PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Catered Affair Altar Egos

By Harry Haun
April 18, 2008

Marriage as an institution ("and who wants to be in an institution?") is explored on a variety of planes present tense, future tense and very tense in A Catered Affair, a domestic musical donnybrook that bowed and curtsied April 17 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

The Hurley household in The Bronx is the home under attack — from within: Daughter Janey (Leslie Kritzer) has decided to marry herself off the premises, not out of an overriding passion, but because she and her Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh) can get a free honeymoon by delivering in one quick hurry a friend's car to the West Coast.

"It sounds sillier every time I tell it," scoffs her mother, Aggie (Faith Prince), who herself was rushed down the aisle, in off-white, with child and without a Kodak moment to hold on to. She chides her taxi-hack hubby, Tom (Tom Wopat), to make it up to her at long last by giving their daughter the wedding they never had. All of a sudden, elopement is not an option — even though it is the MO of choice for the participating couple. Never mind them and to hell with the expense (which costs Tom his dream of owning a Medallion taxi and eats up the bereavement check from the government for their recently fallen soldier son) — Aggie will have her dream!

She almost goes the 90-minute distance strangle-holding this dream, and, when the realistic world forces her to release it, Aggie lets out all the angst and anger in her system, like a proud lonely lioness in the jungle mortally wounded by pygmies.

Music, it can be said, helps this very bitter pill go down. The songs are by John Bucchino, who has developed a prestigious cult following well outside of Broadway's earshot, and the book (via Paddy Chayefsky's 1955 teleplay and Gore Vidal's 1956 screenplay) is by Harvey Fierstein, a Main Stem mainstreamer and Theatre Hall of Famer with two Tonys for writing and one for acting to his credit.

Fierstein wears both hats here, writing himself into the show in a role that was Barry Fitzgerald's last in Hollywood. Although Harvey makes his entrance with an emerald-green "Top o' the morning," he's hardly the type to play a twinkly Irish drunk slug, so the author has custom-fitted the part to his specifications. Instead of a "confirmed bachelor," Uncle Winston is now a gay man temporarily out of love.

Fierstein explained at the elaborate after-party thrown at the Hilton Hotel's Grand Ballroom: "When I was examining Faith's role, I asked myself what I really want to say with that role. Aggie was a woman who didn't realize that her husband loved her. That was the Paddy Chayefsky thing that interested me. So I said, 'How do I take that up to the level I want to take it to? How do I talk about living your whole life in love with someone but being so scared that he doesn't love you that you don't dare to allow yourself to love him?' Once I knew that, I wondered how to show that. Then I thought, 'The brother doesn't do anything in the movie. He's just comic relief — a drunken Irishman — and I didn't want to do a bad stereotype. Then, it occurred to me, 'Gay men in the '50s had no lives. They're hidden. They have sex in shadows.' Which is not unlike what Aggie's doing. That's when the idea came to me: to contrast the gay brother who has no life and the sister who should have a life and has no life."

A Catered Affair has been gnawing at Fierstein longer than you might imagine. "When I was a kid, I saw the movie, and I always loved it. Then, about 25 years ago, I wanted to write it for Chita so I went to Kander & Ebb. They weren't interested, so I put it away for another ten years or so. Then, I said, 'Maybe it's time to do it.' I was getting a little frustrated at the shows I was being asked to write. I just thought they were all so silly. I don't have time to do silly. La Cage aux Folles certainly was light, but it wasn't silly. I did do silly once. I did Legs Diamond, which really taught me a lesson not to waste time. Life is too precious to waste. So, after a while, I finally said, 'Let me see what I can get together here.' And that's what we did. We went to work."

 

Glenn Close, Bernadette Peters, Scott Wittman, Matthew Broderick and Marc Shaiman, Edie Falco, Joan Rivers, Kathie Lee Gifford, Regis Philbin and Joy Philbin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Suzanne Vega and B.D. Wong.
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Constantine Kitsopoulos, who's used to bigger Broadway stuff (La Boheme, Coram Boy, Swan Lake), led an orchestra of ten through Jonathan Tunick's delicate orchestrations. The cast on stage also numbers ten, and, this being a John Doyle-directed show, it should be pointed out that there was no overlapping. The actors played parts — not instruments, as was his Tony-nominated (Sweeney Todd) and Tony-winning (Company) wont — and every man-jack of them was ready to canonize him.

Most actors — certainly the ones who've worked on his three Broadway shows — revere him, but Doyle was hard-pressed to explain the special rapport he has with his actors.

He observed, "You do your job. You work with them as people. It's far too complicated to explain quickly. It's a personal relationship and asking them to tell the truth. And that's all."

Next, Doyle will relapse into Sondheim — specifically, the composer-lyricist's much-workshopped musical with John Weidman about Addison and Wilson Mizner, Bounce. "That will be happening in the fall and down at The Public, so I'm very excited about it," Doyle said. "It's not a workshop. We're going to do the whole thing. We're doing it for real."

All fixed up from the dowdy-housefrau stage-disguise, looking downright glamorous in a billowy black-crepe affair with matching wig, Prince made her fashionably late Star Entrance and drew clusters of press and adoring fans.

Having given — in spades — "at the office," she did not arrive via stretcher-bearers. There were no hints of fatigue from her emotional whirlwind. Fact is, she seemed exuberant. "No, the show is not draining for me. In fact, I sleep really well at night."

Which is not to say her work is easy. Aggie's dream dies hard, and Prince hammers it to your heart. "It's a pretty high dive there," she conceded, "but, honey, that's the only way to do this show. John Doyle says 'Go for it, babe. That's the only way to fly.'

"But you know what? The play kinda does the work for you. It's so great. Those dominos are just stacked stacked stacked. Everything happens in, like, 36 hours."

First and last, A Catered Affair is a drama, almost just incidentally, with music. And Prince honors the drama magnificently — at one point holding a silent stage for what seems like two minutes. But she definitely and emphatically counts Bucchino a collaborator in her performance. "I think the songs add such depth in a totally different way, and haunting themes, and the lyrics are so seamless. It's kind of a different form. And Jonathan Tunick's amazing orchestration. It's a total little gem."

Plus, she's pleased Fierstein built a relatable universality into Aggie. "I'm playing my grandmother, and she's from Augusta, GA. And this takes place in The Bronx. When John Doyle read the script, he was reminded of his grandmother in Scotland. That's what I love about the piece. It's for everybody. Everybody relates somehow."

Wopat comes in for some universality, too — particularly in the show's powerful 11 o'clock number, which — surprise, surprise — goes to him rather than to Prince, giving the show balance and making it more than a star vehicle for her. Standing up on his hind-legs it seems, he barks out "I Stayed," the rattle of a simple man who footed the bills and compromised his own dreams to make his family comfortable.

On opening night, he drew combustible applause — but not all nights, said Wopat. "Sometimes it get applause, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes I walk off, and it's quiet. I think there are times when the audience feels I've slapped them a little bit.

"What I do is just keep refining what I'm doing. All I can do is try to stay inside the piece and inside of John's direction. He has given us a pretty nice set of perimeters of where to go and how to do this. For me, I find it's pretty clear direction. It doesn't vary a whole lot, and it depends on what everybody else does, a little bit, obviously. I'm working with Faith in that last scene quite a bit, but Faith and I have worked together for years. There's a depth of emotion that's hard to find in other people."

When he arrived on Broadway as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, there she was as the ever-lovin' Miss Adelaide. Six years earlier, they hopped a ride on Carousel in Washington, DC — he as Billy Bigelow, she as Carrie Pipperidge. This is their first time out as husband-and-wife, and the chemistry of their professional past shows.

As the embattled bride-to-be, Kritzer lets slip not a hint of what an unbridled comedienne she can be on the stage. Her Broadway debut — a stand-out bit as a sorority girl in Legally Blonde — is the yardstick on how to maximize mirth.

Yes, she wishes her character had some humor, "and she does. Janey has her moments, but she's a serious girl. She's a survival kind of chick. This is not a showy kind of role, and this is not that kind of show. I'm glad I pulled it off. I hope I continue to pull it off, and I'm just eternally grateful to be able to work in this show."

Foreshadowing this, the star-making turn that made people sit up and take notice of her was the manic spin she gave Fanny Brice in a Paper Mill Playhouse production of Funny Girl a few years back — but her most memorable moments were dramatic.

Gorgeously made up and begowned for the opening-night party, Kritzer resembled a Greek statue — probably, in all likelihood, a tragic one. An un-Funny Girl, for sure.

Cavenaugh seemed perfectly content with his status as the show's forgotten man. "Well, aren't most grooms?" he shot back. Actually, his role has grown from the show's try-out gig in San Diego. "After that run, we all assessed the show — what works and what doesn't, what needs to be improved, what needs to go or stay — and we all came to the conclusion that we needed to see more of Ralph, his relationship with Janey, with his parents. The event of the play is there's a wedding and how that affects everyone so we really needed to honor that and give voice to all that.

"I loved doing this. It has been a real joy from the get-go. We did a reading about a month before we started rehearsals for San Diego — and this was after I'd read the script. I was sitting there, thinking, 'This is something very special, and I need to be a part of it.' I was very moved by it, and I hope the audiences are nightly."

He had to travel to the West Coast to do it, but Cavenaugh finds himself right back where he was last season — at the Walter Kerr where he played a couple of characters in Grey Gardens. "I can't leave that theatre. I have an affinity for Dressing Room No. 6. It's the same dressing room I had before. I can't seem to leave it."

Bucchino wandered about the ballroom bedazzled and benumbed by his Broadway bow. "I can't even feel it," he admitted. "I'm too overwhelmed." After grabbing a few Instamatic shots of raucous revelers — among them: Doyle and his life-partner (civilian Robert Wilson), producer Jordan Roth and his (manager Richie Jackson), Fierstein and Raul Esparza — Bucchino retreated to quieter quarters to dispense some sage sound-bites, escaping the deafening party music.

Outside in the foyer leading into the vast ballroom, his pride was practically visible. "The show is in wonderful shape. I'm very proud of the show. I think it's just sorta coalesced into this beautiful, deep, rich show. If it were lasagna, it would be the second day where everything just sort of comes together. Flavors mingle. I'm Italian."

Would he want to come back for seconds? "Not necessarily," he confessed quickly, "only because this was such a special, magical little project. I didn't go seeking this. It came to me and found me, and it provided a way [for my writing to] interface with a Broadway show. As you may have noticed, this is not a traditional Broadway show so, if I were to do it again, it'd have to be a project that I have real feeling for."

One of the unusual aspects of his score is how it weaves in and out of the drama, without leaving room for applause. "I have to admit it was sorta shocking. At first, when it was like, 'You mean we don't get to do the ending of that song?' — because I don't come from a Broadway background. Even what little I know about Broadway is 'You have a big ending, and you just leave 'em with a big bump, and then they clap.' But, now, seeing how this works and understanding it makes me appreciate it.

"It's a little bit like a film. The very first thing that John Doyle said when we met with him was 'I'd like to direct this like a film on stage.' That was, I think, in the back of his mind, but he shifted his focus a bit and changed constantly — I mean, that's one of his strengths. He's constantly re-evaluating and improving and polishing and shaping something. But I think it still retains a lot of that cinematic quality, part of which is that it just flows. It moves along. I think that when we clap, in a way, it just pulls us out of it — the fact that you don't have applause moments keeps you in it."

He can thank Fierstein for the shot at Broadway. "A mutual friend gave him one of my CDs, called 'Grateful: The Songs of John Bucchino.' I have some illustrious singers singing, with me playing piano — Art Garfunkel, Judy Collins (who is here tonight), Liza Minnelli, Michael Feinstein, Kristin Chenoweth, among others. When Harvey heard the CD and heard something inherently theatrical in the writing of it, he called me up. I'd done a little theatre, but I had done nothing on this scale."

Before making the Broadway leap, Bucchino went to fellow tunesmith Stephen Schwartz for advice. "John asked me if I thought he should do it," recalled Schwartz. "I was, like, 'Yeah! Do that!' If it weren't for John, there wouldn't be Wicked. It was on a trip with John that I first heard about 'Wicked.' When Harvey talked to John about A Catered Affair, I was the one who said, 'Oh, yes, you should do it.' We traded shows."

First-nighters included Sheila MacRae (whose daughter, Heather, plays a sunny caterer and a gossipy neighbor in the show), Glenn Close (a close friend of producer Daryl Roth), Bernadette Peters, Karen Akers (Oak Room-bound May 13), Edie Falco (Broadway-bound in January in a new, but unnamed, play) with Side Man co-star Kevin Geer, Matthew Broderick (mugging it up for the cameras with Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman), Joan Rivers, Cafe Carlyle headliner Christopher Cross, Regis and Kathie Lee (they didn't arrive together, but they sat together at the party), B.D. Wong, Brian Stokes Mitchell and the Mrs., Come Back, Little Sheba's S. Epatha Merkerson, "Saturday Night Live" star Rachel Dratch, reality TV star Countess LuAnn de Lesseps (displaying a real showbiz savvy-ness despite her newness to the scene), sought-after music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell (who music-supervised Doyle's Company, snagging a Drama Desk for her orchestrations; her next gig is Little House on the Prairie, the musical, at the Guthrie), Wayman Wong, set designer David Rockwell, Roger Rees and Jersey Boys co-author Rick Elice, Suzanne Vega and Dan Chayefsky, who was born while his dad was filming his Oscar-winning "Marty," soon — too — to be a major Broadway musical, composed by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams and starring John C. Reilly. Television's "poet of the pavement" now has composers.