It was an exciting, innovative Broadway season, with two musicals that moved the form forward by pioneering darker, more textured subject matter. Alas, they were both written more than 49 years ago! (South Pacific and Gypsy). There were also two intriguing marital dramas—from 1950—but they pretty much proved to be the same play. I’m talking about Come Back, Little Sheba and The Country Girl, both of which involve a married couple who have lost a child, driving the man to drink and the woman, a former beauty queen, to a sort of squalid stoicism, their relationship stirred up by an interested third party. Adding more fascination to the latter revival, Morgan Freeman—who plays a man who has trouble remembering his lines—supposedly had trouble remembering his lines.
Big stars dropped by revivals like that via private jet and were whimsically miscast, which was exacerbated by the fact that everything was two and a half hours or more (or seemed it). But Top Girls, though old, had a bracing newness; In the Heights, though easygoing, had an urgent charm; and the year’s best theatrical experience, except for Hillary‘s crying, was Tracy Letts‘s August: Osage County, a riveting tragicomedy—and over three hours long—even if the family-in-disarray theme was as familiar as Mama Rose’s recurring dreams of the Orpheum circuit that seem to pop up whenever she needs something.
It was the year of the scaled-down revivals, which were wildly overpraised for their quiet naturalism—as if star power were suddenly corrupt and unwanted in this town! But then Patti LuPone came along and burned them all down while shrieking: “Here she is, world! Fuck off!”
It was also the year of the original play—and at a party for the beleaguered Drama Desk at Arte Café a few weeks ago, I got to live my own dream and meet August‘s perennials: Deanna Dunagan (who’s brilliant as that clan’s lacerating mother) and Rondi Reed (who sparkles as Dunagan’s mouthy sister). Naturally, I wanted to know if they approach their roles as though playing mustache-twirling villains. “We say ‘flawed,’ ” suggested Reed, laughing. But no, they don’t. In fact, Dunagan said, she’s just telling the family what needs to be said, “and I have so many pills that I’m in a nice place!”
Still, Dunagan’s quite aware of just how flawed this character may be. “People all the time say: ‘You’re playing my mother!’ ” she told me, eyes flaring. “I think: ‘What must this family be like?’ “
As for Letts’s real-life family, Reed and Dunagan swore that they’re terrific people and utterly solid citizens. So which of the play’s three screwed-up daughters is based on his mother? “It can’t be Karen,” said Dunagan, “because in my opinion, she’s dumb!”
At the same event, A Catered Affair composer John Bucchino told me I’m no moron in spotting echoes of Joni Mitchell in his ethereal score; she’s one of his biggest influences. But the irrepressible Mel Brooks must have been influenced by himself when he wrote something like 30 new songs for the antic Young Frankenstein. “He had to pare it down,” Shuler Hensley, who plays the title role, admiringly told me at the Drama Desk event. To only 16!
“Isn’t it fun to play a monster with some heart?” I asked the normally green-faced actor, trying to separate this show from Osage County. “Yes,” Hensley replied, “and I don’t die at the end of the show! It’s one and a half hours of makeup, but it’s worth it because I get to live. And I like being green because I’m a winter.”
Alas, his survival didn’t get him a Tony nomination—nor did Mel’s—but at the Tony meet-and-greet at the Hilton, I got to schmooze up the people who were British and/or exceptional enough to make the cut. Rock ‘n’ Roll‘s superb Rufus Sewell (who’s an autumn) told me how he found out he scored: “Just as I got an e-mail saying ‘Congratulations,’ ” he related, “an armed guard at Immigration shouted, ‘Put that phone down!’ “
Mary McCormack got the nod for her screamingly funny German flight attendant in the otherwise boring-boring Boeing-Boeing, which has her romping and rolling without Immigration looking in. “I’m bruised and cut up,” she admitted to me. “[Co-star] Kathryn Hahn and I sit there and paint each other’s bruises. We were told they look like story points—like there’s some point of the story we’re not telling—so we’d better cover them.” Pause. “But we do have a good time!”
In the Heights, on the other hand—or leg—is nonviolent as it spins a tale of familia in a county very far from Osage. But a serious plot twist about that community emerged when one of the show’s nominated orchestrators made a shocking revelation at the Tony to-do. “I’m not Hispanic,” he whimpered, not meeting my gaze. “I’m a Jewish kid from Long Island.” Say what, chico? Get your deceptive ass back to Fiddler on the Roof!
Desperate to say “You’re welcome already,” I went to one more awards ceremony—for the Drama League—where the tiers and tiers of winners sitting on a dais gave speeches over lunch, prompting what Martha Plimpton calls “the world’s fanciest pie-eating contest.” Macbeth‘s Patrick Stewart, who once openly denounced the Shuberts, was much happier now, gushing: “It’s best to be back on a Shubert stage!” The Little Mermaid‘s Sierra Boggess was also aglow, purring: “Thank you for letting me be in shells and a tail, naked, on Broadway eight times a week!” Elizabeth Marvel urged: “Please come to see Top Girls—and stay to the end because it’s really good all the way through!” And 56 more winners oozed volcanic amounts of humility and gratitude because, after all, you know how ego-free actors can be. But S. Epatha Merkerson brought some realness to the stage, urging us to support the Sex and the City movie because “that’s how I was able to get the slot at Manhattan Theater Club— Cynthia Nixon was busy doing the movie!”
Everyone else on the dais, it seemed, was busy trying to get a slot with Xanadu‘s hunky Cheyenne Jackson. Sunday in the Park‘s Daniel Evans brazenly proposed marriage to the guy, after which MC Harvey Fierstein rasped: “Can I just watch?” Jackson used his own stage time to say yes to both queens and to announce that he’s registered at the Rochester Big & Tall shops. Hmm, I always knew he was extra-large.
Meanwhile, that big-scale talent Kathleen Turner deserves a Tony for a performance she gave at a department store, where she was spotted telling her shopper some intriguingly self-deprecating things: “I lost my waist in menopause!” declared Turner with a flourish—and even more memorably, she exclaimed: “I hate my arms!” Maybe they look like story points.
Over in the fashion world, where everyone hates their thighs, that adorable Marc Jacobs‘s latest trophy (or one of them) is hairy-faced Brazilian ad man Lorenzo Martone, who had a birthday party in a Mercer Hotel suite that looked interestingly like Marc’s. According to insiders, the place was flowing with male models and other eye candy, all debating whether they should indulge in the three-tiered chocolate cake. By the way, Marc and Lorenzo saw Gypsy together, which confirms the fact that they’re gay!
Here’s to next season. Let’s hope all the actors remember their lines—of coke. If not, just give them so many pills that they’re in a nice place.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 27, 2008