PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance; The Gladdie Game and Other Audience Tortures

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance; The Gladdie Game and Other Audience Tortures
First-nighters had their running shoes on this week, sprinting through five shows in eight days flat, but there was visible relief for their diligence: "gladioli" at the end of the tunnel.
From Top: Dame Edna, Brenda Blethyn, Joy Behar, Barbara Walters, Barry Humphries and Renee Fleming, Dame Edna and Cady Huffman, Dick Cavett, Gerald Schoenfeld, Barry Humphries and wife Lizzie
From Top: Dame Edna, Brenda Blethyn, Joy Behar, Barbara Walters, Barry Humphries and Renee Fleming, Dame Edna and Cady Huffman, Dick Cavett, Gerald Schoenfeld, Barry Humphries and wife Lizzie Photo by Aubrey Reuben

In lieu of palm leaves, gladiolas were distributed, er, flung to the well-heeled in first four rows and, with some human effort, to the poor "paupies" populating the balcony—by Dame Edna Everage, heralding her return to Broadway Nov. 21 at Irving Berlin's Music Box Theatre. Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance is the title or, maybe, fair warning. Hurricanes had played well-documented havoc with Florida's gladiola crop, forcing the good dame to dip into her emergency supply—all of them, she chirped cheerfully, grown "organically, with my own manure"—in her gladdie garden Down Under. But they were used sparingly: only two were tossed to the audience till the last-minute flinging frenzy.

Once in place, in the air, however, she taught her giddy disciples how to jiggle and sway them and touch hers. "Such a sophisticated show," the dame clucked contentedly. "What other show gives you this sort of thing? You don't get this at 'night, Mother." Brenda Blethyn, currently the Mother in question on Broadway, roared approvingly and later joined the contingent of dames and broads who enjoyed a photo-op audience with the titled dame on stage after the show. TV's Joy Behar and Barbara Walters of "The View" (both of them very much out and amongst 'em on Broadway this week), opera star Renee Fleming and Tony-winning beauty Cady Huffman posed for a battery of flashes that lasted until the dame at last wheezed, "You have a definitive series of photographs." Behar, still packing her Instomatic from earlier in the week, got one more, photographing her "View" co-hostess cheek to cheek with Dame Edna. "We'll show it tomorrow on the show," promised Walters—to plug Everage's forthcoming appearance on "The View." "I'm looking forward to it," Everage told the two. "I'll wear something really simple."

Everybody laughed, knowing "simple" wasn't in her fashion vocabulary. The Playbill credited her outlandish-even-for-The-Outback costumes to Will Goodwin and Stephen Adnitt, but she averred that they were the work of her gay son, Kenny. The Music Box was rife with "Friends of Kenny," perhaps including the multi-Tonyed William Ivey Long (although he may have been just a costume design consultant who had glazed over).

Fleming, a bona fide theatre buff who is edging closer and closer to that medium (albeit, never more than as a spectator so far), was a repeat customer for Dame Edna. "I saw the show trying out in San Francisco when I was there singing," she said. "He's a genius." Right now Fleming is readying a Dec. 2 opening of Handel's Rodelinda at The Met. She is being costumed by Martin Pakledinaz, who got one of his Tonys—and a faceful of lipstick-smeared kisses—from Dame Edna. "Marty's doing a great job for me," she said. The luscious-looking Huffman, plaything of The Producers and accompanied to the show by her school-coach hubby, knew where her next comedy's coming from: from the quirky Christopher Durang. "I'm doing a reading of the new Durang, Adrift in Macao, with Tom Wopat in December and a production of it next year—either in May or in August, depending on if the producers want to go Off-Broadway or on. It has six characters in it."

After the celebs had gotten their shots and sent packing, Dame Edna turned her winning ways to a modest assortment of reporters who had assembled on stage. Up close, the press could detect secret messages, theatrical crib-notes possibly, scribbled on stage—"Laura Bush Fights Illiteracy," "Full of Charm" and, most telling of all, dead center stage: "ME." "You know," said the dame, adapting a severe tone, "I never allow probing, investigative journalists on stage for this reason. You're so experienced you notice things like that."

Any kind of prompting would be understandable since the dame's show-length diatribe seems to be popping into her head at the moment of utterance. "It quite often is," she said, implying a certain Actors Studio Method in her madness. "You see my thought processes working here. Audiences like danger, and I think those moments of tension are funny." The dame delights when things don't go smoothly—as they never do when he tries to ride herd over poor souls plucked from the audience for on-stage participation.

"I'm going to finish this show if it kills me," she can be counted to say, between steadying slugs of port. She seems to be sweating bullets, but it's only the anxiety spritzing. "I tear up a bit," she said about dabbing under her rhinestone eyewear with considerable regularity. "I think it must have been intense anxiety tonight. I go through a lot of tissues when I'm on stage." Granted one can only discover Dame Edna once, but this particular "homecoming" does come close to putting her back on top of the mountain. "Well, whether I'm on the top of the mountain or scrambling up the slopes remains to be seen, but I just get this feeling that this is going to be my home for a while. It gives me a very nice feeling indeed."

By the time the press finished their interrogation, the house manager had locked up the theatre and the lingering scribes had to make their way to the stage door in near darkness. It was the last we saw of the shocking pink costume and matching purple hair that is Dame Edna Everage. What entered Sardi's, to the applause of all, 15 minutes later was her "accountant," "confidante" and, truth to tell, impersonator Barry Humphries, the Aussie actor and comic who has been getting into the skin of the ditzy dowager for eons. "He's not an interesting person," Dame Edna had alerted us, but he did offer up a fairly shocking tidbit about her. For all of her multi-layered, many-colored cover stories, Dame Edna Everage is only 48 years old, having been born in some degree of desperation as a sketch character in an extracurricular (!) event at Melbourne's Olympic Games in 1956.

"I'm extraordinarily well preserved," the 70-year-old actor hastened to add, "because I have a very successful pact with Satan. Very early on, a Faustian bargain was struck." When The Big Five-Oh rolls around, Humphries will celebrate accordingly, maybe "some charity event to celebrate the birth of Dame Edna, with all her possums gathered around." The specific cause of creation, he said, was a university revue that he wrote for another celebrated Australian, Zoe Caldwell. "She had a lot to do in that show, so the skit was given back to me. I had to play it as a kind of Melbourne housewife. All Edna did was talk about her home. She was very plain, very nervous and timid. She talked about her interior decoration and her family. The audience in Melbourne loved it, and I thought I'd revive that character one day, little knowing that almost 50 years later she'd still be here."

The fourth Mrs. Humphries is a blonde stunner, Lizzie Spender, an actress (Brazil, The Hound of the Baskervilles) and daughter of poet Sir Stephen Spender. On opening night, she was gorgeously outfitted by Yves Saint-Laurent and the aforementioned Stephen Adnitt, "the secret voice behind Kenny, and he's designed me a lot of wonderful clothes." Throughout the performance, she was up and down and in and out, her mind clearly elsewhere. "Last time we did a dinner after the show at Sardi's," she explained, "by the time we got here, our San Francisco producers had stolen all of our tables so our guests had no where to sit so this year I decided to take my social responsibilities very seriously, on top of all my other responsibilities, and organize all our friends in one particular spot." From what she saw, she could tell her husband was surfing through the sweaty parts with the greatest of ease. "He's best off the cuff. He has a great sense of danger, thrives on it."

Sardi's as a party site was a deliberate choice for Humphries. This was where he reveled in 1977 when he introduced Dame Edna to the American masses in something called Housewife/Superstar—until his producer, Arthur Cantor, came in with a long face and a devastating review from Richard Eder in The New York Times. "Barry described that opening night years ago," relayed Dick Cavett. "He didn't even know what Sardi's was. He went upstairs just as the reviews arrived. When he came back, there was no one here." Time and tastes have changed, and Humphries stayed late into the night, with friends and fans huddled lovingly close. Some were heard to wonder, "Where is Richard Eder now?"

The Dame gives her opening night curtain call
The Dame gives her opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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