An Amusement Column
by Harry Haun
MY LORD OF THE FLIES: Two of the more arresting plays around these days involve small-fry, both visible (Make Believe through Sept. 22 at Second Stage) and invisible (Eureka Day through Sept. 21 at Walkerspace). . . . The visible ones (Ryan Foust, 14; Maren Heary, 12; Casey Hilton, 9; and Harrison Fox, 7) occupy the first half of Bess Wohl’s two-tiered one-act—mere siblings romping around in their attic playroom, role-playing their parents, forming a sort of sub-family—then in marches the replacement team, adults in mourning clothes. The playwright’s point is that the die is cast in childhood—we grow up into these people—but pay close attention to the actions of these young because Wohl throws a pretty tricky curve for her final reveal. . . . A classroom in acute kiddie décor is the setting of Jonathan Spector’s Eureka Day. It makes a rather humbling conference room for an emergency meeting of the executive committee of a small private day school. Politely and not, they mud-wrestle the pros and cons of mass-vaccinating students. Hardly a surefire comedy set-up, you say—but you haven’t counted on the superb ensemble-playing of Thomas Jay Ryan, Tina Benko, Brian Wiles, KK Moggie and Elizabeth Carter. Then, the fun really kicks in when fellow parents phone in their hilariously digressive and highly individualized opinions via a Facebook chat room. . . . Benko is just controlling and manipulative in this play, but, in The Sound of Silence, which seeps into movie houses Friday, you could get frostbite from her chilling cameo. She happens to be addressing/dismissing Peter Sarsgaard, who, armed with his trusty piano-tuner and galloping obsession, is trying to find a quiet spot in New York City. Yes, he drifts from reality the same way people drift from him. It’s a slow, spartan go, but, like a one-film Law and Order, it provides work for wonderful New York actors (Alison Fraser, Austin Pendleton, Tracee Chimo Pallero and Bruce Altman). Sarsgaard’s for-want-of-a-better-word “attachment” is played by Rashida Jones (who just did a Netflix documentary on her dad, Quincy), and his assistant is done by Tony Revolori, who memorably bellhopped at The Grand Budapest Hotel and is now delivering The French Dispatch, his next for director Wes Anderson.
A-SINGIN’ AND A-PICKIN’: In 1974, all you had to do to land a star part in Nashville was write a song. Lyrics had to be written down, the script not so much (although, reportedly, it was). Obviously improvised, Robert Altman’s lucky, accidental masterpiece–which gets a new 4K restoration resurrection Sept. 20-26 at Film Forum—must be the only movie with a soundtrack composed collectively by its cast. . . . Robert Duvall had no problem with that assignment—he’d later write and sing his own stuff in his Oscar-winning Tender Mercies—but there was a scheduling conflict, so the Roy Acuff kind of country-western kingpin was played by Laugh-In’s Henry Gibson, who was startlingly effective at it. . . . Susan Anspach’s problem was $ (more of it), forcing Altman at the last minute to go with a cheaper alternative for the Loretta Lynn-like role: a back-up singer named Ronee Blakley, who added lively songs to the mix (“My Idaho Home,” “Tapedeck in His Tractor,” “Bluebird”) and an Oscar-nominated performance. . . . Gary Busey auditioned with “Since You’ve Gone,” which is used in the film, but Keith Carradine trumped him with a trunk song he wrote wooing Shelley Plimpton in their Broadway Hair days. (The Academy took “I’m Easy” for a new song and Oscared it.) . . . Lily Tomlin’s deep, mute, emotional internalizing of “I’m Easy” is what got her Oscar nominated. She played a part created for, and nixed by, Louise Fletcher: the mother of deaf kids. (Ironically, Lily had rejected Louise’s Oscar role—the dreaded Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.) . . . Barbara Harris, who may never have known how brilliant she really was, bolted from the screening room at the first sight of her rushes and told Altman she’d pay for the retakes herself. He said no. Her role—originally offered to Bette Midler, then Bernadette Peters–was one of his little jokes: a ditzy runaway housewife who fancies herself a singer and is ignored by all till the end when a mic is put in her hand and she blasts the film to smithereens with “It Don’t Worry Me.”. . . When the big assassination scene was threatened by rain, Altman shook his fist at Heaven and yelled “No!” Evidently, God heard him.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: Aging, dueling screen divas in 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d: Elizabeth Taylor to Kim Novak: “There are only two things I dislike about you: Your face.” It was a nice line to ride out on: This was Liz’s first big role in feature films in four years—and her last. . . . Producers of that movie, believing only she could follow the late Margaret Rutherford, waited a whole year until Angela Lansbury was free of Sweeney Todd so she could play Agatha Christie’s elderly detective, Miss Jane Marple. Lansbury, just 54 at the time, nevertheless found Miss Marple a strangely perfect fit for her and may have wondered if there was more to plummet in the field of female sleuthing. . . . Christie’s plot was said to have been inspired by a real-life wartime incident: Pregnant with her first daughter, Gene Tierney contracted German measles during her only appearance at the Hollywood Canteen; as a result, her daughter was born deaf, partially blind with cataracts and severely developmentally disabled. . . . Years later, the actress was approached at a tennis party for an autograph by a former female Marine, who sheepishly confessed she’d been such a fan she once broke out of quarantine for German measles to meet her at the Hollywood Canteen. Tierney stared silently, blankly, at her and then walked away. “After that,” she later wrote, “I didn’t care whether ever again I was anyone’s favorite actress.” . . . The September edition of my neighborhood magazine, W42ST, devotes a lovely three-page layout to the House Beautiful of Broadway publicist Keith Sherman and his husband, Dr. Roy Goldberg. Contrary to their day-jobs, they are latent art collectors, and the carefully gauged selections they have made over the years show all over the place. . . . A decade or so back, when their art started pushing them out of house and home, they formed Helicline Fine Art, an art dealership that allows them to sell old treasures to make way for new ones. This is done by appointment only, and prices range from $2,000 to seven figures. Specialties of the house: 20th century American and European modernist paintings, sculptures and works on paper. Keith’s dry-eyed rationale for this is that he doesn’t really own the art—he just rents it for a period of time and then passes it on to others who will love it. And to think all this started with comic books and baseball cards! . . . TV actor Robert Desiderio from Ryan’s Hope, Knots Landing, Heart of the City, etc., turns 68 today–and novelist next month. Simon & Schuster will publish his first, The Occurrence, a political thriller triggered by the discovery of an ancient cuneiform—and I know I don’t have to tell what that is! Oh, I dooo? Well, according to reliable Wikipedia, cuneiform “relates to the wedge-shaped characters used in the ancient writing systems of Mesopotamia, Persia and Ugarit.” Mrs. Robert Desiderio, for 34 years, is Judith Light. Happy pub date and happy birthday, Bob.
NAME OF THE GAME: Mc & Mc are Back—that is to say, Andrea McArdle and Donna McKechnie are returning to Feinstein’s/54 Below Sept. 26-28 with their stellar salute to Stephen Sondheim and Marvin Hamlisch. These two Mc misses met co-starring in the stage version of the only movie musical Rodgers & Hammerstein ever made. They made it twice, in fact—once in Iowa, and once in Texas. Donna was the blowsy showgirl (Vivian Blaine/Ann-Margret) who tempted innocent plowboys; Andrea was the farmer’s-daughter romantic (Jeanne Crain/Pamela Tiffin) who got to sing R&H’s lone Oscar-winning song, “It Might As Well Be Spring.” . . . That farmer, by the way—Andrea’s pa in the Broadway show, John Davidson—beat her to the punch and is doing his own return concert tonight, headlining at Birdland Theater. . . . Obie Award winner Lee Sunday Evans will be directing his namesake play, Sunday, Sept. 26-Oct. 13. They tell you its playwright, Jack Thorne, authored that two-part colossus, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, still embedded in the cavernous Lyric after 576 performances. They don’t say he also gave you King Kong, which had a modest (for its size) monkey run of 323 at the huge Broadway Theater. And they probably haven’t told him he’s playing a shoebox now (the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater on West 20th)–or maybe they have: he has scaled it all down to a book-club discussion. . . . Jackie Hoffman, moonlighting from matchmaking in Fiddler on the Roof, calls her new club act “Themeless.” She underlines that: “There is no theme. If this were a theme part, it would be called Park.” . . . Given her upbringing, showbiz was her inevitable calling: “When I was little, my parents took me to all the Broadway musicals. They bought me the vinyl albums. I memorized them. By the time I was a nine-year-old girl, I was a gay man.”