PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Losing Louie: Fun(eral) ‘n’ Games

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Losing Louie: Fun(eral) ‘n’ Games
Losing Louie (the LOUSE!) in the play Losing Louie is no easy enterprise for the principals who moved into the Biltmore Theatre Oct. 12 to bury him, not to praise him—definitely not to praise him.
From Top: Michele Pawk and husband John Dossett; Playwright Simon Mendes Da Costa; Mark Linn-Baker and Jama Williamson; director Jerry Zaks; Joan Rivers; Daniel Gerroll, daughter Rebecca and wife Paticia Kalember; Jackie Hoffman; John Slattery.
From Top: Michele Pawk and husband John Dossett; Playwright Simon Mendes Da Costa; Mark Linn-Baker and Jama Williamson; director Jerry Zaks; Joan Rivers; Daniel Gerroll, daughter Rebecca and wife Paticia Kalember; Jackie Hoffman; John Slattery. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

His two sons and their spouses (who have absolutely nothing else in common) grudgingly come together in shared grief to put the old boy to rest, along with their own festering resentments—and the games begin: Tony the elder underachiever (Mark Linn-Baker) vs. Reggie the younger overachiever (Matthew Arkin). Each landed on different economic levels and married accordingly—Tony to the low-rent Sheila (Michele Pawk) and Reggie to the regal Elizabeth (Patricia Kalember), whom he cheats on regularly a la Daddy.

The sins of the father visit his survivors regularly, punctuating this chaotic present-day reunion with flashbacks to the early ‘60s when Louie (Scott Cohen) is pledging his love to the two women he has impregnated—his wife, Bobbie (Rebecca Creskoff), and his housekeeper, Bella Holland (Jama Williamson). Past and present parade through the doors of the family battlefield—the bedroom—with the greatest of ease, thanks to the facile writing of Simon Mendes da Costa and the knowing, flowing direction of Jerry Zaks.

Manhattan Theatre Club’s Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove, who are presenting the play by special arrangement with James L. Nederlander and Michael Codron, took their usual battle positions at the door of the Biltmore to greet guests and board members.

Pacing nervously in front of the theatre, looking much the way Alan Jay Lerner once did waiting for the chronically tardy seventh of his eight wives, was Kalember’s husband, actor Daniel Gerroll. “Who’s my favorite?” he reacted in mocked shock to my premature question. “I haven’t seen it yet. I’m not one of those spouses that go three times before opening. I just hear the stories and wish her well. My daughter, who has seen it before, is coming and running late. I said, ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you here?’ She said, ‘Mom said these things always go up late.’ I said, ‘That’s no reason to be late.’”

She’s training to be an actress but is on Lindsay Lohan Central Standard Time. “She is one of those rare kids. She only wants to do theatre. We used to go to Massachusetts every summer and take her to Shakespearean companies. She’s a purist. Won’t last long.” Currently, Gerroll is giving the acting a rest and opening a new window. “I got this Broadway gig, directing a revival of The Shanghai Gesture, which Sabra Jones of The Mirror Rep commissioned Jeffrey Hatcher to write. Tina Chen is going to play Mother Goddam [Madame Gin Sling in the movie]. It was on Broadway in 1926, and the critics said, ‘This is disgusting. This is where Broadway is going. We’re in the gutter, morally.’ And they couldn’t get it made into a movie for 15 years. Finally, they changed it from a brothel to a casino. It was one of the scripts that brought in the Hays Code to keep out ‘this scurrilous nonsense.’ We’re putting ‘this scurrilous nonsense’ back on Broadway.”

At the Biltmore for the first time since he played the grieving father in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Tony-nominated Rabbit Hole, John Slattery said he’d been making movies: “I have a Clint Eastwood movie opening in a week, called `Flags of Our Fathers.' I play a Treasury Department guy who takes those Iwo Jima heroes from that famous photograph on a bond tour. It’s a great story. And I did a few days on `Reservation Road,' a film by Terry George, who directed `Hotel Rwanda.' It’s about two fathers in a small town in Connecticut—Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix. One hit-and-runs a kid, who happens to be the son of the other guy, so one guy’s looking for the other guy in this same small town where they have a lot of mutual connections.” Could there be any stage work on the horizon for Slattery? “Naw,” he said, with a rueful smile, “I can’t afford it.”

David Rasche and Jackie Hoffman, who play lawyer and maid in MTC’s next—Regrets Only by Paul Rudnick, opening Nov. 14 at City Center Stage I—showed. Sian Phillips, Christine Baranski, George Grizzard and director Christopher Ashley sent regrets.

Musical talents were unexpectedly in attendance: Brian Stokes Mitchell, songwriter Stephen Schwartz and the ubiquitous Alexander Gemignani, getting into a lot of shows before he becomes a fugitive from justice for God-knows-how-long in Les Miserables.

Another musical talent (Kiss Me Kate), muted of late by motherhood, came out for Pawk—gorgeous Janine LaManna. They were birds of different feathers and maternal feelings in Seussical. Pawk’s flighty Mayzie LaBird left her egg for Horton the Elephant to hatch, and LaManna’s Gertrude McFuzz stepped in as surrogate stepmom. “Now, I’m a mom,” beamed LaManna, “and I haven’t decided to go back yet. It has to be the right timing, the right show. Motherhood changes your life. Completely changes your life.” Daughter Mia is almost seven months. Hubby Mike McDermott is “a non-pro.”

Other first-nighters: Joan Rivers, stunning-in-red Cindy Adams, new League prexy Charlotte St. Martin, new Theatre Hall of Famer-in-town Elizabeth Wilson, Judge Judy, Reed Birney, and the cast members of The American Pilot currently being directed by Meadow (Geoffrey Arend, Brian Bielawski, Josh Casaubon and Aaron Staton).

After the opening night performance, a caravan of busses pulled up to the Biltmore and whisked the crowd off to a lavish after-party at The Loeb Boathouse in Central Park.

Kathleen Turner skipped the trip, settling for the laughs—and needing them prior to her tour in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Tony-winning Bill Irwin. “We open at the Kennedy Center Jan. 3—new Nick and Honey—and go to L.A. and San Francisco.”

Arkin, who has acting brothers on both sides of him (older Adam and younger Anthony), relates in spades to the sibling rivalry that sparks much of the pain and the wit in the play.

“In my life, I’ve always been trying to play catch-up with Adam—and, in this play, I’m the guy who’s ahead. Adam and I were going to do this together, then he got other work that he had to go out of this for. It would have been fun, but I’m so thrilled to be with Mark.”

The feeling is quite mutual, Linn-Baker seconded. “We sorta feel it’s hard to imagine now that anybody but Matthew and myself playing these brothers, but, you know, that’s the job. You have to make it inevitable.” The extra bonus is being back on Broadway after toiling in the California greenery (a series for WB called “Twins"). It’s his first time back since A Year With Frog and Toad, which lasted unfairly and unfortunately only two months in 2003. His two Broadway performances before that were both Zak-directed: playing Hysterium to Nathan Lane’s Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Val to Lane’s Max Prince in Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

Pawk, who now lives in New Jersey with actor-hubby John Dossett (who arrived at the party late from a preview of The Clean Room at the Mitzi Newhouse), said she breaths in deeply every day when she goes by Secaucus and comes to work “infused with New Jerseyness” for her characterization. “I learn from every performance,” she said. “Do you know what I love about it most? That everybody in that show cares so much. The moment that we finish we rush backstage—when we didn’t get a particular laugh, ‘Why didn’t we do it? What happened?’ I love that. Everyone on that stage cares 110%.”

Kalember is likewise lappin’ it up: “Anytime you can set up a character that way and let it peel back, it’s far too much fun. My favorite part is when all four of us are on stage at the same time. We have such a good time. Bouncing off each other—it’s just a joy to do.”

The three young ghosts who weave in and out of the story with the ‘60s mishagosh are all making their Broadway debuts. Creskoff and Williamson as the Louie abusees who give the comedy its poignant underpinnings seemed to be sharing the same “dream come true.”

Williamson, in addition, happens to love her character. “It was actually difficult at first for me because Bella makes morally questionable choices. To find the character who makes those choices and still make that person human and likable and understandable to an audience was a challenge because you had to make sure your choices came from a place of need and want and love—to make sure that didn’t read as manipulative or evil.”

As the wronged wife, Creskoff likes that “I get some fangs toward the end”—and really likes it if people suspect her of acts more nefarious than Bobbie’s capable of. Cohen laughed when asked point blank what he made of his title role. “Louie has his problems,” he allowed, “but he’s beautiful to play. The play is about him, but he’s not in most of the play so Jerry has allowed me to do whatever I need to do to find all those little things that will Louie human.” Working with Jerry Zaks is a kind of master class in comedy, he said. “I wish I had tape recorded all of the rehearsals. He knows where every joke’s going to land he knows. He knows exactly how to do it. You’re not always able of executing it the way he says it should be done, but the one time you do execute it, it works. He dissects comedy like a psychoanalyst. Unbelievable! He should write a book.”

Despite the bruising, amusing interplay of brothers with unresolved issues, da Costa grew up with sisters (2) only—and it isn’t the same thing, he stressed, so he researched: “I drew on a very close friend of mine who always had a problem with his own brother.”

Also, the whole milieu of the play has been reimagined—Americanized—for Broadway from its original state. “I did it in England, for England. It was set in England. Everything. We had to change the language. I did a massive rewrite, with help. I had to take advice because I’m not American. I’d say, ‘Well, I want to say this. This is how we say it in English—‘English,’ you’ll excuse me for saying that—and they’d say, ‘Well, an American wouldn’t say it like that. He could say it like this, this or this.’ We did that line by line.”

Losing Louie is only the second play for the 48-year-old Brit. The title of his first—Table for One—would encourage any fledgling producer. In fact, “I produced it myself in a theatre with 54 seats. Six people in the cast. I did very well and got a good agent from it.”

Currently he’s completing Opus 3, which was commissioned by North London’s Hampstead Theatre where Losing Louie was launched by director Robin Lefevre, who interestingly opened Heartbreak House on Broadway the night before Losing Louie. John Lee Beatty, who provided a single set for both shows, had the haggard look of a designer who had just done back-to-back Broadway openings. I asked him what he was going to do the next night. “Well, actually, I’m working on How the Grinch Stole Christmas day and night now. That’s an epic. We’re struggling our way through it. Great combination of shows to be working on—two interiors, and then-WHOA! A flying sleigh with a grinch!”

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