Saturday, May 31, 2008

Theatre Droppings: New York, 1996

I've written in previous posts about my trips to New York specifically to see live theatre, in 1975, '76, '77, '78, and 1991. Those were all vacation trips from Los Angeles, where I lived during those years. Once I moved to the East Coast, I had neither the time nor the funds to spend a full week in Manhattan attending theatre. But that does not mean I gave up visiting Broadway altogether. I have attended more than a half dozen plays over the past decade, usually in conjunction with a trip to New York for an audition of my own.

I earned my MFA in the spring of 1996, after which I began a routine of traveling to New York to seek work. In each of my trips that year, I popped into a show or two.

I've already mentioned my admiration for Bill Irwin, a fascination which dates back to his stage performances in Fool Moon and The Regard of Flight, telecast on PBS. In 1996, Irwin was contracted by the Roundabout Theatre Company to create a new adaptation of the commedia dell'arte piece, Scapin. He played the title character, as well as directing and adapting the play. I have to admit that I was just a little disappointed in the show, for several reasons. Predominantly, I still had very vivid images of Jim Dale's adaptation of the play, Scapino, in my memory, and Irwin's version seemed more sedate than the over-the-top hilarity which Dale's production created. Irwin's performance as Scapin never seemed to catch fire, and I came away from the theatre thinking that he should confine himself to appearing in pieces he had created for himself from the ground up. (I have since changed my mind on that, having seen his exceptional performance as George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). My program tells me I saw an unknown Kristin Chenoweth in one of the ingenue roles.

I saw two more straight plays in '96, both with bona fide divas heading the cast. Terence McNally's second love letter to opera (his first was The Lisbon Traviata) provided one of the showiest roles for an actress in modern times. Master Class revolved around the master classes opera diva Maria Callas gave at Julliard at the end of her career. By the time I caught up with the show, the original Tony winners Zoe Caldwell and Audra MacDonald had moved on, but I was not in the least disappointed. Patti LuPone had assumed the role of Callas, and she was mesmerizing. It was purely a dramatic role (all the singing in the show was done by the young students), and LuPone proved to me that she is a hugely talented actress with heart, brains, comic timing, and guts. It remains one of the best stage performances I have ever seen.

Later in 1996, I saw another of my favorite stage performances, in the all-star revival of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. The cast included RSC vet (and future Spiderman star) Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard (who won the Tony for this role), and one of my favorite unsung stage actresses, Rosemary Murphy (you might remember her as FDR's mother in the TV film Eleanor and Franklin, for which she won the Emmy). But the main attraction for me was Elaine Stritch, playing a supporting role, but swiping the show from everybody in sight. I've previously mentioned my admiration for Stritch, which only increased after seeing this performance, in which she landed every laugh, even while torturing us with the terrible sadness of her alcoholic character (according to her one-woman show, she was sober while playing it).

The last show I saw in New York in 1996 was an Off-Broadway musical in the second year of its run, When Pigs Fly. Actually, the show was officially titled Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly, and therein the production has attained a true uniqueness. Who is Howard Crabtree, you may wonder? No, he was not the producer, nor the director, nor the composer, nor the lyricist, nor the book writer. He wasn't even in the thing (though the leading character was named Howard). In what has got to be a first and only, Howard Crabtree received over-the-title billing as the costume designer. As outlandish as this sounds, if you saw the show, you would agree that he deserved his star treatment. He is credited, along with Mark Waldrop, with "conceiving" the piece, which possibly meant, he dreamed up a bunch of truly outlandish costumes, and then a show was created around them. With a decidedly gay sensibility, When Pigs Fly concerned the journey a young man takes on his way to artistic fulfillment. This Off-Broadway show was a feast for the eyes, and included a centaur, a tribute to the hidden gayness of Bewitched, and an astonishing number in which furniture became hoop skirts (believe me, you had to be there). The evening was absolutely hilarious, though it included a poignant 11:00 ballad sung by cabaret artist Jay Rogers. In it, he reminded us that, amid the vast cruelty of the modern world, Laughing Matters. It was only after the show that I read the program and discovered the true poignancy of that message. The man behind the conception of this piece, the afore-mentioned Howard Crabtree, had died of AIDS at age 41, five days after finishing work for the show. He did not live long enough to see the big success his designs would create.

It's a fitting credo that I try, often without success, to remember every day.

Laughing matters.

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