Gloria Reuben has made a career of playing strong women, from her Emmy-nominated turn as Jeannie Boulet on the long-running NBC series ER to her award-winning portrayal of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Stuff Happens. Now, she returns to the scene of that latter triumph -- the Public Theater -- to portray Porcia, Brutus' wife, in the world premiere of Richard Nelson's Conversations in Tusculum. "I seem not to be to drawn to the light and fluffy," Reuben says with a laugh. "She's very different from Condi, but also similar in the way that they're both intelligent women who have the capability of leading men who are a little bit in flux and enjoy having power. In the end, she saves the day."
While Reuben hasn't hopped on a plane to Rome -- which she calls her favorite city -- to prepare for the part, she has done plenty of research. "It's quite different to do this sort of part and need to travel back in time to find out what people really believed then," she says. "I've been reading as many books as possible, though back then, people basically wrote down the lives of men. For example, this book The Noblest Roman is about Brutus, but it's helping me find out more about their relationship. I've also seen a variety of illustrations about Cato, Porcia's father, and there are a couple of paintings of her and her brothers. Obviously, this has been creative casting and it's exciting to cross the color barrier. Given what's happening in politics, I think it's fitting that we're being urged to look beyond the outside."
Reuben is surrounded by an extraordinary cast, including Aidan Quinn as Brutus, David Strathairn as Cassius, Brian Dennehy as Cicero, and Maria Tucci as Servilla. "It's definitely a heady room; everyone is such a force in his or her own way," she says. "But Aidan is so wonderful and really committed to the part and the play. He dives into things as deeply as I do. Yes, there's a lot of testosterone there -- Maria only has once scene -- so I take a deep breath and let the guys be guys. Plus, I figure if I can sing the National Anthem at the Giants' game, I can handle this."
Reuben's singing career -- she briefly left acting to perform with Tina Turner on tour -- is on hold for a while. Shortly after the play is over, she'll begin filming a new TNT series Raising the Bar, in which she plays a public defender. And she won't rule out another visit to ER, having made a brief return to the show a few weeks ago. "I got a lot of great feedback from that," she says. "But on my first hiatus from Raising the Bar, I really want to come back to New York and do another play."
Having played everyone from a stoker on the Titanic, a vicious gossip columnist, and the first man on Earth on Broadway, Brian d'Arcy James could look on playing a 21st-century family man -- whose wife is severely depressed -- as something of a comedown. Au contraire! The actor is extremely excited about tackling the role of Dan in the offbeat Off-Broadway musical Next to Normal at Second Stage.
"Doing this show is extremely rewarding because it's both a complex story and an unusual one for a musical," he says. "I love that it asks all of us in the cast to be on our toes, because it's really difficult to tell such a rich story through sung-through music. The score is a mixture of pop, rock, and musical theater, and I find it very easy to sing, because it's so inviting. I'd even say I have a chemical feel for it."
James also believes that for all the musical's specific plot points, it has a wide appeal. "I think anyone who has an inkling of what it means to feel pain or who has watched someone else suffer can relate to the show," he notes. "Lots of people have their own stories like this. I think you can access this show in many ways, although I didn't realize the extent of that until I began working on it."
The Tony-nominated actor is equally thrilled to be working with co-star Alice Ripley, who plays his wife Diana. "We have done concert work before, but we've never done a show before. And she is an extraordinarily brave actress and a really great partner," he says. "We've talked about the fact that the show requires controlled chaos, and we're totally like-minded in how we deal with that. It's what you hope for in an on-stage relationship."
Save those pennies, nickels and quarters; there are a lot of great CDs worth adding to your collection. Among my recent favorites: Rufus Wainwright's Judy! Judy! Judy!; jazz great Diane Schur's Some Other Time; cabaret favorite Baby Jane Dexter's You're Following Me; the late Nancy LaMott's Ask Me Again, Broadway star Ken Page's Page by Page; Betty Buckley's Quintessence; the all-star recording of Brian Gari's Late Nite Comic; and the recordings of two Off-Broadway shows, Gone Missing and Forbidden Broadway: Rude Awakening. Still to come in the next few weeks: the original cast recording of Disney's The Little Mermaid; Three Graces, featuring Broadway's Sara Gettelfinger; and Hallways: The Songs of Carol Hall, featuring such great singers as Lesley Gore, Sally Mayes, Amanda McBroom, Johnny Rodgers and Carol Woods.
TWICE AS NICE
It's good to be friends with Millicent Martin. The beloved English actress might not do just one number in a new musical for just anyone, but since the author is British farcemeister Ray Cooney, one of the veteran star's oldest pals, she happily agreed to appear in the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities' world premiere of his first musical Twice Upon a Time. "We often get together socially and we always have a good time. So when he first told me about the show and asked me to help him in the workshop, I thought it would be fun," she says. And right now, I only do things that sound like fun. She's an eccentric old bird; the one thing I don't want to play is the old lady in the rocking chair. That's when I really retire. And Ray is great to work with; even when he gives notes, he treats everyone with humor and kindness. The whole cast adores him."
In the US, Martin is best known for playing Gertrude Moon on the TV series Frasier -- "those were the sweetest people in the world," she notes -- and for the Broadway production of Side by Side by Sondheim, which she originated in London alongside her good friends David Kernan and Julia McKenzie. "I remember when David first contacted Stephen Sondheim about putting the show together. He told him to go ahead, but said he couldn't think of anything more boring," she recalls. "But I think our little show really helped put his work into people's consciousness, because you really got to hear all the lyrics. Plus, our voices blended so well together."
Martin's next gig is this summer, when she returns to London to star as Maman in the Open Air production of the classic musical Gigi. "I want to do all the great old ladies of the musical stage, and she's a particularly feisty one," says Martin. "Open Air is one of the few places I've never worked before, and it will be lovely to play a new venue. I just hope it doesn't rain. England is a terrific place -- and I miss my friends there -- but it does have such awful weather."