PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Macbeth: Cumming and Going
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Alan Cumming's solo take on Macbeth. Cumming, John Tiffany, Julianna Margulies and Jesse Tyler Ferguson were there – so was Playbill.
Alan Cumming carried multitasking to new and dizzying heights at the Barrymore April 21 when he took on Macbeth and all roles therein in one 100-minute gulp—including Lady M, luxuriating in her bath or trying to get rid of that "damn spot."
Evidently, he already did a runthrough of this because the play opens with him being admitted to a mental institution, rocking back and forth unsteadily, bloodied around the shirt collar and in need of some medical repair. He sheds his clothes much like he sheds the text that follows, climbs into pristine-white patient togs and settles back into a fitful, fit-ridden stay of replaying The Scottish Play in his head.
That's the conceit the actor has been handed by his co-directors, John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg. It first reached the stage last June 15 at Glasgow's Transway Theatre, a production of The National Theatre of Scotland. On the eve of its world premiere, Tiffany was compelled to come to New York to collect his Tony for directing Once, but co-pilot Goldberg avoided the greatest multi-personality pileup since "Sybil," and the following month it was brought over as part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival to play two weeks at New York's Rose Theatre. Ken Davenport saw it there and, in association with Hunter Arnold and a platoon of 16 other producers, decided it needed some extra innings on Broadway.
Lest this strike you as a one-man-showoff, let me assure you at the performances I saw—both at Lincoln Center and on Broadway—Cumming was greeted with serious applause and the all-rise standing ovations of newly converted fans.
Nor does he technically do it alone. There are on duty a hulking orderly and an attentive doctor, burrowing in on his every move and twitch from a huge bay window overlooking his room, and bringing him back from death's door via a wrist-slitting incident and assorted other suicide attempts that come up during the bloody passages of Macbeth. In they sprint with their syringes and bandages. At first they tend to him inaudibly, then audibly as the story progresses. Eventually, they're uttering Shakespearean sound bites like the medicos' dismay over Lady Macbeth's deterioration.
At the let's-drink-about-it after-party at Hudson Terrace on the water's edge at West 46th, I had an occasion to discuss the case with his doctor, a whip-smart middle-aged actress named Jenny Sterlin, who wore the white smock of authority well and delivered the injections when needed (which was frequently).
"I think it's absolutely fascinating," she didn't hesitate a second to say of the Macbeth matter. "I'm a psychiatrist, psychoanalytically trained—and that's what I think. When he first came in, we didn't know exactly what to make of him so that's why I'm observing—and then gradually, we begin to realize he's actually a serial killer.
"My mind changes at this point. The line that I have—'The patient must minister to himself.' The reason for this is that in that time—in Shakespeare's time—madness was only thought curable by the patient. There was no cure for it, and there was no medical help of any sort. I guess, in some ways, it hasn't really changed that much."
Sterlin and her massive medical aide, Brendan Titley, joined the production just when it became Broadway bound, so the couple originating the roles could return to their native Scotland. "I did Design for Living with Alan," she explained. "That's how I know him. I also did Heartbreak House, Major Barbara, things like that."
Titley, a Milwaukee native and New York actor for five years, eased into the role: "We had a very knowledgeable psychologist from NYU, Mr. Mike Eigen our second day of rehearsal. He wrote a book called 'The Psychotic Core,' which I've read excerpts of so it got me in the mindset of it, but I didn't go to a psychiatric ward and touch real psychiatric patients. I just used my imagination and watched movies."
Co-director Goldberg is kinda the D.M. Marshman Jr. of this production. D.M. Marshman Jr. was a poker crony of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's at the time they were starting to write "Sunset Boulevard." One night, Marshman sorta offhandedly suggested that the manipulative screenwriter be a gigolo with no qualms about sleeping with an older woman to affect this objective. That notion transformed their story and solidified it and gave them the inspiration that they needed to win the 1950's Original Screenplay Oscar, a third of which they gave Marshman.
Goldberg's eureka Marshman Moment? "A few years ago," he recalled, "Alan was interested in playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, maybe in alternate performances, and John was staying with me at the time, and I mentioned an idea I had about a one-man version set in a psychiatric ward. Then, through discussions, it became a meeting of three minds. John, Alan and I concocted this crazy version of the show."
He got caught up in the craziness and has stayed on the horse almost a full year, making sure their three-way vision reaches its destination intact. Essentially, the show seems exactly as it did when initially introduced in New York a year ago.
But not, insisted Goldberg. "There've been a hundred nips and tucks that nobody would know except for me, but the accumulative effect is better. It's also a quite different space than we were in. The set is 20 feet narrower than the set we were on, so the whole thing is more compact, and the effect of that on lighting and sound design and acting choices—it just allows it to be a much more intimate experience."
Realizing Cumming is a willing conspirator in this three-way exercise, one still wonders how Tiffany directed him. The answer was formal, official and sincere: "It's a privilege and an honor because he is so hard-working and so intelligent. All we have to do, really, is to suggest things here and there, and he will kinda come up with it. I'm so proud of him. He's an old friend and here he is, bringing Macbeth."
The music accompanying this 90-minute ascent into hell is largely unstructured and atonal but oddly and movingly soothing after moments of dissonant stress, like applying salve to a skinned kneecap. It's as unpredictable as the show itself.
"That's a German composer we're both a big fan of—Max Richter," said Tiffany. "He did some music for my Black Watch, and we wanted to use him again, so we did."
In lieu of three actual witches stirring the cauldron, this production has three video cameras covering the important action on stage. At one point, Cumming climbs back into the tub, and, with all three cameras focused on him, he submerges himself for a small eternity with not a muscle stirring in the audience. On opening night this moment without end was 87 breathless moments. I asked Tiffany what the trick was. He smiled sweetly and said, "I'll tell ya, and then I'd have to kill ya, Harry."
Himself arrived—The Star—in celebratory kilts and what could have been a pouch bearing the family coat of arms. It was a festive entrance and gave some much-needed color to a makeshift pressroom cramped into a tiny space outside the cloakroom. The procedure of presenting and receiving coats continued unabated by the glamorous distractions of TV crews pigeonholing any celeb who happened by.
This fragmented version of The Scottish Play has been, off and on, in perpetual replay in Cumming's brain for almost a year, and it looks as difficult to do today as it did almost a year ago, but he begged to differ: "I think I'm stronger this year. I'm less daunted by it because I've done it before. Last year was the feat of being able to learn it and perform it, and now I know I can do that so I'm a little more strong at it."
It could also be the story is in his blood. He hails from Macbeth Country—from Aberfeldy, in Perthshire, Scotland, where the drama first happened. "Where I lived when I was a baby has the same shared train station—Dunsinane and Bertham, and Burnham is Burnham Woods in Macbeth. My father's family all grew up in Cawdor."
All that, and Macbeth was the first Shakespeare that Cumming ever read, growing up. Now he's populating the Barrymore stage with 19 of his characters. "I thought it was 15"—but on future reflection, "I managed to remember some more of them."
Julianna Margulies, a.k.a. "The Good Wife" of CBS, bopped by beaming with good will for co-star Cumming, who's Eli Gold, a blunt politico, on her television series. "I'm so proud—beyond that, actually," she said. "This is the second time I've seen it. Are you kidding? I was there on opening night at Lincoln Center." And she'll be back.
It was a stars-night-out sort of Sunday, and many were spending it seeing Cumming do the Shakespeare shakes. Corey Michael Smith sped over from the 38th performance of Breakfast at Tiffany's. "I literally took my last bow 30 minutes ago," he said a bit wistfully. "I'm doing a couple of movies coming up later this year, but I have to find something in the meantime, for the immediate future, because I have bills..."
At the other end of the red carpet, trying to get out of that gauntlet run of flashbulbs and soon submitting without a struggle, was Jesse Tyler Ferguson. On Tuesday, he begins rehearsing the Shakespeare in the Park production of The Comedy of Errors, playing Dromio to Hamish Linklater's Antipholus, under the direction of Daniel Sullivan.
Bill Evans, longtime theatrical press agent we all lost to lazy Florida retirement, is back with us with a vengeance—an opening-night omnipresence. "I'm now director of public relations for The Shubert Organization," he said. (It's called landing big.)
Figure-skating great and occasional opening-night celeb Dick Button was awed by the main event. "It was an amazing tour de force," he declared to one and all.
Producer Davenport is also a musical book writer, and the cast he assembled for his adaptation of the Christopher Reeve-Jane Seymour time-traveling romance of 1980, Somewhere in Time, "starred up" the Macbeth evening—before they hit the road to Portland, OR, to world-premiere at Portland Center Stage May 28-June 30. Doug Katsaros did the music, and Amanda Yesnowitz the lyrics. Scott Schwartz directs.
"I play Frank, the desk clerk, who is the porthole between 1912 and 1982 so I lead Ryan Silverman and Marc Kudisch into the past and the present," explained Eric Liberman to me. "The leading lady, Hannah Elless, made her Broadway debut last year with Godspell. David Cryer's also aboard." Mrs. Kudisch (Shannon Lewis) will assist John Carrafa in choreographing the Richard Matheson story.
Cinderella (Laura Osnes looking beautiful to be entering the world of this Macbeth) entered with hubby Nathan Johnson in tow. Other first-nighters included Alexandra Hedsion, three-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters, two-time Oscar winner Jody Foster, Bonnie & Clyde's Claybourne Elder and hubby Eric Rosen, new mother-daughter act Kathy Najimy and Samia Finnerty, Saffron Burrows, Gabriella Garcia, Tamsen Fadal, Sebastian Arcelus, Rosario Dawson of "Trance," Krysta Rodriguez in stunning red, Corbin Bleu, Colleen Zenk, Josh Charles, Kimberly Newman, Christian Siriano, Drood's highly suspicious Will Chase, Cynthia Rowley, Justin Vivian Bond, Danielle Melanie Brown and Michelle Brown, yes, Liza, with Billy Stritch, Frankenstein-turned-Sherlock Jonny Lee Miller with Michele Hicks, silver-locked "Mr. Big" Chris Noth, Jennifer Esposito, Tonya Pinkins, and Lance Horne.
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