NOISES OFF-BROADWAY & BEYOND: Billie Without a Holiday and Gurney's Love Letters to the Stage

News   NOISES OFF-BROADWAY & BEYOND: Billie Without a Holiday and Gurney's Love Letters to the Stage writer Harry Haun provides the latest insight into the buzz Off-Broadway and beyond.
Glenn Close in "Low Down."
Glenn Close in "Low Down."


ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER DOLLAR: While Audra McDonald ravishingly goes to Tony-winning rack and ruin uptown at Circle in the Square in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (through Oct. 5), 14 blocks south at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, Susanne Froix makes exactly the same descent — without music — in Shades of Blue.

This account of the sad, frazzled end of Billie Holiday, according to writer-director Steven Carl McCasland, was inspired by two letters that are used verbatim in the play: one written by her hard-driving manager, Joe Glaser, after her death and the other written by Billie herself to Tallulah Bankhead, presented here as her last love.

Shades of Blue runs in rep through Sept. 6 with What Was Lost, McCasland's depiction of Laurette Taylor's difficult stage comeback in The Glass Menagerie.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS: Right before returning to the stage, John Hawkes and Glenn Close are putting in for Oscar consideration — he as drug-addicted jazz pianist John Albany, she as his tough-lovin' mom in "Low Down." The film hits movie houses Oct. 24, four days after she starts previews for A Delicate Balance at the Golden and three days after he starts his for Lost Lake at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I. Shortly before Balance began rehearsals, Gracious Glenn had all of the cast and their spouses over to her country home for some quality-time Getting To Know Yous.

COOKING WITH 'GREASE': IBDB lists eight different things that Louis St. Louis can do musically. A true go-to music guy and a still-standing fixture from Reno Sweeney, LSL comes home to cabaret this week after an intermission of 40 years.

Christine Ebersole
Christine Ebersole

It's a two-day (Sept. 9-10), 7 PM stopover at 54 Below called "Still Comin' In Through the Kitchen" — "simply because that's where we've always come in from." He'll parade some of the fruits of his composing labors that have kept him away from cabaret — songs from Truckload (1976), which Adela Holster closed prematurely, prompting the entire cast to toilet-paper her townhouse, Sugar Hill and his current work-in-progress, Wuthering Heights (yes, Cathy's big number IS "I Am Heathcliff!"). His greatest stroke of luck was getting flown to Hollywood to do the dance arrangements for the "Grease" movie. While there, Olivia Newton-John had a falling out with the musical director, and he fell into that slot. And when John Travolta wanted a new song, he dashed off "Sandy" ($10,000 for 20 minutes of work).

Sharing the stage with him — and she shares the stage with no one — is his lawyer, Lana Cantrell, who will do "(Love will) Turn Back the Hands of Time" from "Grease 2" with him and then proceed, unassisted, to her iconic "I Will Wait for You."

WINNETKA DEFECTA: By any other name, the "Big Noise From Winnetka" sounding off at 7 for the next two weeks at 54 Below is Christine Ebersole, a two-time Tony-winning bundle of fun and music. Only Louis St. Louis' two-day stint interrupts the flow of Ebersole, who calls it "an eclectic evening of songs that personally resonate with me" (i.e., "Darktown Strutters Ball," "You Go to My Head"). This gig follows a six-month deployment in L.A. — Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and the CBS series, "Sullivan & Son." Next stop should be Disney World.

TALK TO THE ELBOW: Kate Shindle, a Jersey girl who attended Northwestern University and became Miss America of 1998, may currently reside in the elbow of an Icelandic couch-potato at the Minetta Lane (Revolution in the Elbow of Ragmar Agnarsson Furniture Painter), but that doesn't keep her from becoming a published author in Texas. Hot off the presses (as of Sept. 1) is "Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain," her memoir/meditation from The University of Texas Press.

"It's sort of the evolution of the Miss America program from its inception to now, interspersed with my own personal experiences during my reign," she explained. Uptown, "I was in Legally Blonde, Cabaret, Wonderland for a hot second and Jekyll & Hyde." After the Revolution she's Bard-bound: Much Ado About Nothing next year. Pete's "Peeps": A Season of WASPs: Avuncular, I would wager, is not what the "A" stands for in A. R. Gurney Jr.'s name, but it might as well be. The demeanor of the man is that of a favorite uncle, and the plays that have poured out of him with great regularly (some 50, to date) are incisive, insightful, life-sized reports on his tribe rather than stinging commentary.

Mia Farrow
Mia Farrow

He figures that he has had the WASP concession since his third play, Scenes From American Life, which was not so much a play as it was — well, unconnected scenes from American life. As a dramatist, "Pete" Gurney started off as the short-distance runner and had trouble sustaining a dramatic situation beyond a bite-sized skit.

His "first play-play," the first time he stretched a sketch into drama, was #4, The Wayside Motor Inn, weaving five different plotlines into a whole that held. He placed five couples in the same motel room, oblivious to each other, and let them have at it. Given its importance to the plays that followed, Signature Theatre Company picked that to lead off its season of Gurney plays. Later on will be a revival of 1983's What I Did Last Summer, a World War II home-front coming-of-age story, directed by Jim Simpson, and the world premiere of Love and Money, directed by Mark Lamos.

Director Simpson, who housed many a Gurney play at his Flea Theatre, and his wife, Sigourney Weaver, who has played Gurney heroines there and elsewhere, will be co-hosting a gala salute to the playwright Sept. 22 at the Westport Country Playhouse where no less than 14 Gurneys have gone after their New York gigs.

In between those events, Gurney will be making a Broadway comeback of sorts at the Nederlander with his star-crossed two-hander, Love Letters, which Brian Dennehy will open and read, first with Mia Farrow (Sept. 13-Oct. 10) and then with Carol Burnett (Oct. 11-Nov. 7). A half dozen other stars are lined up through Feb. 1.

"I told the producer, Nelle Nugent, that 'Joey' Tillinger directed this play for years and really knows where the bodies are buried," said Gurney, "but she said, 'I'd prefer 'Greg' Mosher do it,' so I talked to him and got his particular take on the show." When he was first singled out as a Caucasian translator/spokesman, it didn't sit well with Gurney. "It used to bother me when they just strictly stereotyped me," he admitted. "'He's just writing about WASPs and we all know that.' It was hard for people — critics! — to take me seriously. Walter Kerr would never review me, and Mel Gussow, of course, didn't understand the WASP. He never responded strongly. In Love Letters, there are a lot of comic book expressions because that's what we all did. When we wrote letters, we'd say, 'Gee whiz,' 'Eeek,' 'Gulp,' so Mel Gussow said, 'Here are these people writing letters, using this slang. They don't do that.'" They do!

Eventually, Gurney started to like his white-bread uniqueness in the field. "I took the hook, ran with the ball, whatever it is. It suddenly occurred to me, 'Well, maybe that's what I'm doing, writing about my culture as my culture is fast saying goodbye.' "Maybe I'm beyond it now, I dunno. This new play of mine, Love and Money, deals certainly with the WASP culture, but it's saying goodbye to it in a very explicit way."

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