"That Girl"/this granny? I think not. The fading rays of the day filtering through the blinds at Bar Central belie this. They give a warm glow to Marlo Thomas' face as she insists — in that raspy, husky alto of hers — she's playing somebody's grandmother. Granted the somebody is newborn, but she still looks light years from matriarchy.
Nevertheless, this is her station in life for Clever Little Lies, the new Joe DiPietro comedy which begins previews Sept. 18 at the Westside Theatre for an Oct. 12 bow. Actually, she's more re-matchmaker than matriarch. The Alice she plays is no Alice-sit-by-the-fire but a savvy, aggressive bookseller in today's desperate market who applies her professional skills to repairing a splintering home-front caused by her philandering son (George Merrick). Greg Mullavey, as her spouse, and Kate Wetherhead, as Merrick's, comprise the four-cornered/four-character cast. The director is David Saint, artistic director of the George Street Playhouse where the piece premiered.
"It's a comedy, but it's about a pretty heady, difficult topic for comedy — adultery," says Thomas. "It's funny because you see in all the lying what happens to the family. When something goes wrong with one member, it's like an earthquake throughout the whole family. Trying to put all that back together again is not a simple task."
Yet this is the plan Alice sets for herself, unplanned though it is. "That's where the fun is for the audience. 'What is she doing?' Bringing them together — then what? We see her think it through, spontaneously, on the spot. Everyone has to be thinking of his own thing at the same time. We have to keep throwing the bar back and forth like The Flying Wallendas. That's the fun of working with an ensemble like this." Initially, there was some discussion about whether Clever Little Lies would play better on Broadway rather than Off. "The consensus really was that it does belong Off-Broadway, and the Westside Theatre is absolutely the perfect place for it.
"They don't have a lot of dressing rooms, so they're giving me a little broom closet area that I could make into a dressing room. I said, 'I don't care how big it is or anything. I just want to hear the audience come in.' I really like that. You don't usually hear them until they call five minutes and put the speakers on. The sound of people gathering is very inspiring. It's quite a lovely sound to hear, and then it gets larger as more people come in. There's an anticipation that we're both feeling — the audience and the actors backstage. It kinda primes you for what you have to do."
Those are the sentiments of a thoroughgoing theatrical animal, and indeed that's the medium that claimed her before TV. The firstborn of comedian Danny Thomas began in exotic places like Laguna Beach and Santa Barbara in plays like Under the Yum-Yum Tree, The Glass Menagerie and the nonmusical Gigi. "When actors ask me for advice, I say, 'Work in community theatre. Do as much of that as you can.' I believe everyone gets a chance, but not everyone gets a second chance, so be ready."
And ready she was when Mike Nichols came casting about for the London edition of Barefoot in the Park. "I so fell in love with the theatre there — as well as with Danny Massey [her leading man] — that I was thinking I'd stay there. London has staggered matinees, so, if you're in a play, you can see other plays. I remember The National had Thursday matinees, and I saw Olivier's Othello and Miss Julie with Maggie Smith and Albert Finney — I mean, imagine! But I'd made a pilot for 'That Girl' before I left. It sold while I was there. Believe me, I had really mixed emotions about returning."
Five years, two Emmys, and a Golden Globe later, she left That Girl for another television project, "Free to Be… You and Me," which netted her another Emmy and the Peabody. Another Emmy came for the 1986 TV movie "Nobody’s Child." Her Grammy is for a children album, "Thanks & Giving All Year Long." But through it all, she has stayed true to the stage, availing herself of the great roles (Six Degrees of Separation, Woman in Mind Nobody's Child in regional theaters.
"My father came to see me do The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds — you remember how rotten that character was to her children — and, afterward, I said, 'What'd ya think, Dad?' He said, 'I kept thinking, 'Why'd a kid of mine do a thing like this?' Thank God he didn't live to see me in Virginia Woolf."
For the past 35 years, Thomas has been Mrs. Phil Donahue, and, like that actress in "That Girl," she settled in New York — but she has only racked up 3 1/3 Broadway credits. The 1/3 was the Elaine May portion of the recent Relatively Speaking.
"I'm so on track now — after Elaine's play and now Joe's — of doing new plays. It's fun to start off with nothing. The best time in the world is rehearsal. You can try anything. It's like being in The Outback, swinging a machete to get to the truth."