PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Velocity of Autumn — Spunk, Spark and Boom!

By Harry Haun
April 22, 2014 offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of Eric Coble's The Velocity of Autumn.


When the curtain rose April 21 at the Booth, Estelle Parsons was discovered resting in a favorite easy chair in her Park Slope living room, a Molotov cocktail in one hand and her daddy's Zippo in the other. It's Granny's last stand, and the old lady is showing her mettle, quelling her kids' notion of a nursing home as quick as she can.

Eric Coble has named his first Broadway play The Velocity of Autumn, which is one of those titles like The Square Root of Wonderful or "The Opposite of Sex" that is poetic but doesn't compute. This one makes a mite more sense, having to do with days (and options) dwindling down to a precious few, whizzing by like comets for the elderly toward a big cloudy blur. "What God is taking away from me is me," declares the play's befogged but still defiant Alexandra. "That's one hell of a betrayal."

"I think we all feel that speeding up and up and up as we get older," reasoned the playwright. "For each of us, where we are in that speeding is always a variable. Certainly, I think that it is getting a lot faster for the character of Alexandra."

Coble's immediate concern is to get some talk going in the play, which he achieves by sending in a one-man S.W.A.T. team to negotiate — a favorite (if now estranged) first-born, Chris (Stephen Spinella), who enters the second-story picture-window to charm and disarm her, thanks to the mighty, autumn-colored oak he climbed as a child.

"You've gotten old," says the startled Alexandra, inspecting the ravaged and somewhat wasted life in front of her. The artistic bent he inherited from her has been reduced to "working with sunflower seeds" in New Mexico, he confesses reluctantly, prompting her to scoff, "It sounds dangerously close to folk art."

It's a frequently funny play because it has to be. "I think the issues are so poignant in a lot of ways and so real for people that I felt like the humor had to be there," explained Coble. "And I knew, again, Estelle and Stephen are very funny actors."

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Estelle Parsons
Photo by Monica Simoes
The Velocity of Autumn started building toward Broadway from Washington, D.C., when producer Larry Kaye got the script to Molly Smith, artistic director of D.C.'s prestigious Arena Stage. "He knew this kind of play would be wonderful for her," said Coble. "She read it and said, 'Yes, it would be.' We're lucky to have Molly, honestly, because we've got these fierce fighters — Estelle and Stephen — who are willing to go in 100% — and then what you really need is a really smart, compassionate director to shape that, and that's why Molly is really drawn to it. It's been amazing just to sit in the rehearsal room and watch the three of them work."

Smith world-premiered the piece last year and fine-tuned and refined it for Broadway. With her other hand, she simultaneously helmed another world-premiere back home on Arena Stage: Camp David, a play about the 13-day peace summit that Jimmy Carter (Richard Thomas) held between the heads of Israel (Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin) and Egypt (Khaled Nahaway as Anwar Sadat). Hallie Foote co-stars as Rosalynn. It was written by a publicist for Paramount Pictures who went into politics and became White House communications director, Gerald Rafshoon. Critics greeted it warmly, but Smith had a "we'll see" answer to whether it will follow The Velocity of Autumn on to the Main Stem. She'll have to think about it.

It was, after all, the day of her Broadway debut — Coble's as well — and both learned in the afternoon that their stars wanted them to come on stage and take their curtain calls with them. "It was very sweet that they did that," Smith relayed.

Her associate director, Matt Lenz, has a new iron in the fire; April 25, at 11 AM and 3 PM, he will helm a couple of readings of Idaho, a hilarious musical spoof of Oklahoma!, at Pearl Studios.

Spinella, the other half of the cast, was unstinting in his hosannas for his co-star and her capacity for keeping the material fresh, alive and very much of the moment. "The matinee Saturday was very interesting," he noted. "We had a moment. The phone didn't ring, and we were just standing there, looking at each other. It was very intense.

"She's awesome, a complete pleasure to act with. It's like a tennis match, which is really what theatre is supposed to be about. I've learned so much working with her."

So has the 44-year-old Coble. "It's the same words," said the playwright, recognizing them. "Estelle is word perfect every single night, and yet it's different every night. I've never gotten bored because I don't know how she's going to do it, and I don't know how Stephen is going to respond and I don't know how she's going to respond to Stephen's response. The electricity of that makes the evening simply fly by for me. I'm truly wondering what's going to happen. I know what the words are going to be next, but I don't know what's going to happen next. That makes thrilling theatre!"

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He has also made some new theatre. "I have a couple of plays already finished and ready to go: A play called Southern Rapture has been optioned. It's a straight-ahead comedy about what happens in this mid-size city in the South when they try to do a production of Angels in America in the mid '90s. It's based on a true story. The other's called Fairfield. It's a dark comedy about an elementary school in a very progressive suburb where Black History Month goes horribly, horribly wrong."

Coble knew he'd found his Alexandra when he caught Parsons in August: Osage County. She put in a good year on Broadway as that demonic domestic goddess, then logged up another year on the road with the play. "I didn't feel that it took a lot out of me anymore than any other parts I've done," Parsons said. "It took a lot out of the audiences."

And it probably took a lot out of those nearest and dearest and physically closest to her. "I was a pretty miserable person all through August. I really was. I was, for me, abrasive and pretty nasty all the time in real life. I don't know why. I felt like I was an awful person. I couldn't be myself. That was what was pretty hard about that job.

"You're so much happier doing musicals than you are doing a play. I started out in musicals so I'm used to just hanging around all day, waiting for the night and taking care of myself. Plays are not as difficult as musicals physically — but emotionally... The Velocity of Autumn is a bit like that — but not so much... I'll try to be happy doing this, even though it's about death and dying."

This is her first time at the Booth, but she played its sister theatre, the Shubert, her second show out (the Feuer and Martin musical, Whoop-Up) back in '59 and remembered all 58 performances. "I've played the Shubert, but I've never played the Booth. The same architect [Henry B. Herts] designed both, but the Shubert was the incredible experience. When I went out there, it was like the audience was coming at you, and you had to entertain them to keep them from coming at you. They may have redone Lincoln Center, but when I work up there and in most theatres around the country today, it's, like, you have to push out there — 'Hello, where are you out there?' At the Shubert, it's, like, 'Whoa! Whoa! They're coming at me!'"

A letter from the right person to the right person got Parsons the pre-Barbara Walters job of reporter and Dave Garroway's girl Friday on "The Today Show" from 1952-56. She pursued her musical career in clubs and eventually Broadway.

Did her "Today Show" chores as a journalist get her into the Happy Hunting chorus as a journalist? "No. You have to sing for those musicals. I was on a chorus contract so it must have been my singing that got me the job. But when we were out of town, they kept giving me lines that belonged to another reporter. Lindsay — no, Crouse said to me, 'Oh, you're going to have a wonderful career. You're really special.'"

Stephen Spinella
Photo by Monica Simoes

Her pre-formed snooping skills handily picked up The Big Feud backstage between Ethel Merman and Fernando Lamas. ("Nobody liked him. She wasn't the only one.")

She called neither a friend. "People who play leads in musicals are busy so you don't tend to have camaraderie so much. In the first place, you're mostly trying to keep your voice crisp. Even Velocity, eight shows a week can be a drain on your voice if you're not careful, so there's not too much socializing outside the theatre. You've got to keep your voice okay for the work, or I feel that way. I think most people do."

Melissa van der Schyff, who won a Drama Desk nomination for Parsons' Oscar-winning role of Blanche Barrow when the Bonnie & Clyde gang put in a tough December in 2011 as a Broadway musical, made the after-party scene at Sardi's with that show's composer (Frank Wildhorn), Buck Barrow (Claybourne Elder) and Bonnie Parker (Laura Osnes). Birdland has booked La van der Schyff for a solo concert Aug. 11, Elder is waiting around to see if "The Carrie Diaries" will be picked up for a third season and Osnes is winding down in the Atlantic's Threepenny Opera.

Seated at the Parsons table on the second-floor was one of Parsons' twin daughters — Martha Gehman, an actress who lives and works mostly in California ("F/X," "The Flamingo Kid," "Father of the Bride," "A Kiss Before Dying"); the other daughter, Abby, is a writer who has a son in the NBL, Chicago Bears guard/tackle Eben Britton (No. 62).

Also attending: Eden Espinosa of Wicked/Brooklyn/Rent; Cady Huffman of The Nance and The Producers; Christopher Sieber, once of Pippin and now of Matilda The Musical; Karen Ziemba, enjoying a break from Bullets Over Broadway with hubby Bill Tatum; Mark Fuerstein of TV's "Royal Pains"; Rob McClure bracing for Irma La Deuce at Encores! (immediately) and Honeymoon in Vegas on Broadway (later); Nehal Joshi of Working; a couple of The Scottsboro Boys (Joshua Henry, now of Violet, and Colman Domingo); Crown of Porgy and Bess, Phillip Boykin; composer Stephen Flaherty and attorney Trevor Hardwick, tan from their time under the Puerto Rican sun; Annaleigh Ashford, late of Kinky Boots, and Rory O'Malley, late of The Book of Mormon, Tony contenders both; Abigail and Milly Shapiro, an upcoming 54 Below sister-act; Gabriel Ebert, who won a Tony as Milly (Shapiro)'s pop in Matilda and is now bound to Casa Valentina; and Kumar of the "Harold & Kumar" film series, Kal Penn.

A couple of this year's Lucille Lortel Awards nominees — Lynn Cohen for I Remember Mama and Andrus Nichols for Bedlam's Hamlet and Saint Joan — left their party early to make the opening of The Velocity of Autumn. Nancy Ringham, who memorably took over the Eliza Doolittle role on the Broadway opening night of Rex Harrison's last go around in My Fair Lady, showed up with the show carpenter she met on the MYF tour; bracing for grandmother-hood, she was last seen in New York as Soccer Mom.

Reactions to the play were up-close and personal for many in the audience. Patrick Page, with wife Paige Davis, taking the night off before opening April 23 in Casa Valentina at the Samuel J. Friedman, was keenly moved by the experience. "My father passed away last year, and my mother is now alone, so it kinda hit me there," he said. "You don't see that many plays that really address aging in that way."

Tovah Feldshuh, doing her Tony-nominated Golda's Balcony at D.C.'s Theatre J until April 27,was beaming about landing a STARZ network series, "Flesh and Bone," in which she plays the head ballet mistress of an American company. "I must have gotten this job through Pippin because I auditioned for it while I was still on the trapeze.

"I was very moved by many parts of this piece because the playwright struck gold. In his inductive reasoning and his knowledge of geriatrics, his truth resonated for me."