PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The People in the Picture — I Remember "Bubbie"
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters of the Broadway opening of the new musical The People in the Picture starring Donna Murphy.
So this is how the seasons ends . . . not with a bang, but with a click — with a lot of clicks, in fact: The People in the Picture, which closed out the 2010-11 Broadway season April 28 at Studio 54, refers to yellowing snapshots that have survived their subjects and now have started to fade from the slipping memory of an ancient Polish actress ("Bubbie," to her granddaughter, tugging at the family roots).
Donna Murphy delivers the show's opening jolt, shuffling center-stage with an elderly gait and manner. This is what is left of Raisel, once upon a time — before the Nazi invasion — the toast of the just-uncorked Polish cinema. She and her troupe of traveling thespians, The Warsaw Gang, would have been contemporaries — rivals, probably — of the Turas, Maria and Joseph (Carole Lombard and Jack Benny in "To Be Or Not To Be"), both companies making funny faces at the new German menace.
Murphy weaves and waltzes through two different worlds — from New York City in 1977 where she shares a flat with her estranged, divorced daughter, Red (for her hair), and granddaughter, Jenny, to Poland from 1935 to 1946. Driving her back and forth between these ports of recall is the desire to share her memories and past with her granddaughter — a suggestion that causes Red to see red because one of those memories is the reason that she and her mother are at arm's length.
Director Leonard Foglia, who made a memorable mental swirl of Maria Callas' fractured psyche in Master Class, is in charge of the cerebral landscape here — his first musical. Iris Rainer Dart is credited with the book and the lyrics, and the music is by a heavily seasoned pair of Pops from the pop world, Mike ("Hound Dog") Stoller and Artie ("Here's to Life") Butler.
The last opening-night party of the season was splashed about the spacious Broadway Ballroom of the Marriott Marquis, but the only person around who looked like she was going to a ball was Murphy, who arrived fashionably late for her Star Entrance, gorgeously glammed-up and begowned in black ruffles.
"What little old lady?" she seemed to be inviting everybody on the premises to ask.
"This is one of the easiest shows for me to get ready," she confessed. "I wear very little makeup. I can't really wear any aging makeup because I'm shifting back and forth in time. I just basically have kind of a neutral base, and I powder myself because I know I'm going to sweat, and then I put on that beautiful wig.
"The work has been done by spectacular hair and costume designers, Paul Huntley and Ann Hould-Ward. My prep is more interior, I would say."
She sheds decades on a dime with a slight gesture or simple movement — much the same kind of acting miracle that Jessica Tandy once employed in a little dance in her Tony-winning Foxfire, completely convincing you that she was a young girl.
"It's something that evolves through a process," said Murphy. "When I first read the script, I said, 'It's fantastic, but this is a movie. How do you do this? How does anyone do this?' And we just discovered it. Things we discover each night. The transitions happen for different reasons at different times as she goes back into the past. And the worlds start to collide in the second act, which is fascinating for me.
"I've studied women's aging. I've watched women in film — not just actresses, but actual people. How do they move when they were 25? How do they move when they were 35? How do they move when they were 55? How do they move when they were 75? Someone with a heart condition — what happens? Those things — but I wasn't ready to do them. I didn't know how. It just took time and evolved."
On first reading, Murphy had a visceral reaction to the script that had a lot to do with her wanting to perform it. "The challenge of it struck me," she said. "It scared me — and that's always seductive for me. It's nothing I've ever done before, and it's always something I'm interested in. And I thought the score was really beautiful.
"The themes of the piece — laughter as a key to survival, working through hard truths in families and trying to resolve things, understanding who you come from and what you come from, what you carry within you as a result and what you can pass on. All those things — as a mother, as a daughter, as a granddaughter, as a human being — and then in talking about the particular culture that these people belong to — they need to be remembered. We all need to be remembered."
It's cold out there on the stage for Nicole Parker, who, in the harsh and thankless role of Red, spends most of the play without any audience sympathy — until the source of her mean-spiritedness toward her mother is finally revealed.
"She's sort of purposefully misunderstood at the beginning," Parker pointed out. "I think we're not supposed to know all there is to Red. It's the classic example of you never know what someone is going through. You might look at someone and see how they act and think, 'Wow, that's not a very good person,' or 'That's not a choice I would have made.' Then you find out where she's coming from, what she's been dealing with for so long, and it sorta opens up. We kinda come to understand her.
"So I have to work backwards with the show, where I have to remember that what happens in the end is still happening to me when I walk in on that stage in the first act. I've dealt with it all my life. I love the complexity of her, trying to figure it out.
"Unfortunately, what happened to her has not defined her but really set her on a path that was going to be tricky — feelings that she was not quite good enough."
Completing the play's three generations of women is young Rachel Resheff, who was bright as a penny and precocious as hell with the press. "I like how my character — sorta like me — wants everybody to get along and wants there to be happiness around her. She really absorbs things — that's where she gets her energy."
She has made all the child-actor stops to get to The People in the Picture — from Mary Poppins to Billy Elliot to Shrek — and still she found the evening to be especially exciting. "I had the feeling that everything was complete, everything was done. There's a feeling of accomplishment. It's amazing."
The merry band of Polish players here, who are forever pausing for photo-ops ("the better to remember you by," as it turns out), is colorfully cast with knowing veterans like Joyce Van Patten, who has a quiver full of zingers. "The one that gets the biggest reaction," she revealed, "is, 'I believe that if a person surrounds himself with the proper hair and makeup people one need never go into elder-care.'"
The comedy team of Chip Zien and Lewis J. Stadlen has a place on Raisel's bill, tapping as hard as they can as war clouds gather ominously. "My take on the character is that he's a gentle soul and facing these horrifying events," Zien said. "I think he's a guy who wants to jump around, laugh a lot, but is confronted with this tidal wave of history that is overwhelmingly sad, and he ends up losing his life. My sense of him is he can't believe it's happening. And that's how I try to play it.
"It's a difficult show, and I'm really proud of the Roundabout. Like, I think it's awesome that Todd Haimes took it on and said, 'Yes, let's do it. I want to do it.' Good for him. I think it's tough material, and I hope the theatre world accepts it."
Stadlen, who must have Showbiz Concentrate flowing through his veins, takes effortlessly to the situation. "Somebody said to me what they liked so much about this show was that Chip and I were able to kinda bridge between the David Burnses and now," the actor relayed, referring to the late character actor. "A lot of people don't do that kind of comedy anymore.
"I like the idea of playing a straight man, and I like the stillness. You're extremely animated in the present tense of your life, but then, when you are a memory — part of Donna's consciousness — I like the stillness. I just think that Donna Murphy is giving one of the most extraordinary performances that I have ever seen in my life."
Alexander Gemignani, who has gained some leading-man dash (in his Laird Cregar sort of way) from a very becoming wig, marks his second show with his dad, conductor Paul Gemignani — in the same house as Assassins before.
Christopher Innvar is not short on dash either as the redheaded director who fathers Raisel's child. "I did two readings of it, and it has changed, but my relationship with Raisel has always been the same. That's always been the main attraction to me. I get to play across from Donna Murphy, and I feel as though we have this great chemistry right from the beginning, so I enjoy doing this."
Innvar's next theatrical venture will likely take him behind the footlights: "I'm probably going to direct Lord of the Flies up at Barrington Stage Company where I'm an artistic associate. It will be an adaptation by Nigel Williams."
Andy Williams, a stranger to Broadway openings but a lifelong working buddy of Artie Butler's, led the opening night guest list, followed by Shawn Elliott (Murphy's husband), Matthew Broderick, actress Carolyn McCormick, comedienne Caroline Rhea, producer Scott Landis and director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, Pearl Theatre regular Sean McNall, Hello, Again's Elizabeth Stanley (with a couple of musicalized-movie readings in the offing: Giant and Robin and the Seven Hoods), Tovah Feldshuh — of course, John Scherer (bound for a West Coast Anything Goes with Jason Graae and Vicki Lewis in Sacramento), Jim Walton, Baby It's You! co-director Sheldon Epps, Goodspeed's Michael Price, a lean-and-mean Denis O'Hare (going Gothic on us: not only is he lingering between dead and undead on "True Blood," he's doing the pilot of a new F/X called "American Horror" with Jessica Lange in May), Marc Kudisch, Catch Me If You Can's Terrence McNally, actress-producer Jana Robbins, conductor David Loud, theatrical attorneys Jason Baruch and Mark Sendroff, Anything Goes co-adapter John Weidman, director-choreographer Susan Stroman (slaving over a still-untitled Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical at Lincoln Center), Max Von Essen, holidaying before Death Takes a Holiday, Jack Koenig and, fleetingly, of Glory Days, Nick Blaemire.
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