PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Primo: Sher Brilliance and the Survival Art

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Primo: Sher Brilliance and the Survival Art
Even an assured and proven talent like Sir Antony Sher confessed to feeling ferklempt July 11 at finding, among his Primo first nighters, Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner whose own published memoirs of Auschwitz are comparable to those of Primo Levi, quoted verbatim by Sir Antony in his 90-minute take at the Music Box.
Sir Antony Sher; Elie Wiesel; John and Phoebe Lithgow; Michael Cerveris; Lynn Redgrave; Michael Mayer; Bill Kenwright; Richard Wilson
Sir Antony Sher; Elie Wiesel; John and Phoebe Lithgow; Michael Cerveris; Lynn Redgrave; Michael Mayer; Bill Kenwright; Richard Wilson Photo by Aubrey Reuben

"I'm really kind of a bit knocked out by that because his book has always been very important to me as well," the 56-year-old South African-born actor admitted. "I can't believe he was here tonight. Thank God I didn't know! I would really have found it harder to perform with him in the audience—with the knowledge of him in the audience—than almost anybody I can think of. It has moved me more than I can say."

In a way, Wiesel's presence in the opening-night wave of audiences was an inevitability, in that he famously contends "to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all"—he was there for the first of Sir Antony's 32 performance recital of Levi's harrowing, witness-bearing 1947 memoir, If This Is a Man—and he was omnipresent at the after-party at Sardi's. Although a bit parsimonious with the press, he nevertheless proclaimed the performance "very great." In what was probably an even more profound compliment, he felt the one-man show would inspire "everyone to go home and think."

Sir Antony arrived to tumultuous applause—a Sardi's tradition since Shirley Booth wandered in for a bite to eat after opening in Come Back, Little Sheba and found her first-night audience merely relocated. After a speedy round of preliminary hellos, he made a beeline for Wiesel's table and went into a deep huddle that lasted a good 15 minutes, press and celebs alike cooling their heels while the two conferred. Author and actor had the mien of mentor and student, and no one was about to break their special spell.

There were a very respectable roster of working actors in attendance, since the opening happened to fall on a Monday when most shows were dark. John Lithgow, one of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels next door to Primo at the Imperial, came with daughter Phoebe on his arm, and led—all six-foot-four of him—three standing ovations for Sir Antony.

But he skipped the Sardi's party, as did two of the Steel Magnolias set to shutter on July 31—Marsha Mason and Frances Sternhagen (both old friends since The Good Doctor), Bruce Vilanch and Tony-winner/Assassin Michael Cerveris (Ravinia bound Aug. 26-27 for Anyone Can Whistle with Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald and John Mahoney). "I really will not give up my Monday nights, but, when I was invited to this, I said `Oh, I have to come,'" said Lynn Redgrave, who's currently regaling `em in The Constant Wife. "I think he is just the greatest. I am such a fan so I just couldn't resist not coming."

Save for the glowing notices, it has not been a happy run for Redgrave. Days before she opened in The Constant Wife and her sister Vanessa opened in Hecuba at Brooklyn Academy of Music, their brother Colin suffered a serious heart attack and is now on the mend. "Vanessa went by to see him on her way to do Hecuba in Delphi—right now she's in L.A. doing a couple of "Nip/Tuck"s before she has a hip replacement—and I'll see him in September. We talk on the phone all the time. I call him, and we talk. It has been pretty amazing because initially he was bad. It's going to be a long time before he's recovered."

Next up for Lynn is Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Directed by Sir Peter Hall, it will premiere in Los Angeles in mid-January at the Ahmanson, tour Columbus, Chicago, New Haven, Boston, then land—BOOM— for a week, at BAM. She was delighted to hear that Carole Shelley will be having a go at Lady Bracknell at the Barrington Stage Company in Sheffield, MA, opposite Christopher Innvar and Tandy Cronyn July 21 to Aug. 7. "We may extend The Constant Wife a week, two weeks at the most. I would really love to go up and see Carole do it. Any help that I can get . . ."

Right now, the Barrington Stage Company is playing a rather starry (for BSC) production of Follies that reportedly reduced John Simon to tears and is luring Ben Brantley into its lair July 12. Stephen Sondheim, fortified with a fistful of rhapsodic reviews, is also en route. Jeff McCarthy, Leslie Denniston, Lara Teeter, Kim Crosby, Marni Nixon, Donna McKechnie, Joy Franz, Diane J. Findlay and Natalie Mosco are top-starred.

Beaming like a honeymooner at the Sardi's party (as well he should after a week of marriage) was Roundabout's artistic director, Todd Haimes. His bride is Primo's general manager, Tamar Climan. "We got married at a friend's house in Purchase, NY," he said.

Lyricist Susan Birkenhead was praising the obituary that one of her recent collaborators, Evan Hunter, got in The New York Times from Variety's Marilyn Stassio. "Marilyn did it because she sometimes reviews mystery novels for The Times," she explained. (Hunter had a highly profitable career in that area under the nom de plume of Ed McBain.) At the time of his death, the author of Blackboard Jungle was at work on the book for the musical version of The Night They Raided Minsky's, a 1968 flick which Birkenhead and composer Charles Strouse are bringing to Broadway. Joseph Stein may replace Hunter.

Of more immediate interest is the musical she is working on with her Moonstruck composer Henry Kreiger—a musicalization of a 1984 film called The Flamingo Kid. The director and book writer, Michael Mayer and James Magruger, previously worked with Birkenhead on Triumph of Love. A reading of its first act is planned for July 18, and Bernard Telsey is currently recruiting a cast. Spamalot's Christian Borle reportedly has a lock on the Matt Dillon role, a working-class Brooklyn lad aspiring for better things.

Tom Hulce, the erstwhile Oscar-nominated Amadeus and now a gray beard producer type, was with Mayer, plotting their Spring Awakening for the 2005-2006 season.

Primo producers Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt expressed an elation at the American response to the show. "Our first performance was Friday," said Holt, "and right off the reaction was great. The wonderful thing has been these audiences. They're quite different from the London audiences, and we're appreciative of being welcomed so warmly."

(And that doesn't even mention the half-million advance Primo has racked up so far, quite an accomplishment for such a somber and demanding piece of theatre drama.)

Kenwright, whose The Glass Menagerie just came to the end of its Broadway line, will be back to put his London hit, Festen, into rehearsal in January for a mid-February opening. Based on Thomas Vinterberg's "Dogma95" movie of the same name (released in this country as The Celebration), the play deals with a son's rebellious railing against a patriarch's scandalous past at a long-awaited, relative-riddled birthday party. Rufus Norris will reprise his direction for the stateside production with an all-American cast.

When Sir Antony finishes the Broadway run of Primo, he will return to London and try on a new hat: "I'm directing for the first time in my life a play for a New Works festival at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. It's a new play by Frazier Grace about Robert Mugade, the president of Zimbabwe, called Breakfast With Mugade. It's an exceptional play, I think—and, since it's my part of southern Africa, I'm interested in it."

A fellow South African, Richard Wilson, directed Primo from a text prepared by Sir Antony himself. "It's not even an adaptation—it's an abridgment," he insisted. "I would say that at least ninety-eight percent of this piece is Primo Levi's words, just cut down."

He happened onto If This Is a Man (and this new hat of writing his own one-man show) as an actor preparing. "I did a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1989—a very excellent, modern play called Singer—and the first scene was set in Auschwitz. The author, Peter Flannery, had used Primo Levi's book as his research, and he recommended those of us who were in that scene to read it. And that's when I first read it.

"Two things happened simultaneously. One, it made a huge impact on me as a book, as it does to anyone who read it. For some time, I felt very uncomfortable about being in this first scene. There was something about `acting Auschwitz' that was just wrong to me, putting on a striped uniform and shaving the head and pretending to be there. It made me feel it was impossible to actually stage or screen Auschwitz in a way that I, just personally, felt comfortable with. As I began to think about the Primo Levi book as something that perhaps would be good if one could take to a theatre audience, I thought the only way of doing it would be as his testimony, making it like a documentary—like that great documentary, Shoah. The director of that film, Claude Lanzmann, never shows footage of the camps. It's modern people dressed like you and me, talking about having been in Hell. Somehow it has more impact because they're people you recognize."

Hence, we meet Levi in a postwar frame of reference, in shirt, tie and glasses, recalling the horror he endured during the final year of World War II. Survival was, to an alarming degree, a matter of chance, sometimes as convoluted as a Rube Goldberg contraption. It's fortunate that Sir Antony arrived at this storytelling plateau—a remembered event, once removed from the nightmare itself, in which the Holocaust is recalled in calm and measured tones—because "I ran into problems with the Primo Levi estate, who had made a decision never to let anyone near this book. The first time I applied on my own, they said no. They had an automatic no to anyone wanting to stage or screen the book.

"But then The National Theatre of Great Britain got interested in the script, and they applied and threw all their weight behind it to persuade the estate—which was, basically, Primo Levi's widow and grown-up children—that we were going to do the most faithful abridgment to this book, that we were not going to do the striped uniforms or that we were going to attempt any kind of staging of the camp. We were just going to tell the story."

This simple goal is the play's most unique and profound achievement, and he goes about in a remarkably self-effacing, anguish-free fashion. For a performer who has won two Olivier Awards—one for Torch Song Trilogy and the other for Stanley, his portrayal of artist Stanley Spencer which he reprised to Tony-nominated effect on his previous trip to Broadway in 1997—he gives the impression of putting his acting skills on the back burner.

But this, too, is an illusion. "Primo is much harder than any of the big Shakespeare parts I've played. They're very punishing, very long. Richard III, for example, is the second longest part in Shakespeare [after Hamlet]. Vocally, Richard's a strain, and it's a little twisted up so physically it's a strain. But there's something harder about this that is simply to do with the material itself and about being alone on the stage. There's something about being tested by what it creates in the audience, which, again, I'm not taking any credit for. It's Primo Levi's presence that they are responding to. Audiences go very silent with this, and the silences here in New York have been possibly more remarkable than the silences we've had before. It's a strange responsibility to keep."

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