PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Man for All Seasons — For King and Conscience

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Man for All Seasons — For King and Conscience
Todd Haimes' Roundabout Theatre Company took off on its 43rd season Oct. 7 at American Airlines Theatre with A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt's Tony-winning historical drama and cautionary tale about being too good for your own good.
Patrick Page, Dakin Matthews, Zach Grenier, Maryann Plunkett, Jeremy Strong, Michael Esper, George Morfogen, Patricia Hodges, Triney Sandoval, Peter Bradbury, Hannah Cabell, Michel Gill, Charles Borland and Doug Hughes
Patrick Page, Dakin Matthews, Zach Grenier, Maryann Plunkett, Jeremy Strong, Michael Esper, George Morfogen, Patricia Hodges, Triney Sandoval, Peter Bradbury, Hannah Cabell, Michel Gill, Charles Borland and Doug Hughes Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The man in question, anointed with that title by the 16th-century poet Robert Wittinton, was Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII and quite a piece of work in his own right, a man of unassailable and rather renown honesty. He had integrity to die for — sadly and literally, as it turns out, when it ran afoul of the wishes of the young and horny Henry, anxious to shelve his barren Wife One for the fertile Anne Boleyn. Staying true to his conscience, More resigned, but his silence on the matter was considered seditious in certain royal quarters and he was executed.

Had More's righteousness prevailed, he would have spared his country a few heads (his own thick one included), a lot of divorce-court maneuvering and the agony of replacing Catholicism as the national religion with the Church of England.

A role of such concentrated goodness is scary to actors, and only the mighty seem to apply. Save for the 24 Lears he did at Lincoln Center's State Theatre in 1964, Paul Scofield did his only acting in this country in this part on Broadway — from the opening on Nov. 22, 1961, till he was replaced by Emlyn Williams on June 15, 1962 — and it won him the Tony. Somehow, that didn't seem enough, so an Oscar followed suit four or five years later for Fred Zinnemann's lavish film version.

Now we have Frank Langella making a majestic return to Broadway in the same magnificent role, his first appearance here since winning Tony No. 3 for Frost/Nixon, which, now in the film can, could soon be seconded with an Oscar also.

The contrast couldn't be more stark and startling, and Langella comfortably, convincingly straddles both worlds with the authority few actors could muster. The thunderous applause and ovation he received seemed equally convincing and heartfelt than is usually the case at openings, and no doubt first-nighters were prepared to continue the cheering at the after-party held at Espace, a swank and spacious new eatery located at the western-most end of 42nd Street. Langella, however, took one long look at the massive room full of revelers waiting to curtsy and genuflect and was overheard telling an aide, "I'm going to do one loop and leave." And he did just that. There was no welcoming applause. There was no pyrotechnic display of camera flash. He just quietly slithered through the crowd, shook a few important hands and departed sans fanfare. He gave at "the office" and went home to sleep the sleep of a weary warrior. It's an exhausting role. Scofield took it on when he was 39-turning-40. Langella is 68, but there's no chink in the armor.

Gone but not forgotten, he was the talk of his co-workers as well as the audience.

"It was wonderful to rehearse with Frank," admitted his director, Doug Hughes. "This has been one of the most fluid and happy and relaxed and satisfying collaborations I've ever had with anybody. We spent a lot of time talking about the play before we showed up at rehearsal with each other. And we got in the habit of calling each other anytime an idea occurred to us. It's been marvelous to forge that kind of bond with an actor — and such a supremely gifted actor as this one."

Missing in this production is The Common Man, a narrator who addressed the audience from time to time when not otherwise engaged as More's manservant. (It was an early triumph for the role's originator, a third-billed George Rose.) Explained Hughes: "I decided The Common Man really was something better observed in the breach. I think it was a brilliant device in its day, and I think it has been much imitated. And I think the fact that it has been much imitated makes it less potent so I asked the estate if they would permit us to try a version without him. Zinnemann wanted to put The Common Man in the film of A Man for All Seasons, and it was Robert Bolt, who made the case that perhaps the story could be told best without an interlocular, so I decided to follow that example."

Obviously, a man to match a man for all seasons is not easy to find, but Hughes found his Henry VIII in an unexpected place, taking his nephew to How The Grinch Stole Christmas and finding in the title role a friend, Patrick Page. "I got reacquainted with him when I went to see The Grinch, but I knew him when Dan Sullivan and I worked in the Seattle Rep. Patrick worked there, and I certainly saw a lot of his work on the West Coast so it's a privilege to work with him now. He's probably on stage about 16 or 17 minutes. You need a star performance, and that's what he furnishes."

It's not Page's first time as Henry VIII. He flaunted it out in fine fashion when Richard Rodgers' Rex was revived at the York Theatre Company a few years back. This, he said, is infinitely easier — and a month in the country compared to his Grinch grind. "This is the best job on Broadway. You go up there. You have a fantastically written scene with probably our greatest living American actor, then you come off and relax for the rest of the show while everybody talks about you for the next two hours."

Yes, he is very fond and awed by his sparring partner in his big (and only) scene. "It's a dream come true, and I know that sounds cliché, but in my case it's actually true. When I was a young man, I wanted to be Frank Langella, and I am now in a play acting out this with Frank Langella, so it's just an incredible experience for me."

In a play where the goodness is so pronounced and pervasive, there's no trouble spotting the bad guys who, they rationalize, are only doing their king's bidding: Zach Grenier as the crafty, conniving Thomas Cromwell, and — a long way from his last stage role (Spinoza in David Ives' New Jerusalem) — Jeremy Strong as Richard Rich, the play's turncoat-for-hire who jumps from More's camp to Cromwell's.

"It's a good match," Grenier said when complimented that he's well cast. "Robert Bolt's writing is just exquisite, and the subject matter is very timely. It's just a poem, the whole thing. My wife found this wonderful book about Cromwell by a guy named Hutchinson. I highly recommend it if you want to read about what it was really like in Henry VIII's administration. One of the things they talk about in the book and we talk about in rehearsal because Doug Hughes knows all — I could have gotten this from him — is that it really is the birth of modern administrative power. After Wolsey died, Cromwell really created a bureaucratic system that became the machine that brought in money for Henry VIII's tyrannical reign.

"I had an absolute blast tonight, and I do every night I do this play. I get to work with these incredible people, and top of the list of course is Frank. He's extraordinarily giving. It's very, very fluid what we do on stage. You'll see something slightly different every night between the two of us certainly and I'm sure the rest of the cast would agree with me. He loves to play, and so do I. Sometimes a word will hit us or an idea will hit us, and that'll be the glint you'll see in the eye of the other actor. I can't tell you how much fun that is because it makes it alive and, ultimately, it makes it a better show for the audience."

Strong is keenly aware of his role's "ick factor" and the recoiling of the audience. "It's built into the writing, and I think I've tried my best to fight against it — to fight against the gravitational pull toward pure self-interest and spinelessness."

One of the television interviews he did at the party was with Richie Rich. "He asked me to talk about the character, and I talked about the erosion of self-hood, and then I felt guilty because I didn't want anybody to think I was talking about him."

It was a starry, starry opening-night: Chita Rivera and Stockard Channing, The Rink link together again if fleetingly; Scott Ellis, who roller-skated in The Rink and now directs; Les Liaisons Dangereuses' Jessica Collins; composer Maury Yeston whose Death Takes a Holiday has been reportedly dated for Roundabout for next fall; Gay Talese; Shrek helmsman Jason Moore; giddy Julie White; another Julie — Dale — with husband Jim, a good Joe Egg Tony nominee for Roundabout; Anne Kaufman Schneider; playwright Nicky Silver, who also worked 42nd Street this fall with his Three Changes at Playwrights Horizons; Jayne Atkinson and son; Barbara Walters; Margaret Colin, who co-starred seven years ago in Roundabout's Speaking in Tongues ("I'm just gossiping on 'Gossip Girl' now," she updated); Hallie Foote and her director, Michael Wilson, fresh from Dividing the Estate rehearsals; Byron Jennings; playwright Warren Leight, whose Tony-winning Roundabout play, Side Man, is getting an original-cast benefit reading Nov. 10 at New World Stages; choreographers-directors-and-best friends Kathleen Marshall and Rob Ashford, Urinetown author Greg Kotis who's telling The Truth About Santa Claus (his latest opus) and a turbaned Jessye Norman.

Jayne Atkinson, Chris Noth, Cynthia Nixon, Lily Rabe and Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Walters, Kate Jennings Grant, Julie White, Byron Jennings, Katie Finneran and Darren Goldstein, Warren Leight, Jay O. Sanders and Kathleen Marshall
photos by Aubrey Reuben

Jill Clayburgh and Lily Rabe struck their mother-daughter poses for the paparazzi. The latter has just finished a TV pilot — on the advice and example of Mom, who is raking in a lot of "Dirty Sexy Money" these days. . . . Another flash-popping frenzy was set off when Cynthia Nixon and Chris Noth, late of the much-lamented "Sex and the City," hit the red carpet at the same time. He heads the show Hughes is now directing at the Atlantic Theater Company, Farragut North. . . . Harvey Evans, escorting Barbara Cook as usual, said he's embroiled pretty heavily, if behind the scenes, in the salute to choreographer Jack Cole happening Oct. 13 at 7:30 at Symphony Space. Roundabout's last Sir Thomas More (from East 17th St.), Philip Bosco, opted not to attend, having been there, done that and got the XL T-shirt, but sent his lovely other-half, "Pinkie," and their granddaughter, catchily called Jenna Bosco, a looker and stage-bound. . . . Elaine Stritch, in her Stanley Steamer scene-stealing get-up, and her publicist of 50-plus years, Liz Smith, missed connections at the door but united at their seats inside. . . . Improbably, pianist Cohsan Nveyen came with producer Brian Grazer, hair spiked in the extreme, looking like he'd just stepped out from the hair dryer at Young Frankenstein. On Dec. 5, Grazer will release the much-anticipated "Frost/Nixon," his (and director Ron Howard's) perpetuation of Langella's 2007 triumph and an equally brilliant portrayal of David Frost by Michael Sheen.

Director Hughes had his distaff support-system — mom (actress Helen Stenborg) on the left, fianceé (actress Kate Jennings Grant) on the right — well in place. "I was really thrilled," said Stenborg, even if she did say so herself (a mother's prerogative), "and I just kept thinking how pleased Doug's dad, Barney [Tony-winning actor Barnard Hughes] would have been. I thought it was just a terrific production, everything about it. I don't know if I can be truly objective, but I think I can."

Grant made no pretense at objectivity. She just finished being Bette in The Marriage of Bette and Boo and has a movie with Catherine Zeta-Jones coming out next year called "The Rebound." Of imminent interest: "I'm in 'Frost/Nixon' with Mr. Langella, playing Diane Sawyer. I saw a screening Frank had last week. It's extraordinarily gripping. Those are two incredible performances that are going to be recognized later in the year, I have a funny feeling. It translates so well to the screen." One Herculean hurdle right off is that Peter Morgan expanded his play of 13 characters five-fold. Among the new additional characters is Pat Nixon, played by Patty McCormack, the original Rhoda of "The Bad Seed," and, insists Grant, "she's fabulous!"

Page's wife, actress Paige Davis — she lets me call her by her married name, Paige Page — caught a preview performance earlier because she had a wonderful reason for missing his Broadway opening: She had one of her own, replacing Kathryn Hahn as Gloria, the American stewardess in Boeing-Boeing. "It was crazy," she gushed rather windedly, "I mean, the play itself is crazy. It's a very fast train, and you just have to get on and hope you stay on. Some of that's good because your co-stars are helping to lead the way — they've all been doing it for quite a while — but some of it's bad because they're going much faster than feels comfortable at any given moment for me. Happily, I wasn't alone. Rebecca Gayheart also opened tonight. She went in for Gina Gershon tonight as Gabriella the Italian. Missi Pyle and Gregg Germann went in a few weeks ago." Of the original cast, only Christine Baranski and Tony-winning Mark Rylance remain at their posts. Jay O. Sanders was able to make the opening to support wife Maryann Plunkett's work as the play's almost forgotten woman, Mrs. More — primarily because he's on a film roll now: "I'm doing one in Boston right now with Mel Gibson called 'Edge of Darkness,' and I have one opening Dec. 26 with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio called 'Revolutionary Road.'"

Winslet's son in "Finding Neverland," Freddie Highmore, is "the young Lonny Price" that the old(er) Lonny Price found for his all-caps title role in the film version of Athol Fugard's Tony-nominated play, MASTER HAROLD . . . and the boys. Ving Rhames of "Pulp Fiction" will play one of the lower-case (Danny Glover and Zakes Mokae in the original 1982 play). Price directed Glover in the 1982 Broadway revival, and this will mark his feature-film debut as a director. "The rest of the cast will be South African actors," he said, naming no names. "I'm going over the casting next week. Filming stars in November, and Nelle Nugent is going to be one of the producers."

Another Jay — actor-comedian Jay Russell, who just wrapped up a mass of characters at the Irish Rep in the manic, mini-scaled Around the World in 80 Days — said he was headed to Long Wharf for more of the same, but first: "I'm also doing a show at NAMT about Lucy and Desi called The Cuban and the Redhead. We started rehearsals this morning for it." It will be presented at New World Stages at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's 20th annual festival Oct. 20 and 21. Then he heads for Long Wharf to join Drew McVety and Guy Atkins for the world premiere of a Paula Vogel play called A Civil War Christmas, directed by Wig-Out's Tina Landau. "I play Abraham Lincoln, among other roles," crowed the long and lanky actor. "It's about Christmas in 1864, right before Lincoln gets assassinated. It's about my relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln, who's a little bonkers. It should be fun."

Hangar 1, the official opening night vodka of Roundabout, provided a fruity little concoction for the party called "Sir Thomas More-tini." After three or four of them, you go to the bar and say, "Please, sir, can I have More?"

The cast of <i>A Man for All Seasons</i> at curtain call.
The cast of A Man for All Seasons at curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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