She comes at you like Tallulah unleashed — in a churning torrent of words, eddies within currents within tangents, welcoming you to her comfy Union Square pad. Her ensemble is primer-simple: black T-shirt and toreadors — There Are No Numbers on the Diva (as the free spirit will readily remind you if you ask things like how many Tennessee Williams plays she has done), but there are letters on her: four of them, a foot high across her chest — U.S.M.C. — and beneath them is the teeny-weeny translation: Uncle Sam's Misguided Children. Her TV set is tuned to a muted CNN and breaking bulletins, and she herself is preparing once again, dear friends, to storm the stage. You just know — with one foot firmly planted in fantasy and the other in reality — she's living more life than you are.
It may well be that Elizabeth Ashley's best performance is Elizabeth Ashley, but, until the real thing comes around, she busies herself on Broadway, where she bowed 44 years ago in The Highest Tree and has been swinging freely ever since, growing from Tony-winning ingenue (Take Her, She's Mine) to full-out dramatic star (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) to team-playing character actress (The Best Man and, this month at the Belasco Theatre, Enchanted April).
A lusty life force at 63, still sexy on the side, she delights in a dowager pretense. "I've earned the right to be old," she insists. "I've earned every inch of every mile. There is nothing that I hold in more withering contempt and disdain than the notion that age is a disease, that youth is what we want. I find that unbecoming, I find it really stupid, and I find it a capitalist conspiracy." See what a life overlooking Union Square does to a girl?
This is why, when she acts, she acts her age — and then some. In Enchanted April she's cast as a cranky, coddled old widow who warms from within after a head-clearing, month-long stay at a luscious Italian villa that she shares with two unhappily married housewives and a flighty aristocrat.
Molly Ringwald, Jayne Atkinson, Dagmara Dominczyk, Michael Cumpsty, Daniel Gerroll, Michael Hayden and Patricia Conolly co-star in the roles that Miranda Richardson, Josie Lawrence, Polly Walker, Alfred Molina, Jim Broadbent, Michael Kitchen and Anna Longhi played in a 1992 screen version of the lyrical romance. All roads lead back to Elizabeth von Arnim's "ladies novel" of 1921, which produced two movie versions (an Ann Harding flop of 1935 and the Brit hit of 1992) before Matthew Barber got inspired to do the 2000 stage adaptation that director Michael Wilson is now delivering on Broadway. Ashley has luckily landed on the prize part that pushed Joan Plowright into Oscar contention — not that Ashley counts that an edge: "Oh, that's all marketing tools. . . . I think it's insulting and corrupting that artists are identified by that because it has nothing to do with what we do. The one truly noble and glorious thing about being an artist is there is no number on your back. There has never been a number on my back because it is not a competitive thing."
Two years ago she gave particular twinkle-and-shine to a starry ensemble reviving Gore Vidal's The Best Man, making a magnificent mountain out of the molehill role of a political committeewoman that allowed her to use her slinky Southern cadence to capitol effect. "Oh, I was a little over the top — get a grip," she laughs, pooh-poohing the compliment. "Paul Newman, who is one of our saints — this is a man who has never had one drop of b.s. on him in his life — came to see The Best Man, and afterward he and Joanne [Woodward] came backstage. Any time you have a chance to throw yourself up against and hug Paul Newman, you do it. That's one of the privileges in life. So I leapt on him immediately, and he said, 'Hey, kid, were you having too much fun out there or what?' He's right, of course, but I was on strict orders from Gore. Gore told me, 'They don't know it's a comedy until you come in.' Now that is pressure, when Gore Vidal says that."
Acting, as she sees it, is all about knowing your place in the play. "You have to know what part of the machine you are. Are you the shock absorber? Are you the transmission? Are you the fuel pump? Then, where is that part located? What other parts of the machine do you have to mesh with to make the car go? That's my really, really favorite part — the Nancy Drew deal, figuring it out, being the psychological, emotional kind of detective."
Right you are, coach. Now, let the enchantment begin.