Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
I've been thinking about curtain calls, thanks to two recent New Jersey productions. The first occurred at The Diary of Anne Frank at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Director Carolyn Cantor had her 13-member cast come out and stand in a straight line, with the performers playing Anne and her father dead-center, as you'd expect. But she didn't give them the last bows. Instead, she had the actor at extreme stage left start the bows, with the one to his right going next and so on, until the 13th and final person took his turn. He was, by the way, an actor who played a Nazi in the show. Now, really: Is there any play more inappropriate for a Nazi to have the last bow than The Diary of Anne Frank? (I should mention that, after a few of us critics complained, Cantor changed the curtain call.)

A few days later, I was in nearby Montclair at the Studio Players, a community theater, for The Man Who Came to Dinner. Here, director Claudia Kalinowski logically gave the final three bows to the performers who played Lorraine Sheldon, Maggie Cutler, and Sheridan Whiteside. But considering that the plot had Lorraine recently carted away in a sarcophagus, I wonder if any director has thought of using that thing for her curtain call, wheeling out the device while she's still in it and having her emerge to our applause. This seems so obvious to me that I wonder if I've already seen it happen. (The 2000 Nathan Lane revival of the play? Sherry in 1966?). If it never has been done, some director should try it.

Ah, curtain calls! They're the distinct province of the theater. Well, almost; a few movies have them (The Bad Seed, Plaza Suite). But one does associate curtain calls with the stage, and they're usually fun to see, though there are exceptions. There have been times when I've seen an actor give such a rotten performance that, the moment he comes out to take his bow, I want to rise and have him watch me storm out in fury. For a different reason, I almost felt like walking out on Sutton Foster when she took her curtain call in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Yes, she'd given a solid performance. But I hated how, after the rest of the cast had bowed, she was revealed on stage with her back to us. Then she turned, looked surprised when she heard the applause swell, and gave a look of "Who, me? You mean...you...really...liked me?" She knew we did, so why did she pretend we might not have? So she'd get more applause, I assume. That diminished her.

But I love it when a performer who's played a hateful villain comes out for his call and is booed by the audience, which often results in him or her smiling sheepishly and chuckling. I love how an understudy who goes on gets the precise same spot in the curtain call that the star would. I also enjoy it when actors wave to someone special in the house, or when they genially wave to everyone in the audience. Some of them can't let us go: As the curtain descends for the final time, they can be seen crouching lower and lower, still waving to show how much they appreciate us. This reminds me of the 1972 Toronto tryout of Sugar. Johnny Desmond, who'd played Spats Palazzo, burst onto the stage for his curtain call. He blew the audience a kiss and mouthed "I love you!" to us. (Perhaps he did, but the management didn't love him; Desmond and the show soon parted company.)

What other curtain calls do I remember most from almost 7,000 trips to the theater? In 1988, when I saw the title character of Carrie (played by Linzi Hateley) drenched in "blood" just before show's end, I wondered if she'd be able to get the gunk off of her in time for her curtain call. Nope! She came out looking like the wrath of God. In 1981, Ann Morrison got a terrific burst of applause when she took her bow after the first preview of Merrily We Roll Along, and then Lonny Price got an even larger burst. But when James Weissenbach came out, the applause diminished greatly. He heard it, too, and the disappointment on his face was palpable.

In 1990, Dorothy Stanley, subbing for Dorothy Loudon in the final matinee performance of the about-to-close Annie 2 in Washington, came out to drab applause. She raised an arm and let it fall, as if to say, "Hey, look, I'm not right for this role. I just did the best I could under terrible circumstances." And speaking of Loudon: I remember her first night back in Annie in July 1977, after her husband Norman Paris had died. The audience was going wild for Miss Hannigan, and Loudon smiled graciously to show her appreciation, but there was a deadness in her eyes that only those who knew what had happened would have been able to see.

In 1973, I caught the Boston tryout of Cyrano with my pal Bill Martin, who'd already seen the show a few times. When Christopher Plummer came out for his bow, Bill whispered to me, "Watch his hands. He's going to raise them a little. It's an old actor's trick that gets people to stand." Indeed, that's exactly what Plummer did -- and he got his standing o. Of course, this was back in the day when such ovations weren't knee-jerk automatic; today, even the Venus DeMilo wouldn't need hands to get an audience on its feet.

Finally, though I've railed against Carolyn Cantor for giving a Nazi the last bow, I at least give her credit for awarding that honor to a human being. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the last bow went to the car, which shows you where that show's priorities were.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]