The Last Theater Shows

On Thursday afternoon March 12, 2020, Broadway theaters shut down due to COVID-19.  I soon began receiving cancellation emails from shows I was scheduled to review over the ensuing weeks as a critic for The Flea Theater’s publicist however, reconfirmed that playwright Taylor Mac’s The Fre’s evening performance was still on, and that it would continue to run. Later, there was this pre-show communication:

The Flea would like to encourage critics to evaluate this production
outside of the current Covid-19 crisis. Your words go beyond this
particular moment and actually impact the entire life of the play. So
we encourage you to write about the production on its own terms, so
that it may be seen as such after we’ve emerged from this crisis.

There was collective excitement in the Flea’s lobby from the audience of about 40, a few of whom were wearing face masks, as we were about to witness a show actually happening that night. I started writing when I got home and finished my quizzical review Friday morning. Later in the day, the publicist declared that that evening’s performance would be the last until April 2, and to please embargo reviews until after then. It  never reopened, and my review was not published until now.

The Fre

Madcap dystopia, scatological humor and gender concerns are all in Taylor Mac’s latest work, taking place in a mud pit with the audience joining in.

The cast of “The Fre.” (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

It is what it is, best describes MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize-finalist playwright Taylor Mac’s latest theatrical offering, The Fre. With its grand Shakespearean-style dialogue, allusions to red and blue states, and post-Apocalyptic milieu, it is dystopian frivolity crossed with Mac’s characteristic gender preoccupations and scatological humor. Lacking the semblance of a plot until the final portion, it manages to sustain its 75 minutes chiefly due to the superior stagecraft on display. It is engaging, though whether it’s nonsensical or profound depends on one’s sensibility.

The main mud in the play is not actual mud but brown pit-balls (the kind of balls you’d find at a Chuck e’ Cheese that kids jump around in). Actors and audience should be able to fall into it face first and not hurt themselves.

FRE Image
The cast of “The Fre.” (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

So, describes Mac in the stage directions of the production’s dominant feature. The theater’s playing area is filled with a huge amount of those brown plastic balls vividly  simulating a mud pit, strewn with scenic designer Jian Jung’s atmospheric old bed, circular lawn platform, platforms and other striking elements. The audience can either submerge themselves there and be part of the show, or observe from conventional benches in the L-shaped seating area.

The youthful ensemble are members of The Flea Theater’s resident company, The Bats. They are, Ryan Chittaphong, Lambert Tamin, Joseph Dalfonso, Alex J. Moreno, Drita Kabashi, Yvonne Jessica Pruitt, Geogia Kate Cohen, Sarah Alice Shull, Nate DeCook, Cesar Munoz, Jon Edward Cook, Adam Coy, Ure Egbuho, Joan Marie Brody, Matthew Macca and Marcus Jones. While wearing costume designer Machine Dazzle’s fantastical Mad Max-style outfits, this exuberant cast all deliver appropriately broad performances.

At the start in the lobby, a rat-costumed player is designated as representing the playwright. Then it’s to the theater for antics in the mud pit where audience members sometimes participate in the actions. It’s a pseudo-epic involving song contests, a Hero on a quest and odysseys to bridges, that’s all open to interpretation.

Director Niegel Smith’s vigorous staging and Sarah East Johnson’s energetic choreography both enliven the presentation. Lighting designer Xavier Pierce achieves a suitably muted dimension. Composer Matt Ray’s jolting original score and effects are well rendered by his sound design. A celestial toilet shown during an analysis of sewage is a highlight of Adam J. Thompson’s excellent projection design.

With The Fre, Taylor Mac continues on an iconclastic visionary path.

The Fre (through April 12, 2020)

The Sam at the Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, in Manhattan

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission

The night before, as a Drama Desk member, I saw Girl From The North Country. It was uninvolving synthetic hoariness taking place at a Duluth boarding house in 1934. The Depression-era stock characters and cliched situations were accompanied to well-performed Bob Dylan songs for little effect. There were many empty seats at the Belasco Theater and jokey unease amongst attendees.

On Monday March 9,  I publicly reviewed my last show so far. It shall remain memorable to me for that defining fact,  its stimulating qualities and that despite merriment, there was anxiety in the air. I was also reluctantly pressed into joining one of the multiple audience participation segments. My lumbering stiffness and slow reactions were comically utilized for a mirror exercise movement bit involving the performer and another audience member.

The Artist Will Be With You in a Moment

Acclaimed performance artist Joel Jeske’s uproarious, clever and thoughtful show relies on his dazzling clowning and plentiful audience participation.

Joel Jeske (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

As an artist, I must confess, I wasn’t the first choice for myself. For Joel Jeske. The producers actually had an audition to find someone to portray me. I was invited to audition, twice, and after a grueling series of callbacks and “look-sees”, I didn’t get it…

So, wryly reflects the acclaimed and commanding performance artist Joel Jeske during his uproarious, clever and thoughtful self-created and self-written show, The Artist Will Be With You in a Moment. Relying on his dazzling clowning, his winning presence and plentiful audience participation, it’s 70 delightful, breezy and theatrical minutes offering a humorous respite from a troubled world.

I’ve been fascinated by Rene Magritte…He was a good painter, but not a great one. He would have found my outfit a bit bright. It was not how he
painted but what he painted. And it wasn’t a question of what he painted insomuch as what he did with the image he chose to use.

Resplendent in costume designer Oana Botez’s blazing red tailcoat, red trousers, white shirt, black bowtie and black bowler hat, Mr. Jeske visually embodies surrealism. With his eerily-made up Stan Laurel-type facial features and his smooth engaging dry vocal delivery recalling that of Steve Martin and Kevin Kline, Jeske is a magnetic performer. Adeptly playing the tuba and ukulele, precisely tossing off puns, non-sequiturs and one-liners, engaging in slapstick and enacting choreographer Danny Gardener’s cool dance moves, Jeske is sensational. A grand highlight is his loony offbeat impersonation of a major American literary figure, involving spectacular pratfalls.

“One Hundred Dented Cans Hastily Hot Glued Together, 2001, Tin, hot glue, $1500.” “Four Things That Have Hit Me in the Head, 2003-2016, Wood, brick, rubber, polyester, coconut, $5500.” “Here Is Where I Fell On My Ass: March 5, 2020, 2020, Vinyl, $1500.”

Joel Jeske (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

These, are a few of the titles of objects on display such as tin cans, a pair of pants and a red chair. They’re hanging on the theater’s gleaming white walls, simulating an art gallery and wittily sending up the pompousness of the art world. The audience gets 15 minutes to take in the exhibition while Jeske impassively sits high atop a white cube. Then the show begins, consisting of a multitude of vignettes described by projected black and white supertitles including “Would someone let him in?” Shyness melts away as numerous audience members from all over the L-shaped playing area are playfully coerced into participating in a drawing contest, musical chairs, an elaborate slow walking mirror exercise, as well as other gags. The beaming and quietly jovial Mariko Iwasa deftly assists in the merriment as Deck Management. Ms. Iwasa often handles and distributes Rebecca K. David’s perfect props selections. “They still make whoopie cushions?” is one’s likely thought during one bit.

Director Mark Lonergan’s zippy staging fuses all of the elements together into a resounding event. Maruti Evans’ ingenious scenic design is matched by his crystalline and ever present varied lighting design. Jacqueline Reed’s video programming enhances the production with its entrancing imagery. Familiar classical melodies give way to composer Peter Bufano’s frisky additonal music.

With its eloquent nods to conceptual art, good-natured comedic tone and superior performance, The Artist Will Be With You in a Moment is an intelligent entertainment.

Would anyone be interested in going out with a divorced, balding gay man
roughly…50?…Is there anyone interested in going out after the show? I can be ready really quick. Doesn’t take long for me to clean up and change.

The Artist Will Be With You in a Moment (through March 29, 2020)

Parallel Exit

Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan

Running time: 70 minutes without an intermission

Joel Jeske (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

In hindsight, lock down procedures should have been implemented sooner. Whenever stage performances do start up again in New York City, the environment will be decidedly different than it was before the pandemic. In the meantime, nothing to be done…

Remembering Duane Bodin (1932-2018)

“I had three Tony shows! THREE! Fiddler on the Roof, 1776 and Sweeney Todd” long ago proclaimed Duane Bodin with Mickey Rooney-style gusto. Mr. Bodin was a New York City performer who died last year on January 19, 2018 at the age of 85. I googled him recently out of curiosity and came across this sole obituary:

Actors (L-R) Henry LeClair, Duane Bodin, Ronald Kross, Emory Bass, David Cryer, Paul Hecht, Charles Rule & Jonathan Moore in a scene from the replacement cast of the Broadway musical “1776.” (New York 1970) (Photo credit: Martha Swope) From The Billy Rose Theatre Division of The New York Public Library

Bodin was my neighbor in the 1980’s. Getting to know him during my youth was very memorable. We lived a floor apart in a Manhattan tenement building on 45th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. We met when he saw me on the staircase. I had beaten him to a recently vacated apartment that he had hoped to obtain for his uncle. We did not become close friends but had a cordial relationship, he was a fascinating character. Occasionally in the early years of my stay I’d run into him and he’d invite me to his apartment to chat.

“The last show I did was Ta-Dah! Off-Broadway in 1981. I played Scott Bakula’s father. I got THE REVIEWS and HE got the ticket to Hollywood! After that, I’d had it.” He worked as a doorman on the Upper East Side for much of his life, owned a small house in upstate New York and strove to save money for his retirement. “When I get $200,000 I’m out!”

Short, bald, pot-bellied, clean-shaven and with twinkling eyes he clearly had presence. Decades of being a dancer endowed him with physical grace. His resonant voice had a tuneful vocal timbre making his stories so pleasurable to listen to. A Minnesota native, he could have authentically portrayed a character in Fargo. He was very funny but also dramatic when expressing anger.

In Fiddler on the Roof he played a villager and Grandma Tzeitel and appeared in the 1976 revival. Delaware delegate George Read was his role in 1776 as well as understudying the character of Andrew McNair for all of the show’s close to three years. He was the dance captain for Sweeney Todd and a member of the company. This was his final Broadway credit and he remained in it for all of its 557 performances. Then he played several roles including the narrator in the Off-Broadway musical El Bravo! for a disappointing six weeks. At the age of 49, Ta-Dah! was his final stage appearance and he has no film or television credits. There is scant photographic evidence documenting his professional and personal existence.

“What do you think of my career?” he asked me. “I think to have been in so many famous shows and worked with great directors, you obviously are highly talented. You have the bearing of a superb character actor but just haven’t gotten a breakout part yet.” “Thanks…” he smiled.

His Broadway debut was as a dancer in 1963’s Here’s Love that played for nine months. “I went from show to show which you could do in those days. Directors knew me and used me…”

It’s a shame that he seemingly was never interviewed for any oral history projects as he really lived through Broadway’s Golden Age. “I knew she would be a star” he fondly recalled of his Fiddler on the Roof castmate Bette Midler. He imparted ribald gossip about those he had contact with. He was gay, single and would regale me with his exploits.

“I can’t stop laughing! I keep thinking of Auntie Mame when you just see her hand with the diamond cigarette holder pointing at want ads!” was his greeting to me when I saw him after I returned home from working at Macy’s during the holidays. “You’re a kook and your only hope is if they happen to be looking for a kook” was his accurate assessment of my chances in the acting profession.

After ten years I moved away. Ten years later I returned as a resident of Hell’s Kitchen, this time on 53rd Street. “Whatever it is you’re doing keep it up! You look exactly the same!” was his shout out to me when we ran into each other on Ninth Avenue a few years later. So, did he. More time went by and when I next saw him he was considerably frail and there were just brief hellos.

Apart from that funeral home mention, Duane Bodin’s death has understandably gone unnoticed by the theatrical community. The Internet Broadway Database as of yet does not note his demise. [That was updated soon after I posted this on the message board All That Chat] His fine career and effusive personality are more than worthy enough to be commemorated.

Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn’s Cultural Medallion Dedication

The Fourposter transformed our lives and we were here!” reminisced the actress Tandy Cronyn at New York City’s Historic Landmarks Preservation Center’s Cultural Medallion dedication ceremony honoring her parents, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn on April 25, 2018.

Tandy plaque

The organization “affixes porcelainized enamel plaques to the exterior of buildings to commemorate an individual or an occurrence that made a significant contribution to New York City’s rich cultural heritage.”

Often referred to as “America’s First Acting Couple,” Ms. Tandy and Mr. Cronyn are certainly worthy of this distinction.  They both died some time ago and this occasion was a wonderful remembrance of them.

“This is truly an honor for all New Yorkers,” declared Julie Menin of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment about the custom of placing these plaques in view of the public. “They were tremendous New Yorkers and theirs’s was such a New York story. They came from far away and settled here,” said Ms. Menin in her remarks that focused on their screen careers. A choice revelation was that in his later years Cronyn appeared in several NYU student films and wouldn’t accept any fee.

Tandy Cronyn
Tandy Cronyn

Ms. Cronyn explained that after an unfulfilling time in Hollywood making movies in the 1940’s, they moved back East with her brother Christopher to restart their theater career. After briefly living in Greenwich, Connecticut, they settled into this Manhattan townhouse on East 35th Street in 1951 for about five years.

Mr. Cronyn had obtained the rights to Jan de Hartog’s 1951 two-character play The Fourposter and with José Ferrer as the director it was a smash hit running 632 performances on Broadway. It starred Tandy and Cronyn who then toured around the United States in it. This was the real start of their celebrated acting collaboration.

The event was held in the living room of this private residence. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, the founder and chair of the HLPC welcomed everyone and gave an address that chronicled their lives and careers. Author and Professor Emerita of the University of North Carolina Milly Barranger gave additional biographical details.

“Our mission statement is too insure that the performing arts live!” expressed Jacqueline Z. Davis, the executive director of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Ms. Davis described the materials pertaining to Tandy and Cronyn that are part of the library’s vast holdings. These include video recordings of plays they appeared in, extensive audio and video interviews and letters to such theatrical titans as Elia Kazan.

The former drama critic of the New York Times, Frank Rich was unable to attend and a letter he wrote on April 20, 2018 was read aloud. It was filled with warm praise and documented their historical importance in aiding the emergence of regional theater in the United States. In 1963 they accepted British director Tyrone Guthrie’s invitation to appear in a roster of classic plays that included The Miser, Hamlet and Death of a Salesman at the inaugural season of what would become the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Tandy Cronyn was the last speaker and then the gathering moved outside to the front of the house where she read the plaque’s inscription as it was unveiled.

Tandy outside

For more information about the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center visit

For more information about Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn visit

A Portrait of Maureen Stapleton

This striking portrait of Maureen Stapleton was painted by Raphael Soyer in 1968, a pivotal year in her life and career. It’s on view at The Forum Gallery in New York City until February 24, 2018. It’s part of their exhibition “Artists by Artists,” a collection of works whose subjects are creative people.

As a long-time admirer of Maureen Stapleton I was keen to visit the gallery after learning of this painting’s existence and inclusion. Seeing it in person was a fascinating experience as the vivid colors and minute brush strokes present her in a novel manner. Not acting, being “on” or posing, but in still solitude. What was happening then?

I chatted with a gallery agent who told me that Stapleton’s son had come to see the exhibition and remarked that he remembered her sitting for it at their New York City apartment.

When I got home I went to my library for her 1995 memoir, A Hell of a Life, co-authored with Jane Scovell. I read it when it was published but couldn’t recall specifics and wanted to see if there were any details about the painting. Looking up Soyer in the index led to a section describing her struggling actress years in New York City, she arrived there with $100 in 1943. The following quotations are from the book.

The last job worth telling you about you’re not going to believe. I was a model. Now, I’m not talking about the high fashion kind, of course, I’m talking about being a life model for art classes. What’s more, I’m talking about posing for big-time artists.

Stapleton young
Maureen Stapleton by Raphael Soyer (circa 1944).

She goes on to chronicle how at the prodding of a friend she ended up posing at The Art Students League of New York for $1 an hour.

At first, I was skeptical. I was so damn self-conscious about my body, so uncomfortable in my ample skin, how the hell could I parade that too, too, solid flesh in public? I decided that modeling nude might be the solution. After all, it makes you strip away all of your defenses as well as your clothes. That first week was hell and nearly killed me, but I finally got comfortable in my skin.

Reginald Marsh taught there. He saw her modeling in classes and she then began posing for him. “He passed me on to his friend Raphael Soyer…Eventually I dropped everyone except for Reginald and Raphael.”

Posing in the mornings made it possible for me to take acting classes at night and later, to make the rounds looking for acting jobs in the afternoons. I couldn’t go wild on the three or four dollars a day modeling paid, but it was good clean money and was also my brush with the art world.

Soyer Self Portrait
Self portrait of Raphael Soyer (circa 1950).

Raphael Soyer (1899-1987) was born in Russia and emigrated with his Jewish family to the United States in 1912, settling in the Bronx. He got his art training at Cooper Union, the National Academy of Design and at the Art Students League of New York. He began exhibiting in the 1930’s and in 1967 was given a retrospective by Whitney Museum of American Art. He was a Social Realist and his subjects were often friends who were artists and writers.

Stapleton’s life-long love of the movies began when she was a child during the 1930’s in her hometown of Troy, New York. Visible in the painting are posters of two screen legends.

I was nuts about Jean Harlow. She’d strut around those fabulous black and white Art Deco sets yapping away in her funny little-girl voice, and meanwhile her boobs were bobbling around, looking like they were going to jump right out of her skin-tight white satin gown and into your face. It was watching her that gave me the idea that I wanted to be an actress. It had nothing to do with inspiration or “art” or anything like that. I just figured if I became an actress, I’d have everything I wanted and automatically look like Jean Harlow.

Her big break came in 1950 in the original production of Tennessee Williams’ play The Rose Tattoo for which she won her first Tony Award, as Best Featured Actress. The tour of it brought her to Los Angles where she attended her first star-studded Hollywood gathering. Due to her heavy drinking it was a disastrous event with her taking a swing at Burt Lancaster.

Humphrey Bogart was definitely my hero and savior at the Fringses’ party. He took it upon himself to look after me. Sometimes, if you’re a pretty good drinker and somebody else is getting drunker than you, it’s your job to look after the less sober one, and that’s what Bogey did for me. Was it the damned leading the damned? I don’t know. I only know we came together and because he helped me, he made himself accessible. After that experience, I didn’t think of him as Humphrey Bogart the movie star, he was Bogey, my friend.

Following her success in The Rose Tattoo she had a steady career on the New York stage and on television. In 1959 she made her film debut in in Lonelyhearts, for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. There were a few more screen roles including as Dick Van Dyke’s mother in 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie. Then it was back to the stage for revivals of The Glass Menagerie and The Rose Tattoo.

Stapleton 1955
Maureen Stapleton in 1955 (Photo credit: Roy Schatt).

After rewrites, tumultuous rehearsals and cutting out one of the plays that later became the film The Out-of-TownersPlaza Suite opened on February 14, 1968 at the Plymouth Theatre (now the Gerald Schoenfeld), and was a smash hit running 1097 performances.Over the years that I’d been futzing around, an American playwright had been turning out wonderfully entertaining material for Broadway, and in 1968 my opportunity came to get on the Neil Simon bandwagon. Doc had written four one-act plays, all of which took place in the Plaza Hotel, and Saint-Subber was going to produce them under the umbrella title of Plaza Suite. Mike Nichols was the director, and he cast me and George C. Scott in the lead roles.

Plaza Suite rehearsal
George C. Scott, Maureen Stapleton and Mike Nichols during rehearsals of “Plaza Suite.”

It is interesting that at this time, after having painted her as an unknown struggling actress, Soyer did this portrait of her over 20 years later. Obviously, they had remained close. In the midst of this headiness on May 19, 1968, she won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her performance in the television adaptation of Truman Capote’s story Among the Paths to Eden.

After having been married and divorced twice and having had two children, she met the legendary Broadway director George Abbot who was nearly 40 years her senior. They became intimate and had a 10 year relationship. Most crucially Plaza Suite propelled her career to a higher level.

In 1970 she was nominated again for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Airport. She won the Tony Award for Best Actress for 1971’s The Gingerbread Lady as an alcoholic singer, this was written for her by Neil Simon. There was a third Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for Woody Allen’s Interiors. She finally won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for playing Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty’s Reds in 1981. After more stage, screen and television roles she retired in 1995 and died in 2006 at the age of 80.

Stapleton Interiors
Maureen Stapleton in “Interiors.”

Witnessing Maureen Stapleton’s participation in the memorial tribute to Colleen Dewhurst in 1991 at The Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld) was very memorable. It demonstrated her renowned saltiness. She was wearing a house dress and got very emotional, referring to her good friend as, “The Madonna of the broken wings,” because of her being such a soft touch.Watching her as a child in a television broadcast of Airport and seeing the film of Plaza Suite made me aware of her. Seeing her stupendous performance on the opening day of Interior’s release led to my enduring fascination with her. As a Mother’s Day present I took my mother to see the 1981 Broadway revival of The Little Foxes which was her last stage appearance and for which she received her sixth and final Tony nomination. It was a major event as Elizabeth Taylor starred as Regina. “I said get good actors but not that good!” cracked Taylor when learning Stapleton had been cast as Birdie. New York State Governor Hugh Carey was in the audience at that performance with his new and flashy wife Evangeline Gouletas, and they caused quite a commotion.

She recounted how on the night of 1968’s Tony Awards, Dewhurst’s then husband and Stapleton’s Plaza Suite co-star George C. Scott rented a limousine to take them to the ceremony. There was trepidation as they were each competing for Best Actress in a Play. Stapleton for Plaza Suite and Dewhurst for a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions. However, Zoe Caldwell received the award for her performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

“That Australian cunt won!” bellowed Stapleton to gales of uproarious laughter as Caldwell was in attendance. Outside afterward I saw her smoking a cigarette and chatting with Helen Hayes.


Harold Pinter and Nicholas Hytner

He’s a fucking fine actor,” said Harold about the actor who had just ruined an otherwise excellent production. “It’s a fucking hard job, acting. I’ve done it. Fucking hard. Tell him if he can’t remember the line to make it up. He knows what he’s doing. Tell him to make it up.”

Nicholas Hytner’s vivid accounts of two striking interactions with Harold Pinter are the standout highlights from his memoir, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at London’s National Theatre. These revealing episodes will thrill devotees of the great and temperamental playwright.


During late rehearsals for a 2007 revival of Pinter’s The Hothouse, director Ian Rickson was concerned about one actor’s inability to remember the lines. Hytner had worked with this reliable actor before and was confident that he’d be fine once he got before an audience.

At the first preview, the poor actor fell to pieces. During the first half he must have taken forty prompts. It was one of the most difficult nights I’ve ever spent in the theater…During the second half he dried even more.

At a post-show dinner with Rickson and Pinter, “There was a long dreadful silence.” Then Pinter delivered that sympathetic observation. Encouraged by Pinter’s support, the actor improved the next night. “The night after he was word perfect. He never dried again, and was as excellent as the rest of the production.”

Harold Pinter was famously irascible and famously precise about each word, pause and punctuation mark in every one of his plays that together make up the most important body of work in post-war British theatre. But this is what happened at the first preview of The Hothouse, and it is my contribution to Pinter studies.

The other contribution took place previously. In 2002, as he was assuming his post, Hytner was keen to put on a Pinter work. Pinter proposed a revival of his 30-minute play, Celebration paired with an early one-act. This program had already been done two years earlier at another theater. Hytner didn’t care for this proposal. “…I prevaricated, and told him it was an interesting idea. Peter Hall could have said no to his face. I wasn’t yet up to it.”

Nicholas Hytner in rehearsal. (Photo credit: Johan Persson)

In 2005, before Pinter had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Hytner was having dinner at a restaurant with the designer Bob Crowley, who had designed Celebration. Pinter was also having dinner there with his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser. Eventually she left. Then, “…suddenly Harold was bearing down on me.”

“You’re a fucking liar,” he shouted. The entire restaurant went silent. “You’re a fucking liar and you’re a fucking shit.” I had no idea what to say, so I said nothing.

“You told me you would revive Celebration at the National Theatre,” said Harold, quieter now, but with Pinteresque menace. “You told me you’d put it in a double bill with The Room. You’re a liar and a shit.”

“I’m really sorry if I gave you that impression, Harold,” I said meekly. “That wasn’t my intention. I’m genuinely sorry.”

“Don’t fucking apologize to me,” roared Harold. “I’m not interested in your fucking apology. You’re a shit and a liar, and now I’ve fucking told you.” And he left the restaurant.

Bob waited for all of the other tables to stop looking at us. “Rite of passage,” he said. “You can’t call yourself a director of the National Theatre until Harold Pinter has called you a shit.”

The rest of Balancing Acts is an amiable and concise behind the scenes chronicle of the years 2003 to 2015, when Hytner was the artistic director of the National Theatre. This was the era of The History BoysWar HorseOne Man, Two Guvnors and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. There were also many productions that did were not as popular and these are analyzed as well. Selling tickets to 20 shows a year was a perpetual concern.

Hynter’s long and close working relationship and friendship with Alan Bennett is warmly detailed. Besides the back story of The Lady in the Van, there are other amusing Maggie Smith anecdotes.

Before Hynter and Smith (to play Lady Bracknell of course) began work on The Importance of Being Earnest, they visited John Gielgud for lunch to hear that legend’s reminiscences of his productions of it. Gielgud recited Jack Worthing’s speeches from memory, and was critical of how Edith Evans’ monumental performance as Lady Bracknell, “distorted it…all the audience cared about was Edith. The king and queen came to see it 1946. Still Edith.”

Before taking over the National, Miss SaigonCarousel and The Madness of George III were some of Hytner’s directorial successes that are covered in the book.

There are colorful sketches of Hytner’s colleagues such as John Wood, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, David Hare, Simon Russell Beale, Helen Mirren, James Corden and Tom Stoppard.

His predecessors Peter Hall and Richard Eyre were in charge of the National during the more eventful times of the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. Their written accounts, Hall’s Diaries and Eyre’s National Service both understandably contain more intrigue.

Still, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at London’s National Theatre is a worthy addition to the niche of memoirs by theatrical artistic directors.

Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at London’s National Theatre
by Nicholas Hytner

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Hardcover, $28.95 (312 pages)


Doric Wilson: An Eminent Outlaw

“Making magic out of nothing,” is how Doric Wilson described his 50-year devotion to the penury of alternative theater. Why am I writing about him nearly seven years after he died? I knew him slightly, admired his work and was incensed at his exclusion from a book, and confronted its author about this snub.

Published in February 2012, Eminent Outlaws is a historical survey billed as “The Gay Writers Who Changed America.” It was written by Christopher Bram, who wrote the novel on which the film Gods and Monsters is based.

Eminent Outlaws

It’s is a breezy chronicle that initially focuses on the lives and careers of Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg and Truman Capote. Then we’re introduced to Edward Albee, Edmund White, Larry Kramer Andrew Holleran, Tony Kushner and others in passing. In 310 pages, Mr. Bram offers a chatty and well-constructed historical panorama.

This is not an all-inclusive, definitive history. I do not include everyone of value or importance. Nor am I putting together a canon of must-read writers. I am writing a large-scale cultural narrative, and I include chiefly those authors who help me tell that story—and who offer the liveliest tales.

This preemptive, catch all defense of his subjectivity is from Bram’s introduction. It’s really a matter of, “I’m only including my favorites, so definitiveness be damned. “

When he gets to the 1960’s, he justifiably devotes much attention to Mart Crowley and the creation of his landmark play The Boys in the Band, and its monumental, 1968 Off-Broadway premiere. There is also this:

There had been a handful of gay-themed plays performed in New York, such as The Madness of Lady Bright by Lanford Wilson in 1964, The Bed by Robert Heide in 1965 and his Moon in 1967, all presented at Caffe Cino. But there had never been a gay play that received as much public attention as Boys.

Undeniably, The Boys in the Band was a major event but to offer such a cursory summation of what came before it is derelict. If Caffe Cino is cited, then why not add a few sentences to describe it? If two of its writers are mentioned, why not list the other two most associated with it?

Caffe Cino was a West Village coffeehouse where plays were performed and existed from 1958 to 1968. Owned by the eccentric Joe Cino, it’s considered to be the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway theater. Books have been written about it and playwright Robert Patrick who started his career there and and is still active at 80, presents slideshow lectures about it. Mr. Patrick’s play Kennedy’s Children was performed on Broadway, but he is also not mentioned in this book.

Doric Wilson
Doric Wilson circa 2011.

In 1961, Doric Wilson had four plays produced at Caffe Cino that garnered attention, and he later became a member of the Barr/Wilder/Albee Playwright’s Unit. Mr. Wilson was an ardent gay activist and was at The Stonewall Riots in 1969, and he is featured in the PBS American Experience documentary on the subject. He supported his career in the arts in those days by working as a bartender in gay bars.

In 1974, he founded the gay theater company, The Other Side of Silence (TOSOS) that is still in existence. His 1982 play Street Theater is arguably his most accomplished work. It takes place before, during and after The Stonewall Riots and has a large cast of colorful characters, two of which are wicked parodies of characters from The Boys in the Band. Performed with environmental staging by director Mark Finley in the gay bar The Eagle, it has been revived several times in New York City to acclaim. The featured image here is of the 2015 revival of it.

Before his death in May 2011, at the age of 72, Wilson received a number of lifetime achievement awards from theatrical and literary organizations. He was alive during the writing of Eminent Outlaws and could have offered some of “the liveliest tales.”

On January 2, 2018, The Pat Parker/Vito Russo Library Book Discussion group held its monthly meeting at the LGBT Center to talk about Eminent Outlaws. It was well attended and the reaction was generally positive with the average of participants’ ratings totaling four out of five stars. I stated my overall positive opinion with reservations about the exclusions. The exciting attraction of the gathering was the appearance of Christopher Bram during the second hour. Having an author present is a rare occurrence and this was instigated by the group’s leader Howard Williams.

Mr. Bram was quite personable and was interviewed by Mr. Williams and then took questions from members. There were anecdotes pertaining to the background about the book. How it came about, the design of the cover, that it didn’t sell well and these tidbits were all informative. Williams expressed my qualms and I was then prodded to speak.

I mentioned Robert Patrick and Doric Wilson, and that I had been acquainted with Wilson and that his omission was disappointing. There was a sympathetic pause and generalizations about narrative concerns from Bram, but no actual of acknowledgment by him of Wilson. As Bram graciously agreed to show up I did not badger him and so the controversy dissipated and it was on to mother topics. Charles Busch and John “Lypsinka” Epperson do appear in the book.

Was Bram unaware of Wilson? Does he hold a low critical opinion of him? Or is it that the gay literary establishment declares him to be a non-person and won’t even confer the status of “minor figure” on him?

In 2002, the Modern Library published a new, hardcover edition of Edmund White’s novel, A Boy’s Own Story to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The LGBT Center hosted a packed book signing and talk for this occasion. I was there and when it was over as the crowd mingled, I saw Doric Wilson.

Tall, stocky, dressed all in black, with a full head of styled gray hair he was visually striking. I recognized him from his being at a recent performance of the revival of Street Theater that I had been at. Its rave reviews, positive press coverage and box office popularity had placed him in the spotlight after two decades of relative inactivity.

I went over and told him that I had seen and enjoyed his play and congratulated him on it. There were pleasantries and he gave me his card and I gave him my card. When I got home that night there was a nice email from him. We had an amiable correspondence and he invited me to Don’t Tell Mama to see the cabaret act of a friend of his. I went and there were friends of Wilson’s as well at the table.

He had a wonderful smile and laughed a lot and was often bitchy. Bitchy about Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson and Edmund White. He had a palpable envy of those with bigger careers then his. He was in negotiations for transferring Street Theater to an Off-Broadway theater for a commercial run. There was momentum for this but a hitch was having to raise a good deal of money in order to pay the actors the Equity minimum salary until it took off. The transfer never happened and if it had, it would have had a major impact on his career.

During one of our chats he asked me how old I was. He obviously thought I was a good deal younger as there was an instant loss of interest in me when I replied. I was not crestfallen but amused at the shallowness. One either has to be young or useful and as I was neither the involvement faded.

Nine years later I was saddened to learn of his sudden death of a heart attack. Being on the TOSOS email list, I was notified of the estate sale of his effects and I went.

It took place at his unrenovated railroad apartment in a West 20’s tenement. One entered in the kitchen where the shower was on view and a bottle of Scotch was on the table. People were looking through his possessions in the rectangular warren of three small rooms crammed with knickknacks. His virtually all-black wardrobe hung from rods. There was a huge collection of opera recordings as he was a devotee and wrote reviews. From a trove of bootleg DVDs burned from Netflix rentals, I selected The Forsyte Saga (the original) and The Departed. The person in charge explained that as these were illegal copies they were free.

In 2015, I was assigned by to review the latest revival of Street Theater. I gave it a sincerely glowing notice and also included biographical details about Doric Wilson. I wanted to do my small part in preserving his memory.


Published on January 6, 2018.


Frank Langella is 80: A Stream of Consciousness Tribute

It is not widely known that among Frank Langella’s many accolades, including four Tony Awards, there was also a hat named after him.

In the winter of 2003, after Sunday brunch in the West Village, I was on Christopher Street near Bleecker. Up ahead was the 6′ 4″, Frank Langella with some people. They went into a men’s clothing store. I followed them in soon after.

There was no Lucy Ricardo-style encounter. I was too awestruck to approach him and just nonchalantly browsed around and observed them as they walked and talked, and eventually left. In the interim, I saw a cool, black hat. The texture and sheen of the wool resembled Persian Lamb, it had a striking, rounded shape and folded up with without wrinkling so it could be put into a pocket. I bought it and over the years before it got lost, it got many compliments. “Thanks! It’s my Frank Langella hat.”

On January 1, 2018, he will be 80 years old. As a long-time admirer, this milestone inspires me to reflect that he has been part of my consciousness for decades.

Recently while watching a Mannix rerun on Antenna TV, I was surprised to see him in it. Episodic television was a facet of his career I was unaware of and I did research. Earlier that year, he had been on an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D.


Langella Young
In the 1970’s.

In “Silent Target” which aired on October 28, 1973, he played a ruthless, mob assassin who clashes with Mannix whose car has broken down while on the way to a fishing trip. Langella was in his sultry, physical prime and at one point delivers a trite monologue while smoking a cigarette and looking at a wall mirror.

One couldn’t predict from viewing this footage, that this twitchy, young man would win his first Tony Award two years later for playing a lizard in Edward Albee’s short-running Seascape. There was certainly no indication that in 2013, at the age of 75, he would audaciously and superbly play King Lear at England’s Chichester Festival Theatre.

Langella Lear

Photo: Frank Langella as KING LEAR By William Shakespeare
Chichester Festival Theatre
Directed by Angus Jackson;
Part of 2014 Winter/Spring Season; Dress rehearsal; Tuesday, January 7, 2014; 1:30 PM at the BAM Harvey Theater; Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC;
Photograph: © 2014 Richard Termine
PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

I saw the transfer of it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He was the best stage Lear I have seen and Angus Jackson’s direction was the clearest and most engaging realization of this cumbersome play. With his towering height, Langella was visually striking and his rich voice had a slight nod to regality without employing an actual accent. His weathered, American presence contrasting with the company of much younger, relatively unknown British actors added even more dimension.

Born in Bayonne, he shed his New Jersey accent by listening to and emulating recordings of John Gielgud performing Shakespeare and Rex Harrison on My Fair Lady’s original cast album. At 18, he was appearing in summer stock with the likes of Billie Burke. He went on to Syracuse University, and then forged a career Off-Broadway and at regional theaters. Not being able to abide Lee Strasberg’s grandiosity, he scorned The Actor’s Studio or any such fashionable institutions and learned by performing professionally.

He instinctively took the grandeur of the British and combined it with the earthy realism of American acting. This trait enabled him to tackle monumental stage roles such as the young William Shakespeare, Cyrano, Sir Thomas More, Garry Essendine, Salieri, Sherlock Holmes, Henry Higgins, Ebenezer Scrooge and Richard Nixon.

How did he reinvent himself from a journeyman actor to being one of the most distinguished titans of the theater? Like Laurence Olivier this happened because he wanted it and through force of will accomplished this. In middle age with his youthful, good looks having faded, he abandoned the pursuit of commonplace stardom. He transformed himself into an actor of increasing stature by only taking on challenging parts of quality, regardless of career ramifications.

Seeing his legendary and sensual performance as the title role in the celebrated 1977 revival of Dracula, made me a life-long fan. His subsequent appearances in plays made them must-sees, and I saw many.

A very electric moment was because of a gaffe of his. 2004’s Match was an unremarkable flop that ran for 53 performances at The Plymouth Theatre (now the Gerald Schoenfeld). Langella played a famous, old, bisexual choreographer being pestered by Ray Liotta, who might be his son.

My TKTS half-price ticket was way to the side but in the third row. The flaws of the play were compensated by being so close to the actors. At one point he was sitting on a couch conversing with Jane Adams, who played Liotta’s girlfriend. They were rolling along until Langella said a word that sounded like the correct one but wasn’t. There was a pause as he and Adams stared at each other as something was obviously off. Then she coolly improvised a line with the correct word in it and they went on. This was a grand demonstration of stage acting. That mistakes are made even by the greats, and the show goes forward.

The Off-Broadway revival of After the Fall with Dianne Wiest, when he replaced William Hurt in HurlyburlyPresent LaughterFortune’s FoolFrost/NixonA Man for All SeasonsMan and Boy and The Father are his other stage appearances that I joyously experienced.

“I want my Mommy,” is The Father’s last line that Langella unforgettably uttered. He played a haughty elderly man who has descended into dementia. He is now wearing a hospital gown and speaking to a nurse in the institution that his daughter has placed him in. For this possibly last hurrah he was awarded the 2016 Tony for Best Actor, and his eloquent acceptance speech centered on the shootings in Orlando, Florida that had taken that place morning.

Langella Father

In “The Father.” Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Starting Out in the Evening is his crowning screen achievement. As Leonard Schiller, a minor novelist and retired college professor in his 70’s, Langella is majestic in this leading role. This hastily shot and low budget 2007 film vividly captures the New York City literary milieu. He literally bares his body and soul. After having soiled himself, his daughter’s boyfriend takes him home and bathes him. He is nude with his aged body on display. He was awarded several film critics prizes and was nominated for The Independent Spirit award for this performance. Frost/Nixon the following year brought him his first Academy Award nomination, as Best Actor for recreating his Tony Award-winning role of Richard Nixon.

Langella Starting Out

In “Starting Out in the Evening.”

Having made a splash in 1970’s Diary of a Mad Housewife as a randy novelist, his film career afterward was spotty. He repeated his stage success as Dracula in the uneasy 1979 screen adaptation. Playing a domineering presidential chief-of-staff in 1993’s Daveestablished him as a stellar character actor and that was solidified by his portrayal of the wily William Paley in 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck.

“I’ve always wanted to play a woman,” was his response when asked during the run of The Father about what was next for him. He planned to play the outrageous Madame Rosepettle in a revival of Arthur Kopit’s black comedy Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, with Michael Urie as his son. Lamentably, this has not come to pass.

In November 2016, Frank Langella delivered an address at the Episcopal Actors’ Guild’s annual Memorial Service for deceased show business figures which I attended. Without revealing specific details he disclosed that he had been taken seriously ill that past June, and was rendered unable to appear in the last performance of The Father.

The following is from the afterward of his wonderful 2012 memoir Dropped Names, where autobiographical details are woven into his incisive portraits of deceased, show business figures that he encountered:

If fame is indeed fleeting, then so are titles, awards, wealth, position, youth, beauty, and sexual pleasure. So are contentment and happiness. So are pain and suffering. The finish line, after all, is inevitable.

May his finish line extend many more and eventful miles.

Link to coverage of the 2016 Episcopal Actors’ Guild’s annual Memorial Service for the deceased:

Published on on December 30, 2017.

William Hickey: Reminiscences

“I have to go to LA, to lose the Oscar to Don Ameche,” was William Hickey’s explanation about his upcoming absence from his scene study class at HB Studio in New York City. It was March 1986, and he did lose the Oscar to Don Ameche, but that miraculous nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Prizzi’s Honor, really was his award.

Today he would have been 90 years old. My memories of studying acting with him remain vivid.

Though only in his late 50’s in that era, he looked a good deal older. That contrasted with his childlike aura and impish manner. He was short, very thin, wore glasses and his gray/white hair was often wild. There was a slightly disheveled quality to his appearance.

His unforgettable voice was a wavering assortment of various pitches, ascending from a whiny growl to raspy bursts that could be soothing. This vocal delivery made his irreverent, sincere and personal statements quite memorable.

“What were you trying to accomplish?” was usually his opening remark to students after watching their scene. During the scenes he would sit scrunched up in his chair, shifting around at his desk, his legs crossed and uncrossed or extended. Gutturally chuckling and alternating with other appreciative sounds, he was always engaged. These actions were done in unison with sipping from a liter seltzer bottle. There was speculation that the bottle had liquor in it as he was known, and confessed to being a big drinker. A heavy smoker as well, he’d light up numerous cigarettes during class.


Hickey glasses

No “Method” was espoused. Instead of the predicable acting school jargon of “objectives” “intentions” and “tasks”, his analysis was usually lengthy, digressive and wholly idiosyncratic.

There could be a recounting of his experiences from his long career that began as a child actor in radio with his older sister, or from his many stage and film appearances. Anecdotes about those he worked with such as Elaine May, Julie Bovasso, Tennessee Williams and of course Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof, the founders of the school, were plentiful.

He would often talk so long that the last scene on the sign up list would have to be carried over to next week’s class. This wasn’t held against him as he was enthralling offering first hand, practical experience of performing in professional works.

Those reflections could be mingled with observations of recent events or biographical details.

I was so happy the day we dropped the atom bomb on Japan.

Oh, Billy think of all those poor people, my mother said.

 I know Ma, but it means I’m not gonna get killed in the war! I’m getting drafted but the war is over!

He was single and had lived in Brooklyn for much of his life with his now deceased mother. There was also his dog (Buddy?) that he frequently spoke of. He would later turn down movie work in Europe because he couldn’t bring his dog with him.

It was worth getting accustomed to his methodology because those stream of consciousness ramblings were well-constructed parables that directly related to the scene that had just been performed. Sometimes there would be strong criticism embedded.

Unlike a number of other teachers, he did not go in for breaking actors down. There were never harsh or stinging remarks. His class was a nurturing environment for a variety of people.

A sizeable contingent were in their 60’s and had past careers in the theater. They had studied with him for many years and didn’t perform outside of the class anymore. It was obviously therapeutic for them to continue to do so.

Young male and female models whose agents sent them there to get acting training were also present. Middle-aged people who had thought of being actors and now were trying were also there in sizeable numbers. Youthful, ordinary beginners was a major subset as well.

William Hickey took them all in without an audition and treated everyone with warmth, encouragement and respect. He was also known to help students get acting jobs and with financial assistance when he became successful.

“I see a talented young boy…” Hickey said to me after I had done a monologue from Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. It was a comically baroque speech supremely done by John Gielgud in the original production that I had seen the television version of. Hickey was being kind as I was totally wrong for the character but I enjoyed that speech and enacted with glee.

I was new to the large class and was shy about getting a scene partner so I needed make my debut in something. That led to a serious of scenes I performed with many classmates during the two years I was in his class.

Most profoundly, I was paired with Kevin, a jovial recovering alcoholic in his early 40’s, for Waiting for Godot. I was Vladimir and he was Estragon. We rehearsed at my apartment and had a marvelous rapport. The scene went so well that Hickey told us to work on the next portion. Over a few months of classes we did the entire sequence before the arrival of Lucky and Pozzo.

I didn’t really understand the play at the time, but Beckett’s writing is so precise that by just saying the lines with the appropriate feelings was enough to carry it. Whenever I see it performed I can still mentally recite the dialogue before the actors do.

“That’s okay if you’re just playing an attitude…” was his assessment of my Lee from Sam Shepard’s True West. I saw John Malkovich in the celebrated Cherry Lane Theatre revival do the part, sparring with Gary Sinise. My take was one of intense belligerence. I wore a raggedy army jacket, swilled water from a pint whiskey bottle and threw my screenwriter brother’s typewriter across the room. It felt exhilarating but I knew he was right, that it wasn’t a fully complete characterization.

Being young, learning lines was quite easy and there was no overthinking, just raw impulse. Hickey’s enthusiasm and the support of fellow students made me feel as if I were on the right path.

A teacher at NYU recommended that I study with Michael Howard. He was quite distinguished in the field and had his own school. He was pleasant during our interview but explained he only dealt with professionals and not beginners. He advised going to HB Studio and studying with William Hickey.

By 1984, Hickey had achieved a career of small parts in mostly Off-Broadway plays and bit roles in movies such as The Producers. It was said that Hagen and Berghof kept him at the school out of long-time loyalty and that he needed the teaching fees to live on. He was not held in as high esteem in comparison to some of the other teachers.

“The worst actor in America, “ was said to be the renowned critic John Simon’s assessment of his gifts.

HB Studio prided itself as having a faculty that were working actors. Teachers could be absent due to a job. Hickey began missing classes. The substitutes ranged from the soft-spoken and perceptive Carol Goodheart and the engaging Frank Geraci, both of whom I later studied with. There were also two ogres.

“STOP! Would you wash dishes without water?!” yelled the owlish, aged mandarin, at a young man who was acting in a scene that took place in a simulated kitchen. “Go out into the hallway, take the sink and fill it with water!” Of course realism is desired, but that outburst was nasty. This substitute was mean and pompous, yet had a following at the school. He told a long story about seeing Gary Cooper on Fifth Avenue in the 50’s in the 1950’s. It was filled with off-putting testaments to Copper’s handsomeness.

Another revered substitute was said to have had a nervous breakdown and was definitely off. In his 40’s, he was chiefly interested in cultivating the attentions of young girls in the class. His critique of a young man’s performance in a scene from Jean Genet’s The Balcony was scathing and bordered on homophobic. Viciousness was his forte.

The reason Hickey was missing a lot of classes was that he had been busy filming John Huston’s film Prizzi’s Honor in Brooklyn. He told us how great Jack Nicholson was, and that he was interested in coming to observe Hickey’s class, but alas that didn’t happen.

Hickey played Don Corrado Prizzi, the wily head of the crime family. It was a showy role and several more established character actors had been suggested for it. These included Herbert Berghof who bellowed, ”Bill Hickey stole my Oscar nomination!”

He had a small part in Huston’s film Wise Blood (1979) as a preacher. With his intuitive sense of casting, Huston wanted Hickey for The Don. It was another of the many examples of Huston’s genius for picking the right person for a role. He did that with the 61 year-old Sydney Greenstreet for The Maltese Falcon, who had never been in a movie before and stage actress Grayson Hall for The Night of The Iguana. Both of them received supporting Oscar nominations. There was also the non-actor, Filipino hairdresser Zorro David who made a splash in a supporting part in Reflections in a Golden Eye.

“Another cookie my dear?” he distinctively croaked as The Don. I saw the movie at an advance screening. As a long-time John Huston admirer it was confounding as this mob drama was played as a comedy. I soon comprehended that that was the point.

Huston had him as the chieftain looking like a depraved, wizened gnome with cadaverous makeup, searing eyes and palpable malevolence, suggesting that he was in his 80’s. It was fascinating to see the little old man I knew from class on the big screen. He didn’t seem that different, especially his voice.

The movie was a critical and commercial success, and seemingly overnight Hickey was raised from obscurity and relative poverty to show business glory. His fee went from union scale to $15,000 a week, and he was never out of work from then on.

William Hickey*

Besides Don Ameche who was nominated for Cocoon, Hickey’s strong competition for the Oscar was Klaus Maria Brandauer for Out of Africa, his Prizzi’s Honor co-star Robert Loggia for Jagged Edge, and Eric Roberts for Runaway Train.

That summer of 1986, he was on Broadway in the revival of Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Jean Stapleton, Polly Holliday and Tony Roberts. Hickey played the Peter Lorre role from the film, the sidekick to Abe Vigoda. Watching him, it again was a case that he didn’t seem that dissimilar when he was acting from the way he normally was.

It was his last Broadway appearance but there was a steady stream of film and television roles that included National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Sea of Love as Al Pacino’s father, Puppet Master, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Jerky Boys. For an episode of HBO’s Tales From The Crypt he was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.

With his soaring success, he was gone so often that I didn’t sign up for his class again due to the varying sensibilities of the potential substitutes, and wanting to try studying with another teacher.

He died on June 29, 1997, of emphysema six weeks before he would have turned 70. His final movie, MouseHunt was released after his death and was dedicated to him.

This photograph is from the 1988 screen adaptation of author Hugh Leonard’s Tony Award-winning play, Da. Filmed in Ireland, it has one of his rare, “normal” roles as a bitter, Irish civil servant who mentors the young hero.

Hickey coat

The last time I saw him in person was in the late 1980’s, in a West 42nd Street porno store. He was wearing an exquisite trench coat over a blue blazer and gray trousers. From a shopping bag he took out several, rental gay porno VHS tapes and placed them on the counter as returns for the cashier. I was nearby but did not say hello and watched him leave after the transaction.





























Steven Berkoff is 80: An Appreciation


There were so many brave young actors and actresses whom one felt were brilliantly talented, but their genius crashed against the morbid rocks of indifference and stupidity represented by casting directors, directors and even writers, who seemed to view theatre as an aspect of themselves and a mirror for their own limited world, whereas the actors’ world was a different mentality.From Free Association: An Autobiography by Steven Berkoff (1996)

For nearly 50 years, Steven Berkoff has been an iconoclastic titan of the theatre in his native England, and around the world. A visionary purist that has rarely been affiliated with a major theatre company, he still heroically has achieved a tremendous career as an actor, writer and director.

On August 3, 2017, he will be 80 years old. I, and his many other admirers wish him a very Happy Birthday.

Berkoff Hamlet
As Hamlet in his 1980 production with Linda Marlowe as Gertrude. (Photo: Roger Morton)

I prided myself on being able to speak and move, and on the fact that I had taken the actor’s body as seriously as his voice, mind and totality of his equipment.

Possessed of a resonant, booming and expressive voice that often soars with bravado, and a lithe and commanding physicality, he has been a vibrant exponent of these beliefs. Then there are his fierce eyes, animated face and innate charisma that all add up to a thunderous presence. These traits have made his performances in his own unique theatrical creations, landmarks in the history of the performing arts.

In early 2002, Mr. Berkoff appeared in New York City in his solo show, One Man at The Culture Project (now the Lynn Redgrave Theatre) on Bleecker Street. I was so overwhelmed by his performance in this, that I was compelled to see it again a few weeks later. It is the work of theatre that has had the most influence on me.

To call it a monologue does not do it justice. This was a virtuoso display of mime and physical and vocal pyrotechnics, all resulting in a spectacle of grand stage acting. It was composed of three parts that he wrote, two of which were original pieces.

The Tell-Tale Heart was his eerie adaptation of the Edgar Allen Poe story. Dressed in black, with tails and a white ruffled shirt he portrayed the narrator, who has been driven to murder by obsessing over an old man’s malformed eye.

Berkoff BW

The breathtaking highlight was Berkoff meticulously miming sprinting down a long, narrow spiral staircase to let the police in. He acted out the parts of the inspectors, the old man and various sound effects with his expressive face, fluctuating voice and epic gestures. These effects were all accomplished with swiftness on the bare stage.

Actor ingeniously and poignantly dramatized the existence of a typical actor. Mesmerizingly running in place while center stage, he recounted auditions for roles not gotten, contentious meetings with casting agents, and colleagues getting breaks. Years pass, as he is running but not really getting anywhere. We learn that his amiable parents have died, that his girlfriend has left him, and he is ultimately alone. It was a heartbreaking, hilarious and painfully accurate depiction of the actor’s life.

In Dog, he portrayed a crass, racist, xenophobic loud-mouthed football devotee and his vicious dog. With his neck elongated, his teeth and tongue extended, he assumed the physiognomy of a barking canine. The dialogue alternated between the man’s bellicose observations and the equally unpleasant thoughts of the dog. It was a riotous and provocative tour de force.

Berkoff program

The lobby walls of the theater were adorned with printed blowups of his poem, Requiem for Ground Zero that expressed support for New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. Following the second time I attended, I waited in the lobby with my copy of Free Association, along with other fans.

Previously I bought one of the pre-autographed black and white pictures of him that was on sale. I selected the one of him from The Tell-Tale Heart, where he is stooped, with his feet bent as if to scurry down the imaginary spiral staircase. I later had it professionally framed and am looking at it now on my living room wall.

Eventually, The Great Man wearing a voluminous, battered leather coat, and a cap emerged, and slowly made his way through the lobby. People congratulated him. Smiling slightly, not making much eye contact, and with the clipped and melodious tones of his idol Laurence Olivier, he proclaimed variations of, “Thank you. Thank you very much. You’re too kind.” It was if he ware impishly acting out the part of a great actor besieged by his fans.

“Would you please sign this?” I extended my copy of his book and he scrawled his name in it. After thanking him, I went out into the cold exhilarated by his performance, the encounter and obtaining another memento.

Besides these souvenirs, more profoundly what I took away from these experiences was the burning desire to be able to do what he did.

Fixated by wanting to be an actor since childhood, I had taken a circuitous path. Not having been a theater or acting major in college, I started from scratch in my early 20’s. I took scene study classes and then began auditioning, and got roles in small productions here and there.

“You’re a little stiff, but that’s okay,” said a director who cast me in an Ionesco play just before it went into rehearsal. I had been getting by, and performed well, but felt physically and vocally limited.

After seeing One Man, I enrolled in several movement and voice classes and made progress. A few years later at an audition held at The Culture Project, I was overcome inside with emotion to be standing on the same stage where I saw Steven Berkoff perform.

Never having made it into Actor’s Equity, my audition opportunities were limited, but I managed to perform in numerous of showcases in a variety of parts, all enriched by the epiphany of seeing One Man.

The most lasting impact of that experience has been on my profession as a New York City sightseeing guide. This involves routinely taking large groups of tourists on the subway, walking around and delivering commentary without a microphone.

I am perpetually conscious of projecting and varying my voice, circling and pacing around so as to make sure everyone hears the material that I know backwards and forwards, and which is seamlessly delivered. All while gesturing gracefully and emphatically, while my eyes and features convey feeling.

Mentally I become the narrator of The Tale-Tale Heart, the actor and the skinhead and his dog. I am hurtling down that spiral staircase in my mind.

Steven Berkoff presenting the world premiere of his new play ‘Messiah – Scenes From a Crucifiction’ at the Assembly Rooms 8/8/2000 In 2000, (Photo: Murdo MaCleod)

I first became aware of, and was fascinated by Mr. Berkoff in the 1980’s, from his magnetically villainous screen performances. Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo: First Blood Part II in quick succession established his name recognition. Then there were his notable appearances in Revolution, Absolute Beginners, and Under the Cherry Moon, and as Adolph Hitler in the television mini-series, War and Remembrance.

In November 1988, he directed Christopher Walken in Coriolanus at The Public Theater. A few months later, in March 1989, he directed his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov on Broadway.

In that era, I read everything I could find about him, including his plays. Harry’s Christmas particularly struck me. It’s a 17-page, bleak monologue delivered by a lonely, disaffected man in his room. He measures his life by the amount of Christmas cards he receives and relives his past through his collection of them that he displays. At the end he dies by suicide.

You score six miserable Christmas cards…Christmas to make you feel like you don’t exist…if I don’t get more than six I’ll definitely put up two from last year…maybe three… Why save them? …They remind me…It’s a piece of memory…Those two…not seen them for years…but every year they send a card and I send one back…so they know I’m still alive…

In the 1990’s, I was attending Anne Jackson’s scene study class at HB Studio. Due to my Bronx cadences and idiosyncratic speech pattern, I was most often selected to be in comedies. Like virtually all actors I wanted to prove my versatility, and decided I would perform an extract of Harry’s Christmas. I saw it as a great dramatic vehicle for myself.

I practiced and practiced and had the words down perfectly. I did not feel capable of using an English accent but it’s a universal story. I Americanized a few things such as television for telly.

After setting up some basic furniture and holding the Christmas cards I had brought with me, I began. I could feel the rapt attention of the students in the classroom as I expressed despair and emotionally erupted. Soon there was LAUGHTER!

Though disconcerted, I didn’t miss a beat, and went on with my histrionics to the continued sounds of merriment. My goal had been foiled. The piece does have funny sequences but I was immaturely consumed with being serious. Anne Jackson was quite complimentary. So far, that is the only Berkoff role I have attempted.

I finally got to see him onstage for the first time when appeared in New York City in January 2001. He brought his acclaimed solo show, Shakespeare’s Villains to Joe’s Pub. It was a galvanizing event where he performed portions of the roles of Richard III, Iago, the Macbeths and others. Interspersed was his insightful and irreverent commentary.

The summer of 2002, several months after seeing One Man I was in London, and was browsing in a used book shop near St. Martin’s Lane, before a matinée. On a shelf in the theatre section I saw the black spine of a jacketless hardcover volume that in gold lettering said, The Theatre of Steven Berkoff. Published in 1992, it’s a lavish assortment of stunning black and white photographs documenting all of his productions up until that time, accompanied by his informative text. I went to the counter to pay the £7.50 for it.

“Oh, he comes in here often,” said the bespectacled, middle-aged male clerk. “He’s quite a character.”

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Elaine Stritch at The 92nd Street Y

Elaine Stritch and Chiemi Karasawa with Michael Musto: Conversation and Clips (February 17th, 2014)  (Photo credit: Joyce Culver)

“I’m happy to be here. That’s what I want you all to know,” Elaine Stritch wistfully told the crowd at the 92nd Street Y. She was resplendent in a Margo Channing/Tallulah Bankhead “What becomes a legend most?” mink coat, with her trademark coif, makeup, earrings and jewelry. She made her entrance by being pushed out from the wings in a wheelchair to a standing ovation.

“I’ve only got two legs. I’ve been living on them for 68 years in New York. I keep falling down. I fell on Madison Avenue and I evened it out by falling in Michigan. I’ve got some problems. We’ll make believe I’m fine. I’m good at that.” The occasion was an event to promote the new biographical documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.

“Merman was terrific!” She replied when asked about Broadway legend Ethel Merman whom she understudied in the hit musical Call Me Madam in 1950, when she was 25 years old, and later played that lead role in the national touring company. Fans of her Tony Award winning one-woman biographical show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty will recall her raucous story about Merman coping with a drunken audience heckler during a performance of Call Me Madam. “Ethel Merman plowed on…”

Plowing on as well was the evening’s host, the loquacious longtime former Village Voice nightlife columnist Michael Musto. At age 89 and with serious health issues, Ms. Stritch’s hearing and focus were at times problematic.  This inspired Mr. Musto to deftly keep things moving during her idiosyncratically entertaining stream of consciousness responses.

“It’s a universal story about aging,” said panelist and the film’s debut director Chiemi Karasawa. Dryly witty and articulate, she and Ms. Stritch had obviously developed an affectionate relationship, bantering throughout the event.

Ms. Karasawa had noticed Stritch at a hair salon. “You should make a movie about her!” said their mutual stylist who arranged overlapping appointments for them to meet, and a great bond was forged. “I was scared shitless!” she said after conferring with Stritch before filming began. Editing took a long time because there was so much that was interesting that had to be left out of the theatrical version, some of which is intended for the DVD release. “Absolutely great! But I didn’t want to be in it,” was Stritch’s reaction on seeing the finished footage for the first time.

Throughout, clips from the film were shown. These included her commenting on posters and photographs from her career, “A Delicate Balance, one of the best things I ever did.” “At Liberty, my favorite poster from a of show of mine.” She was shown at an eye doctor’s visit comically undergoing an exam. Performing her nightclub act at The Cafe Carlyle, with her singing “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies, and forgetting lyrics. “Fuck it!” There were affectionate interviews with Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, George C. Wolfe and Tina Fey.

From the front row, it was fascinating watching. Stritch watch herself in the clips. Her facial expressions ranged from stern, to grinning to intense.

The final portion of the 75-minute presentation was audience questions and answers.

Her longtime musical director, collaborator and close friend Rob Bowman who is prominently featured in the film, was in the audience and received a huge ovation. Musto also noted the presence of the drag queen Vodka Stinger whose stage name is a tribute to Stritch, as it’s a lyric from “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

“They can’t touch it!” was her tribute to herself regarding her take on her signature song from Company, though she had warm praise for two colleagues Bernadette Peters and Patti Lu Pone’s renditions of it.

“I’d rather be dead then fat,” were among the conversational highlights. On why she won’t use a TelePrompTer to aid her performances, “And lose all those laughs when I forget things?” On Cherry Jones, “I feel like laughing and jumping up and down. I’m going to see her in The Glass Menagerie!” She’d come back to New York if there were “a good part in a really good play that I understand.” On director Hal Prince, “Always a joy but a bit scary.”

“I’m less sentimental as I get older.” She reminisced about the happiest part of life, her marriage to the deceased actor John Bay. The most emotional moment was when she cried after being asked about one time co-star and friend James Gandolfini who appears in the documentary and who died last year: “I wish it hadn’t happened. I loved that man.”

With great fanfare last year, this New York fixture moved out of her suite at The Carlyle Hotel and retired to her home state of Michigan. This appearance was a memorable opportunity for many longtime fans to see Elaine Stritch once again live on stage, and for many to have that experience for the first and only time. “I’ve had a difficult life because of ME. I did it all to myself.”

“It’s nice to be alive. Isn’t it?”

Elaine Stritch and Chiemi Karasawa with Michael Musto: Conversation and Clips (February 17th, 2014)
Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission

Originally published by on February 28, 2014.