Friday, June 6, 2008

Theatre Droppings: New York, 1997

My more recent trips to New York have rarely included a trip to the theatre. The Broadway stage (and even most of the off-Broadway stage) of recent years does not resemble the community of dramas, musicals, farces, and classics which used to populate The Great White Way.

I believe I made only one trip to New York in 1997, but it was an eventful one. It was the first time I attempted to drive to the City from DC (in '96, I always took the bus), and I actually don't remember why I chose to drive that trip. I had been advised by my friend from The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Caitlin, with whom I was staying the night, that there should be street parking in her neighborhood in Washington Heights (that meant nothing to me at the time, but I learned it is the neighborhood at the far north end of Manhattan). So, I set out early Saturday morning, leaving plenty of time to find Caitlin's apt, get changed for my Big Audition Appointment, and find my way downtown to the audition site. Well, the best laid plans, and all that. As it was my first time on the infamous New Jersey Turnpike, I missed the sign pointing toward New York, and ended up in Philadelphia. Sounds like a joke, but I was not laughing as the clock ticked. I got directions from a guy at 7-11 (he spoke English!), and got back on track, finally making it across the George Washington Bridge. I found the bridge extremely confusing, until my next trip to New York when I took the Lincoln Tunnel to enter the city, then I decided it was the easiest way to get to the island. Anyway, I finally arrived at Caitlin's apt and found parking around the corner. She was not home, natch, but one of her roommates, a Swedish woman with a thick accent, was expecting me and let me in. I was very much behind my planned schedule as I changed into my audition togs and tried to get instructions from Miss Olga von Swede on how to negotiate the subway.

Very tense, but on time, I finally got to my destination and my audition appointment, for the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre. It was my very first New York audition (let me rephrase that: it was the first New York audition to which I had been invited. Up to this point, I had been attending the horrid Cattle Calls), and I went way over the top, reading the role of the Duke in Big River.

My audition over, I thought about returning uptown to Caitlin's place, but I knew that one of my favorite actresses from my internship at The Shakespeare Theatre, Helen Carey, had just opened on Broadway in a revival of London Assurance. Helen had played several roles at The Shakes the season I was there, including an absolutely hilarious turn in Volpone, and a frightening Lady M in Macbeth, opposite Stacey Keach. That production of the Scottish Play remains one of my favorite Shakespearean experiences, largely due to the spectacular, muscular performances of Stacey and Helen. Here's a fond memory: in one of the big court scenes, Helen had a brief scene with Stacey, then moved stage left to join a crowd of courtiers while Stacey had a scene with another actor. Helen, who was the most consistent actress ever, would place herself with her back to the audience, then completely drop character and begin to chat sotto voce with us minor players. "So, what did you do over the weekend? Anybody get laid?" It was difficult for the interns to maintain decorum around Helen, who was a hoot.

(Here's the Happy Couple with their Young Siward)

Well, I decided I wanted to catch Helen's Broadway debut, so I hung around the theatre district and saw her swipe this 19th century drawing room comedy away from the likes of Brian Bedford and Rainn Wilson. I sent a note backstage, and Helen graciously agreed to have a drink with me after the show, so it was about 1 AM when I finally returned uptown and rang the bell at Caitlin's apartment. The sweetheart (at left) had blown up the inflatable mattress for me, and didn't mind a bit that I had spent the evening having a ball, without calling to let her know the whereabouts of her wayward guest. (She was raising a teen aged son at the time, and just shrugged, "I knew you were out getting drunk someplace.")

It was a terrific weekend all around. The following Monday, the Tony nominations were announced, and Helen received one for her performance in London Assurance. Coincidentally, our local Helen Hayes awards were presented that very day, and Helen won for her bawdy interpretation of the over-sexed Lady Wouldbe in Volpone, above with one of her ensembletori ("this is the most fun I've ever had standing up," she quipped when she accepted her trophy).

As for me, the following Wednesday, I got the call that my over-the-top reading for Shenandoah had landed well, and I was hired to be tarred-and-feathered in Big River.

New York, New May of 1997, it was a helluva town.