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

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

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)

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."

Even Thompson, who patterned the character after his own father, concedes a more than passing resemblance to Jones. "There's a lot of the essential aspects of that old guy up there on the stage," he says—and it's quite different from what Tom Aldredge originally created Off- and then on Broadway and what Henry Fonda repeated in the 1981 film, his last. Thompson, like Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, won Academy Awards for the film. Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen, from the first company, are still gainfully employed on Broadway (he as one of the Twelve Angry Men; she as one of the Steel Magnolias).

"I have two different plays I'm trying to get up and going right now," Thompson says. "One is called Ax of Love, and I've workshopped it a couple of times. It's about four people who meet in college in 1970, and it's the next 30 years of their lives, sort of a sociological character study over three decades. The new play is called Some Parts Missing, and it's about two former best friends who get together to try to build a basketball backboard for one of the men's sons. In the course of the 24 hours they spend trying to put the stupid thing up, all kinds of stuff comes out in their conversations."

There is also a TV pilot in the works—plus a screenplay that's being put into production called Elysian Farm in which he'll return to acting in the role of an investigating cop.

Director Folgia is still awed by what an easy evolution this revival has been. "It's nice when things happen by a natural force," he notes. "James Earl wanted to come back to the stage. There was no talk of anything long-term. He just wanted to bring himself back to the stage for a short term. We all signed on immediately because of his involvement. I'd never read the play. I got a call from producer Jeffrey Finn, saying On Golden Pond with James Earl Jones. I said, 'Wow.' He said, 'Can I send you the play?" I said, 'You don't have to send me a play. You said James Earl Jones. That's enough for me. I'll show up.'"

Next, Folgia will shift venues and do an opera in Madison, WI, and then at Seattle Opera. "It's a new opera based on Graham Greene's novel, The End of the Affair. Jake Heggie, who wrote Dead Man Walking, which I did at New York City Opera, did the music, and the book is by Heather McDonald, the playwright who did An Almost Holy Picture."

He had his own Tony-winning rooting section going for him on opening night— Zoe Caldwell and Terrence McNally, who both won Tonys for the Folgia-directed Master Class. She didn't want to be photographed, and he didn't want to discuss his new play, Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams, beyond saying that Tony winner Marian Seldes would be doing it in July at Primary Stages and would be playing a rich eccentric. "Is this where they keep the Tony winners?" a reporter asked, spying four time winner Audra McDonald in an upstairs backbooth, flanked by her Passion's Michael Cerveris on the left and her Ragtime's Brian Stokes Mitchell on the right. She and Cerveris are still basking in the Passion acclaim they reaped last week for the televised "Jazz at Lincoln Center" edition they reprised from the Ravinia show they did two summers ago.

Mitchell also huddled with his about-to-be Bloody Mary, Lillias White. "She's the girl I love," he quipped about White, who on June 9 will join him, Reba McEntire, Jason Danieley and Conrad John Schuck for a South Pacific benefit at Carnegie Hall.

White will follow that with a Joe's Pub gig in July. She says she won't be doing the proposed spring revival of Purlie, although she just did a bang-up job of it for "Encores."

Other celebs making the scene were Dionne Warwick, Patricia Neal, Maurice Hines, Gold Metal Russian skater Oksana Baiul, David Dinkins, Anne Hathaway and, after Doubt was stilled at the Walter Kerr, Adriane Lenox, replete with her stand-by.

All were there to celebrate the 74-year-old new-born "comic," in his first Broadway outing since his Tony-winning performance in Fences 18 years ago. Too long a wait, that.

"We don't have control over that," Jones declared with booming authority. And from that base, his voice began building grandly. "No actor controls his fate! His destiny! It's all in the hands of the gods!" Then, he stepped down from Olympus and, with a wink to the reporter recording him faithfully, asided: "You can print all that. I don't mean a word of it."

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)