The impulse to applaud Alexander Dodge's meticulously appointed set is overpowering, just as it is in the second act when he moves uptown to a palatial pad on Park Avenue, which has pink walls with matching birdcage-cover and a staircase for grand entrances.
You're in a world that all but Roundabout's Todd Haimes forgot — the old-fashioned Play-Play: specifically, John van Druten's Old Acquaintance. By any other name, it could be Cats, being a title bout between two lady authors, pals since childhood, who exchange three rounds — er, acts — of friendly fire and 67-year-old sophistication that still has snap.
In all of its incarnations, this close-quarters head-butting has been quite a workout for resourceful, redoubtable actresses: Jane Cowl and Peggy Wood in the 1940 Broadway original, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins in the 1943 movie version, Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen in the 1981 film remake ("Rich and Famous," George Cukor's last opus) and, now, in its first Broadway revival, Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris.
Colin is the sensible, centered one, Katherine Markham — Kit — a prestigious but parsimonious scribe and scholar who specializes in critical successes (and damn few of those); Harris is the cranky, conniving one, Mildred Watson Drake — Milly — a prolific and profitable hack whose output brings her all that money can buy (and it's still not enough).
Hence, Milly is constantly stirring the cauldron and testing the friendship, but Kit stays inordinately grounded and above it all, never giving way to well-earned exasperation. Complicating matters further: Milly's ex (Stephen Bogardus) and daughter (Diane Davis) flee to Kit's camp, a comparatively safe and sane harbor. Countering those border crossings, Kit's loses her fiancé (Corey Stoll) to Milly's daughter. After two overlapping triangles sweep through their relationship, the authors are left with their own best friends. That's the way they plotted plays back then. Another sign of the times: both writers are well off enough to afford maids. (Gordana Rashovich for Kit and Cynthia Darlow for Milly also come in handy understudying their respective mistresses-of-the-house.)
The opening-night party was held on the ninth floor of the Marriott Marquis Hotel, and first-nighters were greeted at the door with their choice of drink: Sweet Kit ("Hangar Mandarin Kiss Vodka, Izze Clementine, Sugar Rim, Cherry Garnish") or Sour Milly ("Hangar Kaffir Lime Vodka, Izze Grapefruit, Lemon Garnish"). The Kit was tres sweet, but the Milly seemed like it could get you thoroughly undone in nothing flat.
Harris waved away the Sour Milly, being a working actress with a show to do tomorrow. She works overtime, too — like a dog with a rag, extracting the laughs from petty Milly. "It's a fun part to do," she admitted, "and it was a great house tonight. Margaret and I, at the end of Act I, went: 'Okay. That's how it's supposed to go. This is how we play it.' "People, actually, rarely write a show like this anymore. I've had some friends come to the show who are writers, and they say, 'Oh, my gosh, there're like 15 minutes of fights' — van Druten's laying pipes — so, by the time characters start coming on and their problems are revealed, you have so much backstory. I think it's a well-written play."
Harris takes the role as if it were a stick-shift, playing broadly when the situation calls for it and then bringing it down to nuance level and human size. "By the time you're getting laughs with little things, a turn of the head or whatever, the audience is with you, and they understand your makeup. They're not having to fill in the blanks. They understand these things. I think that van Druten really gave those two characters a lot of background."
This is not the first time Harris has done a play that Bette Davis did on film. She did Davis' role in The Man Who Came to Dinner, Maggie Cutler, secretary and confidante to Nathan Lane's Sheridan Whiteside. Lane was in the front-rank of first-nighters and sat next to her at the party. "Nathan is a very sweet and supportive guy," she said.
Although Davis played the Colin role in the movie edition, she initially opted for the flashier part of Milly — and would have played it if Norma Shearer could have been lured out of retirement to play Kit. When she couldn't, Davis chose nobility over flash.
Colin is a very anchoring presence on stage, allowing Harris to fly as high as she can. "Since it's a period piece, you have to let it take its own exploration to make it relevant," she noted. "The play has so many issues that are just very near and dear to my heart: patterning yourself as a role model when you're not really a role model, having your heart broken by a lover who doesn't want you anymore, reinvesting in that friendship. It was fun to rehearse it for the values that are there and then kick it up for the comedy."
She owned up to a little nipping-and-tucking on the text. "Some smart cuts were made, but it was mostly about behaving like real people on stage and responding in a real way."
Keeping such intelligent and inventive actresses on track was the challenge for director Michael Wilson: "Oh, my God! It was a wild and crazy ride. They kept me on my toes. Harriet would come in with some idea, then Margaret would want to try something."
One bit of business from the Colin camp: slipping into her lover's oversized shoes and clomping about her apartment delivering exposition dialogue. "Margaret found that once we were on stage," he said. "That didn't even happen until we were in tech. It used to be a much longer bit, but we kept cutting and shaping it together to get it just right."
Harris' contribution occurs during one of her volatile tantrums. She rips up a book, flings it at the wall, picks up the phone to do the same — and it goes off in her hand. She answers it instantly in mid-ring. It brings the house down. "When she came up with this idea, I just looked at her and asked, 'Is that in the world of our play?' She said, 'Well, we could try it in previews and see.' We did just that, and it opened up a whole new world for us."
The rarity of a three-act play on Broadway was no problem for him. "I didn't get any pressure about it at all. Roundabout was lovely. They were willing to go with whatever we wanted to do. When we did the reading, we did it only in two acts. At first, we tried to do it only in two, but it didn't work for the structure of the play, because van Druten wrote towards the curtain. Each act has its own ending so we ultimately stepped back."
Wilson's next New York assignment is Dividing the Estate, the Horton Foote play at Primary Stages. "I have till Aug. 19 off," he said. "I'm going back up to Hartford Stage [where he is in his ninth season as artistic director]. We close Lynn Redgrave's Nightingale tomorrow night — that's her play about her grandmother. Joe Hardy directed it, and quite nicely. We've had a plethora of New York producers up, and I think that you're going to see it on Broadway next season."
As one of the men straddling the Kit-Milly fence, the sharply tailored Bogardus looks like he just stepped out of GQ — the man in the gray flannel Speedo. "Well," he shrugged, "when they spend a couple of thousand and measure your body, you tend to look good." Stoll, the other man in their lives, enjoyed not being pestered by the press at the party. In real life, his head is clean-shaven. "Everybody is looking for someone with floppy hair."
Technically, he made his Broadway debut — not so you'd notice — in the spectacle of Jack O'Brien's Henry IV: "I had a number of roles. Mouldy was the only one that had any lines. It was pretty much spear-carrier. I'd definitely say this was my Broadway debut."
He got this plum long-distance — by submitting an audition tape — and Roundabout flew him in from L.A. to meet with director Wilson and read with both Colin and Davis.
The cad potential in the part is pretty pronounced — dumping our heroine for firmer flesh — but Stoll skates through with the greatest of ease. "The hair goes a long way in keeping the audience on my side," he was quick to confess. "My character is so in-the-moment at any one time that his inability to actually see how much pain Kit is in is something the audience can — and, I think, do — overlook. He's just a guy in love.
"I knew Diane before we did this show, and it's fun. With Margaret, it's a very different sort of thing. In fact, it's different every single night with Margaret. She can't do the same show twice, and I just have to sorta be open and there with her. It's exhilarating."
Darlow, a gifted comedienne, doesn't have many actual laughlines but gets giggles when she strolls across the back of the stage to answer the doorbell. "My agent said, 'You're the only person I know who can walk across the stage and get a laugh.'" And why is that?, I wondered aloud. "I'm just as cheap as Christmas trash, Harry. You know that."
Paul Rudnick could feel some special pride for having put Harris on the theatrical map, having written her a multi-character tour de force in Jeffrey — but he declined the honor: "Nobody needed to put Harriet on the map. Harriet is the map. Harriet's the capital. I kept writing more roles for her in Jeffrey to make sure she stayed on stage. I'm not joking. Harriet did all the early readings. I just put a gun to her head and said, 'Harriet, I will write 50 roles, whatever it takes.' She is just an inspiration. She's beyond sensational."
Numbering among the season's first first-nighters: Joan Copeland, John Lee Beatty, Tommy Tune, Lynn Nottage, Anne Jackson, Andrew McCarthy, Warren Leight, Kathleen Marshall, Ron Raines, Penny Fuller, Eve Ensler, Andre Bishop, Bernard Gersten, Lisa Emery, Scott Ellis, Richard Ferrone, Richard Poe and arriving late from their own shows, 110 in the Shade's Audra McDonald and Inherit the Wind's Beth Fowler.