Alice Playten, Endearingly Quirky Stage Performer, Dies at 63

Obituaries   Alice Playten, Endearingly Quirky Stage Performer, Dies at 63
Alice Playten, who lent her quirky persona and comic voice to a memorable string of Broadway and Off-Broadway musical performances from the 1960s onward, died on June 25 at Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City. The cause was heart failure, said Sandee Cohen, her friend and neighbor. She was 63.

Alice Playten
Alice Playten Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Ms. Playten was small (just under five feet), cute and elfish, with arched eyebrows, a bobbed haircut, and a pinched, whiskey voice perfect for cartoon voice-overs. (She, in fact, found much work in that line, voicing such animated works as "Felix the Cat," "Really Rosie" and "My Little Pony: The Movie.") Her singing voice, meanwhile, was called a classic Broadway belt by critics.

Born in New York City, she began her acting career playing Baby Louise in the original production of Gypsy. She later told of studying Ethel Merman's performance of "Rose's Turn" from the wings. (She studied her subject well; later in her career she would be compared to Merman.) In 1963, she was Bet, Nancy's younger sister, singing "I'd Do Anything" in the Charles Dickens-inspired show Oliver! The next year, she created the role of Ermengarde, Horace Vandergelder's tearful niece, in Hello, Dolly!.

She seized the spotlight in 1967, winning a Tony Award nomination and a Theatre World Award for her work in the short-lived Bob Merrill musical Henry, Sweet Henry. The 1967 musical starred Don Ameche as Henry Orient, a philandering composer pursued by two wealthy teenagers. During the show's out-of-town tryout, Ms. Playten regularly brought down the house with a number called "Nobody Steps on Kafritz." Merrill was so pleased, he wrote her another number, "Poor Little Person," which she later performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

The New York Times critic Clive Barnes, who otherwise didn't care for the show, wrote, "The show was virtually stopped a couple of times by another youngster, Alice Playten... With manic glares at the audience, she puppet-strutted her way through 'Nobody Steps on Kafritz,' belting out the music like a toy Merman."

Off-Broadway, Ms. Playten was Miss U in Promenade, the best-known musical by downtown composer Al Carmines, who ran the Judson Memorial Theatre for many years. And she was the only member of the 1973 revue National Lampoon's Lemmings — the cast included future stars Christopher Guest, John Belushi and Chevy Chase — to win an Obie Award. One of her more memorable roles came in 1970, when she played the young woman trapped in the elevator with quirky lothario Austin Pendleton in the hit Gretchen Cryer-Nancy Ford musical The Last Sweet Days of Isaac. "I know of few men who saw those shows who didn't find the idea of being trapped in an elevator with Alice transfixing," recalled Pendleton. "And the thing is, I never met a woman who was threatened by this magical spell that Alice would cast over men when she performed.  There was such an innocence to it, such a delicious humor to it, such a witty, sweet-natured acknowledgement that we are all creating the world together every day, and that what goes on between people, between any people, is a thing to be treasured."

Never a household name, the actress gained a sort of national fame in 1970 as a newlywed in a famous Alka-Seltzer commercial. A poor but enthusiastic cook, she would page through cookbooks in search of recipes for "marshmallowed meatballs and poached oysters." Her aggrieved husband, meanwhile, would run to the bathroom after every meal for another stomach-settling tonic.

In film, she cut her most memorable figure in the 1985 sci-fi curiosity "Legend," where she put her pixie-like persona to work playing Blixx, a pointy-eared goblin who serves Tim Curry's Lord of Darkness.

Ms. Playten acted in Peter Parnell's play The Sorrow of Stephen at the Public Theater in 1979; was Eve in Up From Paradise, a musical version of Arthur Miller's Garden of Eden play The Creation of the World and Other Business, in 1983; and was in the ensemble of the 1987 Maury Yeston-composed Manhattan Theatre Club musical One Two Three Four Five. She played a Communist true-believer opposite Kate Nelligan and Annette Bening in 1987's well-received Michael Weller tale of marital discord Spoils of War, repeating her work and netting a Drama Desk Award nomination when the play transferred to Broadway.

Ms. Playten won a second Obie Award playing Lady Bird Johnson and Mamie Eisenhower in Michael John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite, and was in Bill Irwin's production of Georges Feydeau's 1907 classic, A Flea in Her Ear at the Roundabout Theatre Company in 1998. The next decade, she made sharp, if short, impressions in the musicals Suessical (in which she was a very convincing wife to the Mayor of Whoville) and Caroline, or Change.

Though the plays and productions got smaller, Ms. Playten continued to act. She starred with Richard Masur in The Flea Theater's The Oldsmobiles in fall 2009. Her final stage appearance was the Off-Broadway comedy with music, It Must Be Him, in late summer 2010.

Read an appreciation of Ms. Playten in columnist Steven Suskin's June 26 column. 

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