The chosen few now within his striking distance include his patient ever-loving wife (Uggams), his long-estranged daughter (Linda Powell), her new love interest (Peter Francis James) and his teenage son (Alexander Mitchell, previously Sean Comb's son in A Raisin in the Sun). There's also a lone Caucasian (Craig Bockhorn) who motorboats by periodically, delivering the mail and giving Jones some target practice so his wit won't wither. It's already on the wane anyway because of slowly advancing Alzheimer's; that and a heart scare seem to say this could be his last trip to the old summer home in Maine.

Hardly the bare bones of comedy, you'll allow, but, as Powell observes, "In his mind, he's not doing comedy. Everything he does is very rooted in the character, and I think that makes it funnier. He's not going for jokes. He's going for the truth of every moment.

"He's an amazing human being. So is Leslie. We are such a happy family backstage, not like the family on stage. Backstage, it's a lovefest. We enjoy coming to work every day."

Off-stage, she has a happy arrangement, too. "My mother and father have both been very supportive. They come all the time to see me." Powell, a charter member of the Willow Cabin troupe, made her Broadway debut en masse with the company when Wilder, Wilder, Wilder moved uptown; Pond is a more conspicuous Main Stem splash. As usual, in attendance was a proudly beaming Pop (former Secretary of State Colin Powell).

Peter Francis James, her love interest in the play, enjoys his showdown with Jones, in which he firmly informs his possible father-in-law he won't be jerked around any more. "In the end you have to convince [Jones] that this guy should marry his daughter, that the guy is actually more decent than he is. It's a dream to do that scene with him."

Bockhorn, the postman who rings twice during the course of the play, is of the same persuasion. "I guess if you were a lawyer, you would want to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. If you're a stage actor, you want to be in front of a James Earl Jones."

"Didn't you see the joy in our faces at the curtain call?" Uggams asks. "He's heaven to work with. You're working with one of the great actors of theatre. I pinch myself every night."

Continued...

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