PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The 39 Steps — Stitching Hitch Together

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17 Jan 2008

Edwards logged up lots of 39 Steps himself in preparing for the Brit-twit who passed for hero in the generation before 007, but he was ever-mindful of The Aitken edict: Don't Do Donat. "More than watching him, I watched the whole genre of that kind of film acting," Edwards explained. "That's what I was trying to know. I didn't want to do a Robert Donat take-off per se. I wanted to try and take off on that era of film histrionics." He still counts himself a fan. "Hugely — 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips,' all that, even when I was a kid."

Director Aitken also had a prior appreciation of Donat. "His modernity is what I liked so much. You know how acting dates so quickly? Donat is giving a performance that would pass mustard now. His voice is a caress that sorta shades constantly into irony. He just does that so lightly. We, of course, have to take those qualities and make them bigger."

A sizable galaxy of stars in attendance on opening night was upstaged and outglittered by the director herself. She moved with effortless grace through the evening as if she hadn't a worry in the world, dressed in a handsome, Orientally designed mandarin jacket. One might suspect an homage to Donat — who wore a similar get-up in his final film, 1958's "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" — but no: "It's not in the catalogue," she demurred. "I'm wearing my dead relative's jewelry, my grandmother's frock and a coat." It was nice way of saying she wanted to have her loved ones with her on her first big night on Broadway.

The loved one beside her most of the night, in vaguely rumpled tweed, was indeed a Writer — her husband. "When I was teaching drama at Yale," she recalled, "someone sent me comfort packages of novels. One week he sent me the entire works — which wasn't very much in those days — of Patrick McGrath. I rang my friend, who's a literary agent, and said, 'This guy's fantastic. Why have I not noticed him? He's obviously English.' And he said, ‘Well, he lives here. And would you like to meet him tonight because I'm having dinner with him?' So I leapt on the train, and I married him six weeks later."

McGrath, whose latest book, "Trauma," was just published by Random House, has had two novels turned into movies — "Spider" by David Cronenberg in 2002 with Ralph Fiennes, and "Asylum" by David MacKenzie in 2005 with Natasha Richardson.

Aitken backslid and took a role in "Asylum." Until she started directing full time a decade ago, she was one of the West End's best reviewed and best regarded character actresses, with a specialty in Noel Coward comedies. She recently directed his 1924 Easy Virtue in Chichester and will start rehearsing a West End revival of it in August that will star Natasha Richardson. (The movie version of Easy Virtue, it is ironic to note, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927; a remake of it is in the works for Jennifer Biel.)

First-nighters included a raft of Tony winners: Bill Irwin, Audra McDonald (with her 110 in the Shade director, Lonny Price), lyricist Lisa Lampert (drowsily chaperoned by Bob Martin), directors-choreographers Kathleen Marshall and Tommy Tune (the latter was off with the patrol at dawn to The Windy City to see for the first time the Goodman Theatre which will launch its season in the fall with his Turn of the Century, written by "the boys" of Jersey Boys, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice), lyricist David Zippel (who just had his great song, "Another Mister Right Left," summarily nailed by Teri Ralston at The Metropolitan Room), Blythe Danner and, relatively fresh from Mauritius, Katie Finneran on the arm of Peter Coyote (who's narrating Ken Burns' new 12-hour documentary series on the national parks).

Others present: Malcolm Gets, dance legend Jacques d'Amboise, director Mark Wing-Davey (readying Brett C. Leonard's Unconditional for a LAByrinth launching at The Public), Alison Fraser (off to St. Martin's on Thursday for some quality R&R before beginning the LuPone Gypsy on Broadway), Craig Lucas, director Mark Brokaw, The Overwhelming author J.T. Rogers and set designer John Lee Beatty.

Caroline McCormick, waiting for hubby Byron Jennings to finish his prize-winning mustache-twirling in Is He Dead?, made intermission chit-chat with Old Acquaintance Margaret Colin and Broadway's first Mrs. Potts, Beth Fowler. The latter said that she was bound for Steel Magnolias at the Paper Mill Playhouse with Kelly Bishop and that she was spending this week workshopping a musical version of Please Don't Eat the Daisies, which is based more on the Jean Kerr book than the Doris Day movie; Kaitlin Hopkins and Gregg Edelman are playing Day and David Niven to her Spring Byington. Colin said her TV show, "Gossip Girl," has been picked up and will resume New York filming as soon as the writers strike is settled ("I play the evil Eleanor, one of the neglected moms," she trilled happily, and it sure sounds like License To Kill from here).

Playwright Stephen Karam and director Jason Moore were there, representing Speech and Debate, their sleeper hit in the bowels of the Laura Pels Theatre. Moore's Avenue Q is doing 85 percent capacity in its fifth year (!) and made a big step forward with his third project by shrewdly signing up Spamalot Tony nominee Christopher Sieber for a stretch in Shrek. Joel Vig, late of Hairspray and now of cabaret, said his sold-out show ten days ago at The Metropolitan Room is prompting a second Vig gig there. Film prof Dr. Richard Brown weighed in just in case an expert witness was needed for The 39 Steps. The expert really on the 39 Steps case was there: dialogue coach Stephen Gabis.

Simon Jones, whose recorded voice opens The 39 Steps with some plummy cautionary words about cellphones and such, was otherwise on vocal rest after a robust The Actors Company Theatre/TACT reading of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution over the weekend, but he'll be up and at 'em Jan. 21 for The Gingold Group's monthly reading of GBS at The Players Club. The next Shaw show will Geneva, with Carole Shelley and George S. Irving.

"I've been reading about you," Roundabout's Todd Haimes said in passing to Jones' wife, Nancy, referring to Michael Palin's "Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years." It seems she is the publicist who put that Monty crew on the map in America. Another keeping-up-with-the-Joneses tidbit: This was the day their 18-year-old, Tim, left the nest. He was immediately replaced with a 55-foot television screen, which may help . . .

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