You have until February 11th to see The Way of the World at Folger Theatre. Playwright Theresa Rebeck has rewritten the Restoration classic and directs a cast led by Kristine Nielsen.
In part one of my interview with the two, Rebeck described her agenda as she placed the play in a contemporary context, and located it in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island.
Rebeck’s aims were achieved, according to Jayne Blanchard. In her review for DCTS, Blanchard described the show as a “cynical, screwball-funny, comedic bed-hopping…fresh adaptation of William Congreve’s equally contemptuous 1700 Restoration comedy of manners that skewered the lifestyles of the rich and aimless.”
Of Nielsen’s central performance, Blanchard raved: “Nielsen’s inspired flightiness…puts you in mind of Bette Midler crossed with Rosalind Russell and Marie Dressler. She’s at once hopelessly high-class and hilariously brought down low by her libido…and totters off with the show on her ridiculous high heels.”
Since it’s such a treat for D.C. to host two such notable and accomplished theatre artists as Rebeck and Nielsen, there was much more to ask them about than their current project — too much to fit into a single article. Hence, part two of the conversation I had with them as they approached their opening.
When Theresa Met Kristine
“I worked with Theresa’s husband first.” Nielsen began the response to the “how did you meet” question. “He was a spectacular stage manager in New York, and I worked with him at the Public on a production of Machinal that Michael Grief directed. Theresa was already in L.A. doing something; you were on some series — I want to say the Robert Urich, maybe?” (That would be the short-lived sitcom American Dreamer.)
“Yeah, I think so.”
“And Jess [Lynn, Rebeck’s husband] was, like, ‘You have to meet my wife. I think the two of you will really hit it off.’ And I think it was prescient on his part. People that you like working with — you see the world a little bit the same way; not completely, because that would be boring. We see a vision of theatre, and the world, that we both want to impact.”
Inspired by the Arena Stage Acting Company
I had asked whether they had rehearsed the play down here. “Yeah, we did,” Rebeck answered. “We’re all living in little apartments right around the theatre. It’s great.”
“It’s like what you dream of in the old days when there were more companies in the country,” Nielsen elaborated. “You know, I grew up here. I used to go to Arena all the time. Those stalwarts were my inspiration: Halo Wines and Richard Bauer; and Diane Wiest was the ingenue! It was an extraordinary company.
“They inspired me. I saw them do Twelfth Night, or I saw them do Our Town; The Front Page. Those actors transformed and were really great. Howard Witt; I could name them all. I went to National Cathedral, so I went right from there to Northwestern, and then on to Yale. I wanted to be in a company like that. Unfortunately, I think that’s just financially becoming more and more difficult.
“I don’t know; I believe everything gets reborn, so I think that the great companies of regional theatre will rise again, because it’s ridiculous, the cost of New York right now. Good work is done here, and there’s so many new theaters down here!
“And how they travelled! One of my best friends still talks about when he went to Russia [in 1973.] Imagine! They went to Russia and performed in Moscow. It’s like art is a bridge. You’re not going to fight people you like, or get to talk to. It’s very hard to persuade politicians that art and culture is what humanizes the world.”
When Kevin Spacey Stalked Jason Robards
I mentioned that I had seen Nielsen in The Iceman Cometh at Kennedy Center (“1986, yes!”) with the great Jason Robards recreating the role that had made him a star; and that I subsequently saw the Broadway revival with Kevin Spacey in the same part.
The Way of the World
at Folger Theatre
closes February 11, 2018
Details and tickets
“You know, he followed Jason around. He [Spacey] was down at the Kennedy Center. Coleen Dewhurst and Kevin were in The Seagull. That was the show that was coming on after us. And he would follow Jason all around. They became friends later, but, initially, Jason was, like, ‘Why doesn’t he just watch me? Why is he following me? I can’t help him backstage — watch what I’m doing!’
“Jason was an inspiration to us all, and me, and I still hold on to it as something that made me so proud to be an actor, with Jose Quintero [the director] and Jason and Barney [Barnard] Hughes and Donald Moffat. Jason said, ‘It’s close to vaudeville. Don’t hold on to words. America doesn’t hold on to words. America spills words out. We have a da-da-da-da-da: a patter.’
“And O’Neill was a theatre person from that era. So much then made sense! He [Robards] never held on to the language. He let the language lead him. And it was very exciting. I soaked it up like a sponge. And I thought, ‘Okay, when I get to do my big O’Neill…’ Still waiting. “I’d like to do Mary Tyrone; I really would. I know I’m considered mostly a comedian. But, you go to Yale, and you spend $60,000 a year, you’d like to think you can do a little bit more, and so…I’ll do it somewhere…”
I wondered whether I could ask about Smash, the NBC-TV backstage series created by Rebeck.
“You know, you can…” Rebeck balked. “I have to tell you — I will go on the record — I’m sick of talking about it. People ask me about it all the time, and I’m, like, you know, it was four years ago, so…but, ask away.”
I noted that when Anjelica Huston finally sang, it was “The September Song,” which had been introduced by her grandfather…
Rebeck interrupted: “Okay, this is actually a pretty smart question coming, so I will answer this question. Keep going.”
…the Oscar-winning actor Walter Huston in the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday. Did Angelica H. make the song choice?
“It was something we all talked about; it was a very deliberate choice. Angelica didn’t want to sing right away. We wanted to be very mindful about how we played that card.
“Scott Wittman, who is a very, very knowledgeable historian of music and musical theatre, suggested that, and she really liked it.” Wittman is the Tony-winning lyricist of Hairspray and of original songs composed for Smash. “It was something that was absolutely important to all of us. I thought she did a great job. Oh, I’m so glad that was your question.”
Vanya and Sonia and Maggie and Spike
If it’s fair to say that Rebeck wrote Rene in The Way of the World for Nielsen (see Part One of this interview), is it also fair to say that Christopher Durang wrote the part of Sonia in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike for her?
“Yes,” she confirmed. “I wouldn’t presume to say that, but he has volunteered that. We used to have dinner parties and I used to do a lot of Maggie Smith, so Maggie Smith was something that he knew I had at my fingertips. And I think that’s the way I was able to hold onto that role, too! [Affecting a villain voice:] ‘Nobody else can do Maggie Smith the way I can!’
“As a matter of fact, Alan Rickman came to see it, and I remember him looking at me, like, ‘I’m not sure if you’re making fun of my friend Maggie, or…’ and I’m, like, ‘I adore her! Are you kidding?”
Durang and the Pain of Criticism
I recalled seeing Durang, with whom Nielsen has worked often, speak during the late ‘90s, at a point when he seemed so demoralized by bad reviews that, he said, they had sucked all the joy out of his work and he didn’t know if he would continue to write.
“I think that writers are like living little hearts,” Nielsen began. “You open your heart and it’s very hard to get it flayed. It’s the risk we all do. I think Chris went through a very difficult time with the critics. He did come back, and I think he doesn’t care about them as much anymore; I think he’s actually really happy now. But it was very hard for him.
“It hurt his livelihood. He could not get done after a certain amount of — theaters were scared. The great success of Sister Mary [Explains It All For You] and [The Marriage of] Bette and Boo — but Bette and Boo was stopped in its tracks by the critics. It’s remembered as a very great success at the Public, with Joan Allen; wonderful cast. And it was a great production. It was all ready to move to Broadway. And it broke his heart, because that was his family play, his Long Day’s Journey [Into Night,] and it was stopped. And it started getting harder and harder for him to get done.
“I did readings of Betty’s Summer Vacation in small, small Off-Broadway theaters that were not going to have the money to do it, but they were letting him have a voice still. And I remember, finally, Tim Sanford said, ‘Well you have a history with Playwrights Horizon, so we will put on Betty’s Summer Vacation.’
“And he [Durang] was scared to death because, who knew that it would bring about a whole renaissance for Chris? Chris didn’t know either. There was one time when he was watching it in previews, and an old couple came out of the theater, and they went, ‘There he is!’ And it was like Frankenstein! They were following him, they wanted to tell him how great it was, but he tried to get in the light booth and lock himself in; he was so scared they were going to tell him how terrible he was again.
“You never want a playwright, or an artist in general, to shut down. You have to throw it out there. Chris is actually the one who told me this Tennessee Williams story of years ago at Yale: He came to speak at the Drama School and no one showed up. [Rebeck gasps.] You know, you look and you go: ‘This is how we treat our artists?’ It’s weird. He’s looked now in history as one of the greats, but he fell out of favor, and it was really hard. And the same happened to O’Neill; to so many playwrights. Arthur Miller, too.”
Rebeck picked up the thread emphatically: “William Inge killed himself! Edward Albee couldn’t get arrested for twenty years. He’s a legend! What he did is, he went to Germany; he went to Texas. I’ve had those valleys as well, and somebody said, ‘Theresa, they do this to all the really great playwrights,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but, should they?’”
“Actors, too,” Nielsen chimed in. “I think it’s actually that wonderful actor from Arena, the great Bob [Robert] Prosky, who said, ‘You have to have the hide of an elephant, and yet the light has to be able to come through; you have to be translucent at the same time. You have to let your light out, but you have to have a rhinoceros hide to put up with the critiques that you’re going to get.”
“Beautiful,” Rebeck assessed. “That is beautiful.”
“What I tell actors all the time,” came Nielsen’s advice, “I say: don’t be safe. You have to be vulnerable. But just don’t read it, if you’re going to be too hurt by it.”
“A lot of people don’t read any of it,” said Rebeck.
Sarah Bernhardt, Holly Twyford, and Hamlet
Rebeck’s newer play Bernhardt/Hamlet was heard at a sold-out reading at Folger on Friday, January 19th.
“That was something I’ve been sitting on for quite a while. I had this idea a long time ago, and I finally said to myself last year: ‘I have to just knock it off and write it.’ I was sort of intimidated by it, because I feel like there’s something around a woman of real power, and the gender mystery around women doing Hamlet, that cracked open a lot of questions for me: the fact that she did it; that a lot of people considered it unsuccessful. (It was controversial; some people thought that it was very successful.)
“I always found her a fascinating figure. I studied Victorian theatre, so I knew a lot about her, and what she was doing. I have a relationship with the Roundabout [Theatre Company] and they wanted to commission a play from me, and so I said to them, ‘Well I’ve been thinking about this one,’ and it fit very cleanly into what they are looking for, because they do re-conceived classics, so this was something that felt like it was in their wheelhouse. And that kind of pushed me into: just sit down and write it. And sometimes that happens to me. I have a commission for Arena right now, for one of their ‘Power Plays,’ and I’m going, ‘I have to sit down and write.’ But I have to think about things for awhile before I do that.”
I mentioned that I had seen Holly Twyford play Hamlet at the Folger in the 90s; Twyford read Bernhardt at the reading. “Oh, really?” Rebeck replied. “I didn’t know that. That’s interesting.
“The other thing: Jess and I went to Prague, and there’s a big Mucha Museum in Prague. He was Czech, Alphonse Mucha. And there were all those giant posters of her.
“There’s this very powerful and lovely story to me: I don’t know what the show was she was working on, but the poster didn’t work out, so she herself went to the printing shop to talk to them about it, because that was the person she was, and it was a Saturday, and there was this kid there who was holding down the shop, and it was Alphonse Mucha, and she was, like, ‘Someone needs to fix this right away.’ And he did a whole new poster for her. And he was, like, 23. And she was so taken with it that she commissioned six more posters from him, and made his career.
“And those stunning posters of her that he designed — they’re very famous images — they created that art nouveau look. It’s quite striking. So when we were there, they had original posters that they printed off the original silk-screen, so I went, ‘We gotta get one of these.’
“And there’s a magnificent one of her as Medea, and it cost, seriously, like, $25, so I brought it home, and somebody looked at me and said, ‘What are your kids going to say about this?’ — because there’re these two dead children floating at their feet. And I said, ‘They get it. They’re the kids of a playwright.’ And [son] Cooper later on said, ‘I thought it was a little weird,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, well…’ [Chuckle.] So I’ve been living with Sarah Bernhardt in my front room for a long time. She was a striking, powerful…”
“I think it’s very hard for anyone seriously in the theatre as an actress to never not want to be Sarah Bernhardt,” Nielsen added. “She was so powerful. She was one of the first women I read about that caught me, other than Ethel Barrymore. They were both so fascinating.”
I asked Rebeck if hers is a solo play; it’s not. “It’s about her and the actors. The other thing that I found really fascinating about the story, the more I lived with it, was that, when she finally did it, she commissioned someone to re-write it. And that play no longer — I couldn’t find it. I assumed that she would have been rehearsing the original before — and why would she take the poetry out? That became an interesting question to me.
“And the other thing that rose up out of just looking at the facts was that she was working with Edmond Rostand at the time, and they famously were involved/weren’t involved. There’s all these biographies that go, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no,’ and the other ones are, like, ‘Of course.’ (To know her, apparently, was to sleep with her.) And he wrote several plays for her, and the same time he was writing Cyrano, so that affair, and Cyrano, rises up into it. Isn’t that interesting? That’s true.
“Somebody said to me, because I like it so much — all these actors who’ve read it for me go, ‘How true is it?’ And I’m, like, It’s this true. [Hands apart.] You know what I mean? I don’t know if it’s this true. [Hands further apart.] But it’s probably this true. [Hands retract to first position.] It’s one of those things.”
Friedman, Larson, Loss, Life
I mentioned that I had seen Nielsen on Broadway in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. “I love that play,” Nielsen said. She then reflected on the surprising, sudden death of its young composer. “He’s a loss for us, this year, Michael Friedman. That was a really hard, hard loss. Total shock. And he was so prolific, and was working on so many things, and he just didn’t take time for himself. I’m sure that’s true.”
“For me,” Rebeck concluded, “it was also a wake-up call, because I was really good friends with Jonathan Larson, when that went down. And I was just exhausted in the Fall, and I was supposed to fly to L.A. for something, and I just went, ‘I’m not doing it anymore. I’m not going to be the person who just works herself to death.’
“Sometimes I think we fall into times when we don’t take care of ourselves.”
At this point, we said our goodbyes, they let me peek in and see the fabulous set (designed by Alexander Dodge), and they went back to work on The Way of the World.