DIVA TALK: The Power of Betty Buckley & Sunset On Tour

News   DIVA TALK: The Power of Betty Buckley & Sunset On Tour
It's the power of love, both loving and being loved, both physical and emotional, that is explored in Nicky Silver's latest offering, The Eros Trilogy, currently at the Vineyard Theatre and starring the always inspiring Betty Buckley. When love and/or sex is present -- gay, straight, mother to son, son to mother, in or outside of marriage -- anything is possible, but when it's absent, life is at best -- according to Silver -- bearable, and, at worst, perhaps not worth living. The work is divided into three parts: two wrenching monologues, the first by Buckley as Claire and the second by Zak Orth as her son, Philip. The final and most enjoyable section is a series of letters -- written over nearly three decades between another son and mother -- read and illuminated by Buckley (as Miriam) and T. Scott Cunningham (as Miriam's son, Roger).

It's the power of love, both loving and being loved, both physical and emotional, that is explored in Nicky Silver's latest offering, The Eros Trilogy, currently at the Vineyard Theatre and starring the always inspiring Betty Buckley. When love and/or sex is present -- gay, straight, mother to son, son to mother, in or outside of marriage -- anything is possible, but when it's absent, life is at best -- according to Silver -- bearable, and, at worst, perhaps not worth living. The work is divided into three parts: two wrenching monologues, the first by Buckley as Claire and the second by Zak Orth as her son, Philip. The final and most enjoyable section is a series of letters -- written over nearly three decades between another son and mother -- read and illuminated by Buckley (as Miriam) and T. Scott Cunningham (as Miriam's son, Roger).

In the first monologue of the evening, Buckley portrays Claire, a middle aged, refined woman whose highly dysfunctional childhood has left her ill equipped to deal with the ins-and-outs of daily life. Her own mother never recovered emotionally from a miscarriage when Claire was eight, and her distant father offered little support and died while she was still living at home. Claire paints an unsettling portrait of her home life after the miscarriage, and when her own unplanned pregnancy occurred, she was only too eager to leave her mother (who died of a stroke soon after) for a man she knew she was not in love with, but one who seemed to care for her.

Throughout the monologue, Claire speaks often of the disgust she feels for the behavior of most humans today, particularly pointing out the vulgarity of spitting in the streets; in fact, she counts over a dozen instances of spitting in one walk through her neighborhood. One of the highlights of the monologue is Buckley's vivid description of choosing one normal-looking woman to follow, only to watch her spit in the street. Buckley's description of the event is both humorous and disturbing as we watch her fall apart before our eyes. Her bottled up rage and struggle to reconcile her own very human cravings and desires with her need to feel superior to the average person has wreaked havoc in her relationships, especially with her own children -- a daughter whom she doesn't care much for, and a son, who in the second somewhat frantic monologue (by Mr. Orth) we learn is extremely disturbed.

It's fascinating to watch Buckley portray Claire, as she moves from a quiet observation to a burst of emotional fire almost instantaneously. Buckley shades this fragile, yet angry soul beautifully, and the monologue concludes with an explicit discussion of returning home to her young boyfriend and the solace and sense of peace that is offered by her sexual relationship with him.

In the third part of the trilogy, Buckley and Cunningham bring their characters to full life, sharing the great joy and sorrow that composes their mother-son relationship. It's an extremely powerful hour, and you will find yourself rejoicing in the growth that develops between and within the characters. There is great humor and even moments of ecstacy, but there are, additionally, some moments that are painful to witness. When Roger takes offense at a remark Miriam makes about his lover, Jeffrey, he refuses to answer her letters. Miriam writes a succession of short letters begging him not to cut her out of his life, and Buckley perfectly captures Miriam's desperation. As she and her husband (whom she never loved) have just separated, her son is the only source of love in her life, and the thought of losing him is unbearable. Watch Buckley's face as she reads these desperate pleas: it is heartbreaking. Thankfully, the two make their peace, and their relationship grows from needs met and unmet to a wonderful, supportive friendship that sees them through the ups and down of two lives. What's most striking about this final section of the trilogy is how well the audience gets to know the two characters through simple letter sharing and the journey that both characters make. Buckley, especially, is riveting in her portrayal, and it's exhilarating to watch her acceptance of her son and of herself, as she finds love with a married co-worker and eventually confronts her alcoholism. Buckley manages to mix just the right amounts of comedy, heartbreak and passion and when combined with Nicky Silver's words, presents a woman you grow to care for deeply and a performance of power and sincerity.

I thought you would enjoy reading some of the other raves about Buckley's performance in The Eros Trilogy. . .

Ben Brantley in The New York Times:
". . .[Claire and Miriam] are both given the fullest due possible by no less a star than Betty Buckley. This first-rate actress, best known for her performances in musicals (Cats, Sunset Boulevard), here takes on two highly individuated roles with charm, dexterity and the textured blend of softness and sharpness that is her particular strength. Ms. Buckley's presence is essential, since without her, there wouldn't be much to the evening . . .

The evening's high point is its beginning, a light-and-dark monologue titled "Claire" in which Ms. Buckley portrays a wealthy widow with an extremely rarefied esthetic sense, so rarefied, in fact, that the sight of people spitting on the sidewalks of New York sends her into a climactic collapse into a gutter. Claire, wearing a satin dressing gown and a ringleted wig that brings to mind Danielle Darrieux being historical, describes the evening with a genuine horror neatly distanced by wryness. That's pretty much the overall tone of the piece, and Ms. Buckley, directly addressing the audience, sustains it with warmth and precision. Sitting at a dressing table in Claire's bedroom, occasionally casting captious glances at her own reflection, the actress studiously avoids the understandable temptations of camp. As a consequence, as Claire describes her somewhat Gothic childhood and her vague relationships with her children, a surprisingly delicate portrait emerges of a woman haunted by physical decay . . .

The evening's second act is given over entirely to "Miriam and Roger" . . . And Ms. Buckley, earlier seen as a melting meringue of a woman, is just as good as a meat-and-potatoes type, finding an emotional centeredness that goes a long way in holding our good will."

David Kaufman in Daily News:
"Yes, Broadway diva Buckley is making a rare appearance Off-Broadway. . .A large part of the evening's success is due to Buckley. As Miriam, she confirms that she is a magnificent actress who doesn't need to sing to carry a character's tune."

Michael Feingold in Village Voice:
" . . .You probably won't have the time, though, since you'll be busy watching Buckley, who tackles the challenge of making the same essence of Mom look like two different women with the aplomb and efficiency of a great French chef compelled to turn a single can of Campbell's into two contrasting triumphs of three-star cuisine. Even at this late date in the century, Buckley makes the kind of woman who still goes to a dressmaker, and writes letters to her son instead of phoning, not only credible, but comprehensible and interesting. . ."

Michael Kuchwara in Newsday:
". . .The leadoff entry features Betty Buckley, in a rare departure from musical theater. Buckley can command a stage, something she does here with all the intensity of Norma Desmond snaring Joe Gillis in 'Sunset Boulevard.' After all, she is playing one of Silver's favorite character types, an all-consuming mother. Claire is a wealthy Park Avenue matron, lounging in her boudoir. She is bemoaning the lowering of standards all across her fair city, particularly the increased frequency with which people spit on the sidewalk.

Buckley, coy, coquettish and totally charming, talks directly to the audience. Her tale gradually darkens, revealing an unhappy childhood and battles with her children. Her only solace: a younger lover, who helps her blot out the ugliness of the past. . ."

* Buckley fans can also hear the multi-talented actress sing this Sunday evening when she will be a special guest of "Plotnick & Rudetsky" at Caroline's Comedy Club at 50th & Broadway. Seth Rudetsky, comedian, pianist and writer for the "Rosie O'Donnell Show," has often accompanied Buckley on the piano, and BB will join him and Jack Plotnick for their Valentine's Day comedy program at 6 p.m. There is a $12 cover and a two drink minimum, and reservations may be made by calling (212) 757-4100.

I must admit I was equally, if not more, fascinated with the many changes made to the national touring production of Sunset Boulevard than the actual musical, which I did enjoy quite a lot last Saturday evening at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey. Credit director Susan H. Schulman and scenic designer Derek McLane for mounting a production that doesn't need the astounding multi-million dollar set created by John Napier for the original run. Norma's mansion does not rise as its awe-inspiring Broadway counterpart did, but it is still grand, consisting of a smaller set of stairs centerstage that move out from the back at the start of Norma's first scene. Similarly, long, flowing drapes emerge as do several set pieces (a couch, desk, ...) just before Norma's entrance. There are also three large wooden columns, filled with various props, that emerge and move around several times throughout the show.

Director Schulman has also added a few touches here and there, some of which make many of the non-Norma scenes work better than they did before, especially the New Year's party in Artie's apartment and the second-act ballad, "Too Much in Love To Care." In the latter scene, Betty Schaefer and Joe Gillis take full advantage of the props that might have been available to them on the backstage lot of Paramount Studios. They also employ some film effects, including falling snow, and the song concludes quietly rather than the big-ballad ending it was given on Broadway. In fact, it's the first time that song has ever moved me.

But, getting to the star of the show, that "Downtown" gal, Petula Clark . . . If Clark isn't as fine an actress as her London or Broadway predecessors - and not as thrilling as Buckley, LuPone or Paige -- she does possess the requisite star quality and adds a campiness that is quite entertaining. She also possesses a distinctive voice that she unleashes to great effect, particularly in the second act "aria," "As If We Never Said Goodbye." And her co-star, Lewis Cleale, is perhaps the best Joe I've seen to date. He is commanding both physically and vocally, and delivers each line -- whether sung or spoken -- flawlessly. The Max of Allen Fitzpatrick is also quite good, and, as always, a ride down Sunset Boulevard is a highly entertaining trip.

I thought the legion of Sunset Boulevard fans would enjoy reading a few of the many other changes made to the touring production, so here goes!
(1) Only a small part of Norma's pool (jetting out from the side of the stage) is seen in the opening of the musical, while a projection of a man floating face down in the pool is projected on a scrim.
(2) Throughout the musical, Joe Gillis speaks several lines that were previously sung. For example, he speaks, "I guess it was 5 a.m. A homicide had been reported..." and doesn't begin singing until the lines, "Let me take you back six months." The only lines I missed being sung were those in the "New Ways to Dream" sequence. I had always found the singing of "she smelled of faded roses" quite moving.
(3) In Joe's meeting with Sheldrake in the first scene, Sheldrake asks, "Joe, what the heck brings you here?" rather than "Joe, what the f- - brings you here?"
(4) In the car chase scene, which leads to Joe's arrival at Norma's mansion, a small amusement-park like red car emerges from the wings, and Joe is scene driving while a black-and-white film of another car chasing him is projected on the scrim behind him. Oddly, the car Joe drives is only half a car; that is, the hood of the car has been removed, so you can see Joe's entire body. It seems no one has yet solved the problem of staging the car chase scene realistically.
(5) Toward the end of "This Time Next Year," all the young performers/writers assemble on Artie's couch while Artie sets the automatic timer on his camera. The song ends just as the camera flashes a picture.
(6) During the title song that opens the musical's second act, Joe is dressed in only a bathing suit, and delivers the song with just the bathing suit and a towel draped around his neck. (I had always wondered why Joe would wear a white suit while lounging by the pool.) Also, during the song, Norma enters for one stanza to caress his shoulders.
(7) Norma's car is not seen when she enters Paramount Studios. It's just a figure of half a car that is scene behind a scrim.
(8) During the intro to "As If We Never Said Goodbye" -- just after the spotlight shines on Norma -- only three or four people approach her to say hello, just older actors/stage workers who would have worked with her in her heyday. Only one young woman approaches, obviously enthralled to meet this former film star.
(9) During the phone call to Betty sequence, Norma stands on the staircase making the call. Rather than grabbing the phone from her, Joe picks up a different phone located on the desk in the living room.
(10) Just before Betty arrives for her final scene in Norma's mansion, Joe sees flashbacks (with other actors playing his role) to earlier scenes.
(10) In Norma's final mad scene, as she sings the reprise of "With One Look," several shots of her as a film star are projected behind her. And, as the curtain comes down, a black-and-white projection announcing, "The End" is shown.

IN OTHER NEWS Those super Side Show stars, Alice Ripely and Emily Skinner, will be on hand at the New Voices Theatre Ensemble's benefit on Monday, March 1 to sing selections from their acclaimed new CD, "Duets." The benefit, which will include cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, the women's performance and a silent auction, will be held in the Penthouse Suite of the Royalton Hotel on West 44th Street in NYC. Tickets are priced between $50 and $1,000 and may be purchased by calling (212) 539-4525. The New Voices Theatre Ensemble is a not-for profit company that produces original and classic works at Synchronicity Space in Soho . . . Julie Andrews sits down with Barbara Walter on tonight's edition (Friday, Feb. 12) of 20/20 on ABC. Andrews will discuss her recent vocal surgery . . . Patti Cohenour will join Joel Carlton and David Pichette for a production of Oh, Coward--which celebrates the life and works of Noel Coward -- that will be presented from Feb. 22 through April 4 at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Leo Kreielsheimer Theatre. Call (206) 443-2222 for more information and for tickets . . . The divinely talented Mary Testa, who recently stole the show in the short-lived On the Town revival, joins Evans Hale and Andrew Gerle for a cabaret entertainment simply called Haile, Mary!. Presented by the Garrick Gaieties (242 W. 49th Street), the "musical threesome" is currently playing through February 6. There is a cover charge ($25, Tues., Wed., Thurs. and $30 for shows on Fri. and Sat.) and dinner is required at the early shows. Call (212) 489-8600 for reservations . . . The 13th annual MAC Awards, the Oscars of the New York cabaret scene, will honor Barbara Cook and her musical director, Wally Harper, with a Lifetime Achievement Award on Monday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall. Betty Buckley, another MAC Award winner, will perform as well. And, Liza Minnelli, who will receive the MAC Board of Directors Award, is expected to perform with Billy Stritch. Tickets range from $20-$100 and will be available at the Town Hall box office and through TicketMaster, beginning about March 1. For more information about MAC, call (212) 465-2662 . . . Alice Ripley will perform her cabaret act at the West Bank Cafe (42nd St. and 9th Avenue) on Sunday, Feb. 28 at 9:30 pm. There is a $15 cover; call (212) 695-6909 for reservations. REMINDERS:

BB concert line-up:
April 17 at the Lehman Center for the Perf. Arts in Bronx, NY
April 23 at the College of New Jersey in Erwing, NJ
May 3 at the Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center in Chicago, Ill.

On March 5, 6, and 7 Patti LuPone will bring her new concert act -- Matters of the Heart -- to Baltimore, where she will appear with the Baltimore Symphony; call (410) 783-8000 for tickets. (Also, La LuPone will join opera star Bryn Terfel for a concert version of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd to be held at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall from May 4 to May 6 in the year 2000. The performers will be backed by the New York Philharmonic, and the event, which will be recorded, will celebrate Sondheim's 70th birthday.)

Upcoming Bernadette Peters TV schedule: Peters and Tom Wopat (her co star in the current Annie Get Your Gun revival) will make an appearance on the "Rosie O'Donnell Show" on Wednesday, Feb. 17 (10 a.m. on ABC). Peters will also join Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford on "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" on Tuesday, March 9 (9 a.m. on ABC), and on Tuesday, March 23 Peters will sit down with the ladies of "The View" (11 a.m. on ABC).

March 12 brings Mason to the Tilles Hall at Long Island University. Her 8pm concert is sold out that evening, but tickets are available for the 10 pm show; call (516) 299-3100. And, Karen will return to the Davenports Cabaret in Chicago for a three-week run beginning March 17. Call (773) 278-1830 for reservations.

McGovern in concert: Feb. 20 with the Louisville Symphony in Louisville, KY

This annual concert to benefit the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative of The Actors' Fund of America will be held on Monday, March 1 at 7 PM at the Shubert Theatre (225 West 44th Street). At this point, the remarkable one-night-only event will feature these "dames": Loni Ackerman, Joy Behar, Kate Burton, Ayodele Casel, Lea DeLaria, Dorothy Delay, Patricia Elliott, Melissa Errico, Amanda Green, Uta Hagen, Joan Hamburg, Dee Hoty, Anne Jackson, Marcia Lewis, Tisidii Le Loka, Nancy Lemanger, Anna Manahan, Saeka Matsuyama, Sally Mayes, Anne Meara, Donna Murphy, Bebe Neuwirth, Phyllis Newman, Christiane Noll, Nancy Opel, Christine Pedi, Daisy Prince, Faith Prince, Denise Roberts, Mary Testa, Marisa Tomei, Rachel York and female cast members from virtually every show. For tickets, call the DAME LINE at 1-888-DAME-TIX (1-888-326-3849); tickets range from $40 to $1,000.

Well, that's all for now. Happy Valentine's Day to you all, and a special best wishes to Karen Mason, who ties the knot this Sunday to Paul Rolnick. . . Happy diva-watching!

by Andrew Gans
e-mail me at agans@playbill.com

Diva Talk is dedicated to the memory of Matthew Shepard, 1976- 1998.

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