Keeping Mum: The Cast of Relatively Speaking Withholds the Surprises and Secrets
By Harry Haun
Julie Kavner, Marlo Thomas, Grant Shaud, Steve Guttenberg and others in Broadway's comic triptych Relatively Speaking were shy about revealing details about their roles. Still, Playbill went fishing.
Woody Allen, Elaine May and Ethan Coen are perhaps the last three people on this planet you'd expect to sidle up to the press and chat about their work. They're the gold standard for Parsimonious, prizing their surprises, preserving their comedy.
Hence, reticence-to-the-third-degree was the order of the day when the press was invited to meet the 16 actors (but not the writers) performing Relatively Speaking, a trio of one-acts — Allen's Honeymoon Motel, May's George Is Dead and Coen's Talking Cure — in which each has an act to address family matters. It opens Oct. 20 at the Brooks Atkinson. I chatted with them while they were early in rehearsals.
"Oh, I can't tell you anything," Julie Kavner sweetly rasped at the outset. "We're not allowed to say a word because we want it to be a surprise for the audience. It's not just because it's a secret-to-be-a-secret. I think it's a very good thing. When I saw Woody's 'Midnight in Paris' — which I think is the most beautiful movie I've ever seen in my life — I knew nothing. I really knew nothing. I didn't read a review. I didn't know the story, so the surprise that's in the movie was a surprise and totally unexpected — and I think that's the way the three authors want the audience to come into this experience, being virgins and discovering it for themselves."
Because she has been in more Woody Allen vehicles than anyone else in the cast (seven!), it seemed fair to ask if she'd done characters like this before for Woody.
"Not exactly," she shot back, wagging her finger. "You're fishing, you're fishing."
(I was, too.)
Broadway newbie Bill Army apparently got the memo: "I play Paul in Woody's Honeymoon Motel, the third of the three one-acts. I don't want to give too much away, but it's a great family comedy with some drama, as all families are."
Mark Linn-Baker was a mite more informative. "I'm paired with Julie Kavner, which is a ton of fun," he brazenly admitted before folding like a pup tent with "We're the bride's parents, and — I don't want to give away too much because it's quite a piece."
This is his second outing with Allen, if you count the first (which he doesn't, particularly): "I did a small part in 'Manhattan.' When I was doing Shakespeare in the Park in 1978, he shot a scene in the Delacorte Theater. It was later shot somewhere else, and it was cut into the montage at the beginning of the film for just a brief moment. There's a screen credit at the end. I'm billed as the Shakespearean actor — except that my name is spelled wrong: M-A-R-Y. Mary Linn-Baker."
Steve Guttenberg filled in a few more blanks, but cryptically. "I'm the father of the groom, who makes a complicated choice, and then the comedy train starts rolling."
The unconfirmed bride of Honeymoon Motel is Ari Graynor, who's enjoying getting lost in the crowd on stage: "It's been a long time since I've done a play that wasn't a four-hander. There's a different excitement when you're on stage with a lot of people and you're just living the life of this story that we're all telling together. It's so rare now to see big ensembles. Most new plays have such small casts for financial reasons primarily because we got accustomed to smaller scenes. This play is very rhythmic and very alive and very big. It's a great challenge and an exciting process."
Caroline Aaron, a veteran of four Woody Allen movies, was more than happy to admit she was playing Guttenberg's wife, "which, may I say, if you get to have a fantasy husband, I'll take him. I'm the mother of the groom, and it's about a wedding. You know your children's milestones are the most meaningful parts of your life, and the wedding doesn't come off the way that I want it to so I'm very disappointed."
Aaron added that she was delighted to be in the same show, if not the same act, as Marlo Thomas, who stars in the Elaine May offering, George Is Dead. "I was Marlo's standby in 1986 for Social Security, directed by Mike Nichols, and I was in awe. She was not only 'That Girl,' she was everything to me — so generous and took such good care of me. On opening night, she gave me a sterling silver picture frame from Tiffany's with a picture of her and me on it, and it was engraved, 'If I'm not here, proceed without me. Love, Marlo.' And I brought it with me to put in my dressing room here because now we're together again."
Thomas and May are pals of longstanding and, once, co-stars. "The producer of our play, Julian Schlossberg, produced a movie that we were in called 'In the Spirit,'" she said. "That's really the only time Elaine and I have worked together, but we've been friends for years, and I was just delighted when she called me and said, 'I've written a play, and I didn't realize this when I was writing it, but I think you'd be great in it.'
"I read it and just loved it. What I like about it is that it's completely not me. It's nowhere near me. I'm even a blonde in it. That's why I was so excited to be offered a part like this. Usually, when someone says, 'This part is great for you,' it's going to be you, so it's fun that it's not me. She's a very wealthy, pampered woman, and she's never taken any responsibility in her life. Now, her husband is gone, and she has to cope, and she just can't — but it's not me. I can cope."
Veteran actress Patricia O'Connell conceded she's a mother in May's play. "The thing is" — wait for it — "I can't say too much about it because in a way the character's a bit of a surprise in the ending. But she's called in the cast list 'The Old Woman,' and she's very interesting but she's quite strong, which you realize when she comes on stage. She is talked about throughout the play and then comes on toward the end."
Broadway-debuting Katherine Borowitz, who's married to the play's director (John Turturro) and clearly knows what's going on, threw only a bone to reporters: "I am the woman in Ethan Coen's play, Talking Cure — and I think I can tell you I'm a pregnant woman in this play. I'm the only woman in it." (We'd have figured it out.)
Her co-star, Danny Hoch, walked on eggs as well: "I'm in Ethan Coen's play, and I play a — I'll just say I'm the acquaintance of a doctor. If I say anything more, it'll ruin everything. I'll leave it mysterious like that. In Woody's play, I deliver things . . ."
The most worked actor in the show is Murphy Brown's Miles Silverberg — Grant Shaud, who's busy one way or another in all three plays. Doing what, you ask? "I play — y'know, I'll just generalize — sort of a best friend in the Woody play. In Elaine's, I play a husband, and in Ethan's I'm understudying the lead."
Because of his high-profiled television detours, it has taken Shaud a quarter of a century to get back to Broadway. "I was in Torch Song Trilogy 25 years ago, understudying the roles of David and Alan, and I got to go on quite a bit," he recalled. "It was actually my first acting job. I started on Broadway and fell downward — but I've gotten to work with some of the best playwrights going. I got to work with Kenny Lonergan and John Patrick Shanley and Chris Durang and Woody Allen — in Writer's Block, down at the Atlantic Theatre Company eight years ago.
"You don't pass up a chance to work with Woody Allen. You know, he's kind of a genius. It's a great experience. He's always looking for where maybe he might be able to take a word out of a sentence to make it tighter. He's sort of a real technician. He wrote the music so he knows where all the notes are, and he can point out to you if you're missing one. He's phenomenal. I'm thrilled beyond belief to be in this."
Like Hoch and Shaud, Jason Kravits finds himself double-cast in the show — both times as a psychiatrist, but from different schools. "I have to change it up a little bit," Kravits confessed. "In Woody Allen's — as you can imagine — the psychiatrist is very Freudian. Everything is Freud-based. He quotes Freud. He loves Freud. He idolizes Freud. And in the Ethan Coen play, he's much more of a friendly psychiatrist who just wants you to talk and get your feelings out. He's much more touchy-feely. I'm usually the one who's sorting out the relatives. I'll put it this way: These relatives are crazy enough that they need two psychiatrists in at least two of the three plays."
Relatively Speaking actors not spoken to for this article include Lisa Emery and Richard Libertini. What could they possibly not add?
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