PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Year of Magical Thinking — Solo at the Edge of Night

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Year of Magical Thinking — Solo at the Edge of Night
One doesn't exactly come out of The Year of Magical Thinking in a celebratory party mode, so perhaps it was just as well that when it made its leap from page to stage March 29 at the Booth — contrary to the way these things are done — the traditional opening-night party occurred before the show rather than after, on Sardi's scenic second floor.

By 6:15, Joan Didion, who made a play of her intimate and intelligent 2005 best-seller on what every widow (and widower) should know, had assumed her battle position at the head banquette, seated across from Marian Seldes for moral support, an empty chair separating them for any well-wishing passerby who might care to stop and chat a while.

"This is my first play so I have no idea what to expect," the 72-year-old Author! Author! would tell people who came by. And, indeed, she looked that way as she later wandered the room, a tiny, fragile figure bewildered by the commotion, looking profoundly alone.

Producer Scott Rudin, who was first to see a play in the book (reportedly as early as Page Four), had an unusual excuse for the late curtain, which was scheduled for 7:45 but went up at 8: "I didn't want to subject this particular play to the six o'clock traffic sounds."

He had a point. Cellphone interruptions — an annoying, unnecessary nuisance for any — produces passing thoughts of a public stoning during this heavy-duty work. Opening night escaped unjangled, but there have been interruptions during the previews.

Only selected first-nighters were invited to the party, more often than not theatre folk who had some sort of professionally incestuous connection with a Scott Rudin play or film, past or present. There were a limited number of theatre scribes working the room and their tape recorders — but not one paparazzo on the premises (all were a block away at the barricades in front of the Booth, covering the arrivals of the party-slighted celebrities). Also monumentally missing from the Sardi's party was the entire cast of The Year of Magical Thinking — one Vanessa Redgrave. The Tony/Emmy/Oscar winner has been parsimonious in the extreme with her press relations this time around, restricting herself to a tiny interview on "CBS Sunday Morning" and a photo shoot for New York Magazine.

Her practical thinking is this: that nothing — least of all the frivolous promotional periphery of the business, was going to pull her focus away from the Herculean task at hand. At age 70, all by herself, seven times a week, she's making a 100-minute dash to the finish line and delivering, mostly from a sitting position (until the chair disappears — magically, I have no doubt), 15,000 weighty words of bereavement. As a feat of memory, this is a staggering achievement — and then Redgrave goes for an extra miracle of establishing, simply and directly, a laser-like one-on-one connection with the audience.

"This happened on December 30, 2003 — that may seem a while ago, but it won't when it happens to you," it and she begins. Didion's husband, the novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, dropped dead in mid-sentence on this date while she was preparing the evening meal. And what follows is a nightmarish year-long roller-coaster on two tracks of thought. The rational part of Didion accepted her husband's death and numbly went through the funeral motions, but there was a deeper, more private part of her which fervently held on to the fantasy that he would soon walk in the door and wonder why she'd given his shoes away. A social worker informs the doctor on the scene that Didion can take the news of her husband's death with the words, "She's a pretty cool customer."

Hardly. Despite her off-the-chart intellect and her controlling nature, Didion was no match for The Great Leveler — and it came at her double-strength: Belatedly, she mentions that this is not her first hospital experience of the day. She and her husband had just returned home from Beth-Israel where their only daughter, Quintana, was in a coma with septic shock. The book ends with the hope she will recover, but she too died around the time of the book's release — and Didion processes that grief in the play as a poignant postscript.

Talk about a Long Day's Journey Into Night! The actress who won a Tony for that may well win a companion piece for The Year of Magical Thinking. When Redgrave finally emerged from the Booth's stage door, holding her roses, she seemed blissfully exhausted and a bit wobbly, wearing the effects of the evening. She managed waves and a tired smile to the mangy remains of the crowd (photographers, TV cameramen, autograph seekers, fans). Then she piled into a waiting car with her family — her son (Carlo Nero), her daughter (Joely Richardson), her granddaughter (Daisy Bevan) and her sister (Lynn Redgrave) — and they were off to a private party with the company at Michael's, the literary hangout on West 55th. Press, having had their own party earlier, wasn't allowed.

Back at Sardi's, the subject was curtains — not the musical, Curtains. There are six in The Year of Magical Thinking — massive, stage-length (30 feet wide x 25 feet high) sheets that plummet to the stage at various points in the monologue, like chapter headings. "It's an old Japanese trick," admitted the show's designer, Bob Crowley. "I did not invent this form of theatre. It's called "The Kabuki Drop." I don't literally know what falling curtains mean, but I know how I felt when I read the piece and wrote a kind of response to it. But, literally, what they mean is up to everybody watching the show. If you literally want to describe them, it's like what people say, 'We have something that was revealed to me.'

"I read the piece through several times together with David Hare, the director, and we just knew there were moments in the piece where things change. Life changes. I wanted to physicalize that in some way. I knew the thing had to do with water and geology and depression and emotion. I tried to express something that's almost inexpressible."

Six painted silk curtains and a chair that comes and goes — that's the sum of work from Crowley, who came in from Amsterdam where a Tarzan he directed and designed is in previews. Compared to his complicated norm (Carousel, Capeman, The Coast of Utopia), his Magical Thinking work is primer-simple. "It's unbelievably simple — and, I think, one of the most favorite things I've done in several years. I tried to talk them into getting me out of designing this. I said, 'You don't need me.' I told Scott Rudin, 'Just do it on a bare stage.' He said, 'No no no!' David was convinced it should be done completely — it should have a visual impact as much as anything else — and, of course, he was right."

Hare, a playwright of some note (and a possible Tony contender in that capacity for the just-departed Vertical Hour), was holding forth about how uniquely qualified he was to direct Vanessa Redgrave. "I directed her in a film called 'Wetherby' that we made in 1985, so I knew her quite well already. Also, there's the idea of having someone direct it who himself had done a one-person show. I did Via Dolorosa here so I knew a lot about one-person shows. That's why I was an ideal person, from Scott's point of view, to do it.

"I had learned from doing a one-person show myself that it's completely different from a regular play. Instead of the audience watching you, it's you talking to the audience so, as you can see, the whole thing is a conversation with the audience. Vanessa obviously had never done anything in which she actually is up on the stage talking to people directly. That's what I tried to work on. But also it's a very, very, very, very demanding text, as you can see, so there are weeks and weeks and weeks of work in the performance."

Maureen Anderman, the Redgrave standby (and a first-class actress in her own right: The Waverly Gallery, Moonchildren, The Lady From Dubuque), took three weeks just to learn the lines. Going on for Redgrave, who almost never misses, is the easiest job in showbiz — "and the most terrifying, as Walter Bobbie says," Anderman hastened to add.

Does she dread going on? "Years ago, I would have. I do not want to go on for her. She's so compelling and brilliant. But what I feel is, down the line, I can do it. I'll have it in me, and the piece is so extraordinary. I don't want to go on for Vanessa, but they need to have somebody there, and I'm very flattered and honored to be the one they think can do that."

Rudin was radiant with what he hath wrought. "When I read the book," he said, "it just cried out to me for it to be a play. It was totally obvious in my mind. It needed a voice. Once we knew we were going to do it, we only talked about Vanessa. Hers was the first name that was brought up — I think it was brought up by Joan — and it was then the only name we ever considered. It was sorta, 'Oh, yeah, of course, that's who it should be.'"

Technically, and quite fleetingly, Rudin said, Redgrave was the second choice for the role. "Joan and I had a conversation for a second about her playing herself, but I never thought she'd be able to do it, or would do it. It was a kind of Spalding Gray fantasy..."

Didion's memory of the role offer is even hazier: "He says he asked me, but I think, if he did, I was so appalled that I have no memory of it. Vanessa called me to say she'd read the book. We talked about that for a while, and I mentioned that to Scott and David the next time we met. That's when it came out that's who we all had in mind for the part."

Dunne and Didion had a long relationship with Rudin, although only one of their scripts saw the light of screen (1996's "Up Close & Personal," a Jessica Savage-like rise-and-fall yarn with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford). "We worked on a few other things and then some needed rewrites," the producer recalled. "They helped me out on numerous movies over the years." So he had qualms about pitching the book-into-play idea to Didion.

"I was sorta doubtful at first," Didion confessed, "but we started talking about it, and I decided to do it. I think I started in January of last year, and we had a draft to do a workshop in April. I reconceived it as a play. Obviously, if you look at something a year and a half or two years later, you have a different perspective." And, too, the play gave her an opportunity to deal with the death of her daughter. Throughout the evening — during the party, at the theatre and for the curtain call — Didion wore an orchid lei — a sentimental nod to her past family life in Honolulu where the three Dunnes spent many happy hours. Deuce, which starts previewing April 11 at the Music Box right across the street from Magical Thinking, had the heaviest turnout of Rudin associates at the party — Seldes, author Terrence McNally (cheered by the news that his Some Men, which opened earlier this week, will be sticking around for extra innings at Second Stage), director Michael Blakemore (singing the praises of Angela Lansbury and Seldes: "They're great pros, great to work with — and fun as well. You can say anything to them") and general manager Stuart Thompson, who does ditto for Magical Thinking.

Stockard Channing, the third lead in "Up Close & Personal," said she was "doing a movie in town called 'Multiple Sarcasms.'" Also: "I have a film I made in England that will be out in September called 'Sparkle.'" Her next stage work will likely be in London, too. "I might be going to do a play at the Almeida this summer, but I can't say what because they haven't got the rights yet." She hooked up with her old Hapgood director, Jack O'Brien, who's between trilogies right now (The Coast of Utopia at the Vivian Beaumont and Il Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera). The two wound down after Magical Thinking at Angus MacIndoe's. The play couldn't have been an easy sit for Channing: Her mother just passed away.

In from London, director Stephen Daldry let me ask my Billy Elliot question. Which is, "When?" This time he said with some degree of confidence: "October '08 at the Imperial."

Daldry did the Rudin-produced, Hare-scripted vehicle that won Nicole Kidman an Oscar: "The Hours" — and in the autumn he'll be working with those gentlemen again, filming "The Reader" by a German judge named Bernard Schlink. "It came out about six or seven years ago," said Hare. "It's about 'How do you live in postwar Germany?' — about how difficult it was for the generation after the war to live in Germany — about German guilt."

Another Brit, Simon Jones, said he has a play called Phallacy up for a run at the Cherry Lane Theatre (May 18-June 10). The newly turned playwright, Carl Djerassy, is best known for having invented the birth-control pill. "I shall be the chemistry professor, and my friend Lisa Harrow will be the art historian," said Simon. "We last worked together 29 years ago at the RSC in that famous production they did there of Wild Oats."

About the same time, also Off-Broadway, the ever-employed Brian Murray will hit Angel Street at the Irish Rep. David Staller will be the husband, and Laura O'Deah will be the rich wife he's "gaslighting." (Yep, Patrick Hamilton's vintage mystery was made into two movies called "Gaslight," one of them starring an Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman.)

"I'm playing the detective," said Murray. "It's a real workhorse part for me. This character speaks and speaks and speaks and speaks. It'll open around the middle of May."

A Spanish Play having closed, Linda Emond is opening an old window: "I'm doing additional filming on a film I did in Texas, called 'Stop Loss,' for Kimberly Peirce [who directed Hilary Swank to an Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry"]. I play Ryan Phillippe's mom."

Mamie Gummer, who also has a role in "Stop Loss," was among the young actors who turned out for Redgrave's master class at the Booth. Tony winner Jane Krakowski and Oscar winner Marisa Tomei were in that number, as were Claire Danes, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dana Delaney, Jenna Elfman and Anna Deavere Smith.

Mike Wallace, in trenchcoat at the party, was there just as a friend ("She's a dear friend of mine — I mean 20 or 30 years."). There were a lot of friends: Bill Nighy, Pierce Brosnan, Mia Farrow, Joan Rivers, producers Daryl Roth, David Stone and Roger Berlind, Karen Akers directors George C. Wolfe, Wes Anderson and Nora Ephron, playwright/Rudin screenwriter Paul Rudnick and TCM host Robert Osborne.

John Gregory Dunne's brother, novelist Dominick Dunne, arrived with his son, actor Griffin Dunne. Also present: Darren Starr, who created "Sex and the City," and one of his creations, Cynthia Nixon. The Culture Project's artistic director, Aaron Buchman, came with playwright Eve Ensler. A decade after The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Celia Weston and Arija Bareikis are keeping up their mother-daughter act. Christine Baranski was with longtime hubby, actor Matthew Cowles ("Can you believe we've been on stage together only two times in all these years and both times it was Ibsen?")

The biggest stars of the evening arrived like stars, very last-minute. Rosie O'Donnell thundered into the theatre, then reversed engines and returned to the barricades outside the Booth to embrace some screaming fans. Another commotion was caused by the last arrival, Jane Fonda, honoring a friendship of 30 years and the actress she named her own daughter after. Fonda was an Oscar-nominated Lillian Hellman to Redgrave's Oscar-winning "Julia" in the 1977 film that may well be the best of both.

The Year of Magic Thinking is an identifiable, universal experience, lived and written by one woman and performed by another — but, as the latter aptly observed in a recent CBS interview: "I won't be alone even though I'll be standing alone on the stage — because, hopefully, there will be a lot of human beings sitting there and sharing this experience with me."

Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Didion embrace after the opening night performance of <i> The Year of Magical Thinking</i>.
Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Didion embrace after the opening night performance of The Year of Magical Thinking. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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