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.

Berkoff
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.”

For more information visit: www.stevenberkoff.com

www.iainfisher.com/berkoff/index.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Theaterscene.net on February 28, 2014.

 

 

 

Laurie Lawrence (1959-2017)

Laurie

“She was very clear that she wanted her life to be celebrated, not mourned,” said Erica Dubno, who superlatively organized the packed, 90-minute memorial tribute to her close friend Laurie Lawrence. This was held at the Beach Point Club, in Mamaroneck, New York, on Sunday May 21, 2017, and it was a beautiful celebration.

Laurie program*

Laurie died on April 30, 2017, in New York City, at St. Luke’s Hospital, at the age of 57. She had suffered a massive heart attack on April 18, while at work. During her hospital stay, she was unconsciousness. Her room was decorated with pictures of her life. She was attended to by her many friends. She had registered to be an organ donor, but unfortunately that wasn’t possible.

“Imagine,” “In My Life” and a finale of “What I Did For Love” were the musical selections that Laurie specified to be played in her instructions. The acclaimed pianist and singer, Michael Isaacs ravishingly performed them. Mr. Isaacs regularly appears at the piano bars Brandy’s and The Duplex. Laurie frequently sang at those venues, and Isaacs reminisced about her appearances and their friendship, “I loved her.” He also mentioned their mutual close friend, Canadian resident Rory Taggart, who was unable to attend this event.

Laurie program1

In 2000, I appeared in a one-act play that was part of a festival of short works that was presented at The Producer’s Club theatre. One of the other plays was a Honeymooners-style dramedy about a quarreling married couple.

The actress who played the wife was superb. Wearing a blue plaid housedress, she had a fierce intensity that combined with her supreme comic timing, piercing eyes, animated facial expressions, and powerful voice, made her performance quite memorable.

She embodied the tradition of great American character actresses such as Maureen Stapleton and Eileen Heckart, along with the comedic depth of Doris Roberts. Though it was a minor piece, she brought as much conviction to it as if were a Clifford Odets drama.

As we were in separate plays, we did not rehearse together, and I only saw it once during the dress rehearsal. The only real interaction we all had was with the cast members of our own plays.

Three years later I became friends with someone who was part of The Duplex circle. There I saw the actress from that short play. It was Laurie Lawrence. I told her how much I enjoyed her performance and how memorable it was.

“Thanks! That’s the last play I did. I just don’t have the time or the energy anymore to do theater that doesn’t pay. I’d rather sing when I want to and do SAG-AFTRA work.” That belief was understandable, but this strategy was a great loss for her talent and for audiences.

This surfaced during a reading of a revelatory diary entry she wrote in 2010, and that was read aloud. She spoke of her never having had the feeling for the need to have children, being single but open to the possibility of marriage if the right man came along, and most poignantly of her disappointment that her acting career had not gone further.

The wonderful slide show of illustrative photographs of her life included family gatherings, work events, her involvement with animals and her coaching for the Special Olympics. There were also shots of her performing, and most telling were new headshots every few years. That dream never faded.

She was from New Rochelle, graduated from Ithaca College as a theater major and moved to New York City to be an actress. For the past 17 years she worked a full-time job in the legal department at CBS.

Creating a bubble within a bubble while chewing bubbling gum was her “Stupid Human Trick” that she performed on Late Night with David Letterman in the 1980’s. Her rapport with Dave was marvelous and he was quite warm to her. This bit was shown during a video highlights presentation.

There were clips of her at various venues dynamically singing. Her brassy and affective gifts were showcased with rousing renditions of Kander and Ebb’s “All That Jazz,” “Cabaret” and “Ring Them Bells.”

Local cable news channel NY1 profiled her for their program, “New Yorker of The Week” because of her volunteer work as a coach for the Special Olympics, and a touching excerpt of that was shown. She was also a long-time participant of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and organized an annual Holiday party in support of battered women.

Friends, relatives, and a former roommate poured forth with accounts of her frenetic lifestyle. Working full-time while seeing theater, movies, volunteering, taking classes and performing were all part of her jammed schedule.

Marilyn Sulzbacker, an older, Upper East Side neighbor of hers movingly recounted their long relationship and bond over their cats.

Her cousin George DeMarco, recalled her secretly rehearsing “Dance Ten Looks Three” from A Chorus Line that she was to perform at his surprise birthday party. She was stricken a week before it took place. Mr. De Marco’s partner, Andy Monroe then went to the piano and wistfully played and sang “Seasons of Love” from Rent.

Nick-nacks, souvenirs and mementos from Laurie’s collection were on display on a large table in the front of the auditorium. Attendees were invited to take something, to have a part of her. Apparently she collected penguins, as there were several figurines of various sizes of them. I took one of the miniatures. I soon returned, and took two more as they seemed to be part of a trio, and it felt wrong not to keep them together.

Over the years we kept in touch through email, Facebook and chance meetings. We once shared a Metro North train ride to Westchester, and joyously caught up. Later that day she wrote a glowing testimonial for my tour business page.

Like so many, I treasured her kindness, vivacity and passion for the performing arts, and was overwhelmed that she was gone too soon.

When my cat was diagnosed with a tumor, she was a constant stream of information and advice. Being an animal rights advocate and cat enthusiast, she was an expert on their care. Following my cat’s death, she eagerly encouraged me to adopt another by sending me notices of ones who needed homes. After her beloved Belle died, she soon adopted Vera, who survives her, and has been taken in by a friend.

“She made everyone laugh,” declared one of the speakers, and that was a common sentiment. In the past few weeks when going through my various contact lists, I would always smile whenever I came across Laurie’s email address, daffylaurie@aol.com.

“I am terribly, terribly unhappy to think that I shall never see her again,” wrote Noël Coward upon the death of that other legendary Lawrence, Gertrude.

Postscript: Laurie’s mother Elaine Krass was at the memorial.  It was painful to see this elderly woman sitting in a wheelchair hysterically sobbing, and being comforted by well wishers.  Ms. Krass died on July 6, 2017, at the age of 82.

Laurie program2

 

John Simon is 92 today

“For Darryl who isn’t Wally Shawn,” meticulously inscribed John Simon, along with his signature, in my copy of his collected theater reviews. This massive volume was part of a comprehensive trilogy that also included Mr. Simon’s reviews on film and music. The time frame chronicled was the 1970’s to the early 2000’s.

Being a long-time admirer of his, I had LUGGED it in October 2005, to the New York Times’ sponsored Bryant Park Book Expo, “Great Read in The Park.” I had noticed in the brochure that he would be among the many authors in attendance at tables promoting their work.

John Simon book“Could you please write ‘To Darryl, Shut up you fool!’” That was one of his many fabled, caustic zingers. He had yelled that from the audience of a New York Film Critics Circle awards ceremony, where Wallace Shawn had been rambling on during a presentation.

“I couldn’t write that as you are certainly not Wallace Shawn!” he chuckled. “Besides it would be self plagiarism. I never use a line twice.”

Then I reminisced with him about his spectacular appearance in the 1980’s, at New York University that I had witnessed. He participated in a panel about books adapted into films.

During the discussion, a man in the audience was quietly glancing at a newspaper. “Excuse me. I really must insist that the gentleman reading Le Monde kindly put it away! It is extremely rude!” bellowed Simon from the stage.

There was a hushed silence, and the embarrassed individual froze, and the talk resumed.

“I remember that. And I recall I went into the audience.” he beamed. That was his dramatic response to the man provocatively taking out the paper again. Simon got up from his seat, sprinted off the stage and up the aisle of the auditorium. Pointing at the scoundrel, he admonished him in French, to the astonishment and delight of the crowd. The cretin got up and left, and the proceedings continued. “Politeness is so important.”

After thanking him, I investigated the rest of the event. Later on, I saw him ambling to 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, where he waited for a bus.

For 36 years he was the drama critic for New York magazine, then at Bloomberg News and most recently at The Westchester Guardian.

It is wonderful to still see him in the audience at shows, as he continues to wittily and eruditely hold forth at http://www.uncensoredsimon.blogspot.com

He is also active on Facebook, and reviews theater on the cable television show. Corner Table, that is taped at Joe Allen. He co-hosts it with Justin William Brown, who is in his 20’s. There is a marvelous contrast between them. Simon transcends time and embraces technology. Those who revere him are very lucky for that, and wish him well today.

Originally published on Theaterscene.net on May 12 , 2017

Brief Encounter

I got to the Tony Randall memorial at about 11:00 AM, when the line was still short, near The Majestic Theatre.  A well-dressed, spry, silver coifed, 80ish woman got chatty with me, and I regaled her with celebrity sightings around us.  She was from Ft. Lauderdale, and comes up to New York City, for six weeks every year.

“Do you stay with relatives?”

“No.  I rent an apartment.  It’s expensive but worth it.”

I inquired further.  She was originally from New Jersey, where she and her late husband, had the VERY successful Abram’s Furs.  He came to the U.S. from Poland, at 17, with nothing, and due to the booming times during and after WW II, and before animal rights activists and red paint, was able to retire at 51.  “We got out at the right time!”

“We sold the business to a lousy Greek, who ran it into the ground! It broke our hearts.”  When women came to get their furs out of storage, they were told that there was a robbery, and it was gone, and that they should contact their insurance company.  Actually the furs were stolen by the owner and sold to a Greek company.  Eventually the scandal was exposed, and was in the newspapers, and the good name of Abrams was tarnished. By then, they were busy on the golf courses of Florida.

This year she rented a one bedroom on 48th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues.  Usually she takes a studio, but her grandson from Connecticut, said he’d visit with his girlfriend on weekends.  “He came once on Labor Day and that was it!  “If I’m still around next year it’ll be a studio!”

We also spoke of my activities.

When it came time to go in, I said I was going to run to run the men’s room and as it was very crowded, “If I don’t see you inside, it was very nice meeting you.”

“Oh, I was going to take you lunch after the show.”

“Then I’m not going anywhere.”

We watched the event from good seats, as she complained to the usher that she couldn’t walk up any more stairs to the mezzanine, where those without invitations where supposed to sit.  She is a big opera fan and was delighted by Marilyn Horne and Sherill Milnes, who performed.

After it ended, in the lobby, she extended her hand, “I’m Harriet.  Where do you want to eat?”

We crossed the street to go to Angus McCindoe, where we could watch the crowds outside from the large, front window.  I ordered a turkey wrap, and she a hamburger, while we chatted some more.  She was very encouraging but suggested shortening my last name, “It doesn’t flow…”

After lunch, there were farewells and best wishes outside.

Nacogdoches

“It says, ‘Tour guide gratuity is not included,’ so here you go,” twanged an older, Vickie Lawrence/Mama’s Family-type woman, after reading aloud from the travel company’s voucher.

Wanda then handed me a folded bill that I later saw was $10, at the START of a Sunday morning, Statue of Liberty Tour, in 2005.  We had already established a playful bantering when I checked her, and her companion in, so this premature gift was in keeping with the whimsy.

She was here from rural Texas, with her 14 year-old, well-mannered, quiet, blond nephew, Morgan.

“It was the only thing I could tickets to on short notice.  ‘Isn’t that a chick thing?’  He’s not so happy but it’s on Broadway.”  The 3:00 PM matinee of Steel Magnolias was their time constraint for the expedition.  “I thought everything on Broadway was a musical,” was the boy’s puzzled reaction when I explained that it was a play.

They had seen touring productions of The Lion King and Beauty and The Beast.  “Yesterday, he said, ‘Look, there’s more people on these few streets then in all of back home!’” was Morgan’s observation of New York City, versus his hometown of Jasper.  Wanda lives 75 miles away, in the comparative metropolis of Nacogdoches.

There were 15 other nice people on the tour, who had checked in by the departure time of 8:00 AM, at Paramount Plaza, but Wanda and Morgan, made the most impact.

There was the usual routine.  The R train from 49th Street, to City Hall.  Show and lecture of that, as well as The Brooklyn Bridge, Woolworth Building, the plaques in the sidewalks commemorating the ticker tape parades, St. Paul’s Chapel, The World Trade Center site, Trinity Church and assorted tangents to fill the time before Battery Park.

After I got the ferry and Statue of Liberty admission tickets from the box office, we then had to wait on the ferry line.  As usual, it was modest at that time, but seconds later, at 9:15 AM, there was the inevitable large, group of high school students and chaperones lengthening it.  We got swamped, but most of my bunch pushed ahead, led by Wanda.  Following the intense security check, we all got on the boat, and after 15 minutes it left at 10:00 AM.

I read the Sunday New York Times downstairs, and as per my directions, most of my charge went upstairs.  As we headed into Liberty Island, Wanda and Morgan emerged to push to the front.  “Look we have the matinee, so we’re just going to rush in and out.  Thanks!”  My standard directions are that we’ll all gather on the dock, so that I can explain things, etc., but I understood.  “Thanks very much.  It was nice meeting you!”

After gathering the rest of the group, and seeing them into the Statue of Liberty, I had lunch in the crowded cafeteria.  Eventually I headed to the dock to wait for the next ferry with the mob.  From the corner of my eye, I could see Wanda and Morgan pushing through the crowd.  “You didn’t think we were going to let you get away!”  We got into the boat and sat downstairs. They did not get out at Ellis Island.

“I’m going be 70, this year, and a few weeks ago I thought I should see New York, while I’m still able to.  I took him out of school for four days, so he’s happy!  It sure is SOMETHING.  I was an educator, administrator, and dean for 34 years, at a vocational high school for aviation. We taught them how to fix planes so they could fall back out of the sky again. What’s a good place to eat before the show?

“Are there any restaurants that you’ve heard of, or were curious about?”

“A lady in an apartment complex I once lived in, talked about The Second Avenue Deli.  She used to live around there.”  I gave her subway directions,  “Take the green #4 train from Bowling Green, uptown to Brooklyn Bridge, and change to the green #6 train to Astor Place, then walk down St. Marks Place, to Second Avenue…”

“Yeah.  Right.  I’m going remember all that!”

We were standing near the exit door of the ferry as we were pulling into Battery Park.  “Come on, I’ll take you to The Second Avenue Deli,” I said. Why not let this adventure continue, I thought,

No Lexington Avenue trains were running below City Hall, so instead of getting it at Bowling Green, we had to trudge back up to City Hall. We got the #4, that today was running local, to Astor Place.

We walked down St. Marks Place, past all of the exotic emporiums.  “Morgan, would you like to get something pierced?  Or a tattoo?  Your Mom would love that!  If we still had film left, I’d sit next to HIM for a picture,” Wanda said, while pointing to a quintessential, tattoo aficionado who had an inked faced, and was smoking, on a stoop.

At 12:40 PM, we got to The Second Avenue Deli.  “Of course you’re joining us…” By 1:00 PM, the wait was obviously still too long.  We walked over to the Ukrainian landmark, Veselka.  “About 15 minutes?”  “Yeah, something like that,” said the unconvincing hostess.  That’s Sunday brunch in Manhattan.

We looked around, and headed up 9th Street, to the restaurant Around The Clock, which had room for us.

“This is a very good sandwich,” Wanda said of her Portobello mushroom concoction.  “I was a big Anne Richards fan.  After the governor’s election, everyone in the state could see what was happening.  You all couldn’t, but we could.”  “You mean HE was running for president from the start?”  “We could see what was happening.”

Morgan had a turkey burger with fries.  I had a brunch selection of a bagel/lox/tomato/onion, with a Bloody Mary and coffee.

“I could put some grenadine in a coke…” said the pretty waitress after Wanda sniffed, “No Dr. Pepper?!”

The check for the three of us came to about what one meal would have cost at The Second Avenue Deli.  After looking it over, she took out money, and gave the check to Morgan.  “As for the tip, that’s your job.”  With his calculator he figured out 18%, and after paying we left.

It was 2:00 PM, and they wanted to go back to their hotel first, to get their forgotten digital camera to replace the used up, disposable one.  Wanda chatted with the East Asian driver, and we soon arrived at 31st between 5th Avenue and Broadway, where a small building with a functional sign announced “Herald Square Hotel”.   “It’s kind of nothing, but it’s clean, and the beds are so comfortable.  It got good ratings when I investigated it, and for $139 a night, that’s fine!”

Due to traffic and construction, we got out on the opposite side of the street from their hotel.  “Well, we’re over there.  It was very nice to meet you!”  We all shook hands, and they crossed over, and I headed to Broadway, to go home.

Frank Langella’s EAG Memorial Address

“I’m profoundly grateful I’m not on it,” said Frank Langella, during his moving speech at The Episcopal Actors’ Guild’s annual Memorial Service for deceased show business figures on November 13, 2016.

This crowded celebration was the centerpiece of an 80-minute inter-faith religious service that was held at the 400-seat Church of the Transfiguration. This bucolic landmark was built in 1849, and is also well known by its knick name, “the Little Church Around the Corner.” It has been a haven for actors since the 1870’s.

The Episcopal Actors’ Guild was founded in 1923, and its main mission is to provide emergency aid and support to professional performers of all faiths who are undergoing financial crisis.

A long-time lapsed Catholic, the 78 year-old, New Jersey born Mr. Langella explained that he had not been inside a church in many years. “Better an old habit should die rather then an old actor.” Aged but vital, this titan of the performing arts was serenely commanding.

“It petrified me,” he revealed of his personal brush with death earlier in the year and how that incident instigated his appearance at this event.

In the early morning of Sunday June 19th, he was taken ill, nearly died and was in the hospital for eight days. Without specifying his malady, he declared that he has since fully recovered.

The date was significant as that afternoon he was to give his final performance in the acclaimed Broadway production of The Father. His performance as a proud, elderly man beset with dementia was critically hailed as among the greatest of his renowned, 54-year career. He won that season’s Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, for it.

His understudy, actor Anthony Newfield went on for him. Mr. Newfield is on the council of The Episcopal Actors’ Guild and urged Langella to deliver this year’s Memorial Address. Reluctant at first, he eventually agreed, “So Tony wouldn’t do it better then me,” he joked.

After quoting Noël Coward’s allusion to the dead as, “Blue Shadows,” he estimated that he personally knew 35, of the 250 individuals being commemorated. “Actors have always been my heroes. They’re so profoundly human.” He reminisced about a few of them.

“We were two impossible people,” Langella observed of playwright Edward Albee and himself. The two had a contentious relationship during the 1975 production of Albee’sSeascape, for which Langella won the first of his four Tony Awards. They had not seen each other in many years but had met again relatively recently. “He was shaky and frail. He kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘It’s all water under the bridge. Isn’t it?’”

“Peter Shaffer tried to pick me up in a bar in the 1970’s.” Langella was at a London bar with Mel Brooks. “He’s my boyfriend!” roared Brooks and mock threatened Shaffer. Some years later in 1981, Langella was appearing in the playwright’s Amadeus on Broadway. Shaffer had no memory of this incident, “It was the 1970’s. I was trying to pick up anyone I could!” They were never physical with each other because, “No sex. He’s British.”

“Alan Rickman was my go-to pal in London. He loved shopping for clothes and spending money.”

In the mid 1960’s, in Los Angeles, Langella befriended the young, future Oscar winning film director Michael Cimino. Cimino had written a script for a never realized movie that he planned to direct and that Langella was to star in in. “I was to be paid $1000 for the whole thing and would have been glad to have it!”

In 2003, he and Tammy Grimes were inducted into The Theater Hall of Fame. The ceremony took place at the Gershwin Theatre. Langella got wistful looking at their names painted in gold on the white walls. “Did you ever imagine when we were starting out in the early 1960’s that this would ever happen to us?” he said to Grimes. “They’d look better against a black background,” she quipped.

“A boy with a profoundly beautiful soul,” Langella remarked of Anton Yelchin, the 27 year-old actor who was crushed to death by his truck in a freak accident. The two worked together several times, and recalling this relationship, Langella was at his most emotional and thoughtful. He held forth about the reality that death might come at any time, and at any age.

“I’ll leave you with cheap sentiment,” he said at the end of his
17-minute address. He then recited a quotation from the 1948 film, Portrait of Jennie that starred Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten.

“There is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death.”

He then left the pulpit, and reflectively sat in the front row of the church as Elowyn Castle, the president of The Episcopal Actors’ Guild and Mr. Newfield read the names of the departed.

Earlier, the gregarious Ms. Castle joyously introduced Langella. “He was everybody’s favorite Dracula!” Castle recounted the highlights of his illustrious career. From Dropped Names, his book of memories of deceased celebrities that he knew, she quoted his personal summation, “I consider myself a work in progress.”

(Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster ahronfoster.com)

Originally published on Theaterscene.net on November 14, 2016