For many in New York’s theater community, the Pride Weekend jubilation over New York’s late-night legalizing of same-sex marriage on Friday got cut short, with shocking abruptness, midday Saturday, when the news began to circulate that Alice Playten had suddenly died that morning, in Sloan-Kettering Medical Center, of heart failure. Playten, the beloved veteran performer whose laughing-eyed, pixiesh presence had graced countless plays and musicals, both on and Off-Broadway, was beloved on a dozen fronts and for a thousand reasons.
Tiny in stature but immense in charm, sporting a big, powerhouse voice that could belt a song into the rafters, Playten had begun her career as a child and been a source of continuous delight to audiences for over half a century. A lifelong New Yorker, raised in Brooklyn, she first attracted notice, at age 12, singing the haunting role of Marie’s Child in Alban Berg’s 12-tone opera, Wozzeck, with the world-class diva Eleanor Steber as her mother, in the work’s Metropolitan Opera debut. She went on to roister as a street urchin in the original Broadway production of Oliver!, and to whimper as an imprisoned daughter of wealth rescued by Carol Channing in the original production of Hello, Dolly!, before truly taking over the stage in a pair of short-lived but still-cherished musicals, one on Broadway and one off, that have become objects of worship to cast-album collectors, in part because of her unforgettable, leather-lunged performances: Bob Merrill’s Henry, Sweet Henry and the Al Carmines–Maria Irene Fornes Promenade.
This was all, in a sense, by way of prelude. A fixture in the Off-Broadway musicals of the ’70s, Playten soon established herself as an astute comedienne as well, winning the first of her two Obie Awards in 1973 for her impish caricature monkeyshines in the long-running National Lampoon’s Lemmings, and her second, two decades later, for her memorably daffy turn as a drink-fuddled Mamie Eisenhower in the Public Theater production of Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite.
In between, she went through a score of plays and musicals that increasingly showed, underneath her aptitude for comedy, a grounding in pathos that could cut with a tragic sting, in plays ranging from the whimsical (Mark O’Donnell’s That’s It, Folks!) to the realistic (Michael Weller’s Spoils of War). She could appear endearingly cartoony as Mrs. Mayor of Whoville in Broadway’s Seussical, or sharply sardonic as a Jewish grandmother in the Tony Kushner–Jeanine Tesori Caroline, or Change. She even managed to infuse high-quality acting into a TV commercial (today a YouTube perennial), winning a Clio for her performance as the adorable newlywed whose misguided culinary experiments, like heart-shaped meatloaf, drive her spouse to Alka-Seltzer.
What made Playten most beloved to her colleagues, however, wasn’t the reliably enchanting results she produced onstage, but her unfailing commitment to the theater, her total faith in it as a place of importance, where quality can and must be achieved. Hard-driving in her own rehearsal process, she was a tireless, ferociously supportive champion of others, artists she valued and productions she believed in. When you needed Alice Playten, she was there for you; when she thought you had misfired or overshot your mark, she was the first to let you know, in gentle but utterly emphatic terms. Her taste reached across genres and forms, with strong principles but few aesthetic qualms. If it worked, she was for it, and she made sure everyone knew about it. Phone calls and emails from Alice Playten, asking if I’d seen such-and-such or was planning to see it, have been an integral part of my life for the past two decades. Now I shall have to get them from the ether. Luckily, I still have her voice, on a panoply of cast albums, to remind me of her magic, and to proclaim her faith in every ringing note.