Joan Van Ark took "getting into character" to a new level while preparing for her role as meddling mother-in-law Harriet in the La Jolla Playhouse's production of Private Fittings, playwright Mark O'Donnell's modern update of the classic Feydeau farce Tailleur pour Dames. "When I first read the script, the part read like Lainie Kazan," says Van Ark. "Lainie is so brilliant, but I didn't want that kind of take on Harriet; my idea was more Ivana Trump, some brassy blonde with great legs. So for my reading with [director] Des McAnuff, I had my hairdresser do a French twist and I wore this purple suit with a miniskirt."
Van Ark, best known for her 15-year TV stint as Valene Ewing on Dallas and Knots Landing, didn't really need the work; she had spent the past year on the daytime soap The Young and the Restless and, for most of summer 2004, she was at the Kennedy Center in Five by Tenn. But the opportunity to play Harriet -- and to work with McAnuff -- proved too tempting to pass up. And her research continued after she got the role. "I do a photo collage for inspiration for every character I play," Van Ark says. "For this one, I have a big picture of Joan Rivers with Melissa, because I really admire their mother-daughter relationship. I am just as fierce in protecting my daughter [actress Vanesssa Marshall] as Joan is."
The play marks a return to French comedy for Van Ark, who earned a Tony nomination for her work in a 1971 production of Molière's The School For Wives. But, she remarks, the style of the two playwrights is not the same: "If Molière is like a 33rpm record, to use an old term, then Feydeau is a 78. We've been off book and going 90 miles per hour from the first rehearsal. And since my character is called Hurricane Harriet, it's my responsibility to both the play and the other actors to go 110mph. I make sure that every time I walk, it's like a runway stride. Now, I'm a marathoner -- I usually run 10 miles a day when I'm not working -- but I am far more exhausted doing this show than I've ever been. And I have cuts and bruises from head to toe because of all those slamming doors!"
Having made her Broadway debut almost 40 years ago as Corie Bratter in Barefoot in the Park, does Van Ark long to return to the Great White Way? "I would love to come back," she says. "And in my heart, I know that there are a couple of roles out there that I can really give everything to. I would love it to be a part like Sunny Jacobs, whom I played in The Exonerated. She had that Joan of Arc quality -- and, you know, that's my name in Dutch."
Maybe Mel Gibson was on to something? Religion plays a major role in all of The Public Theater's current offerings: Jean Claude Carriere's The Controversy of Valladolid, about the Vatican debate of 1550; Stephen Adly Guirgis's controversial The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, starring Sam Rockwell in the title role and Eric Bogosian as Satan; and Billy Porter's autobiographical solo show Ghetto Superstar.
Elsewhere on New York stages, there's Altar Boyz, the gleefully gentle satire about a Christian boy band, with star-making performances by Tyler Maynard and Scott Porter; David Mamet's surprisingly hilarious Romance, in which an Episcopalian lawyer and his Jewish client (perfectly played by Christopher Evan Welch and Steven Goldstein) overcome their deep enmity to hatch a plan for peace in the Middle East; and, beginning on March 9, the Broadway transfer of Doubt, which is likely to earn both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for author John Patrick Shanley plus numerous end-of-the-year honors for stars Cherry Jones and Brían F. O'Byrne.
DOIN' WHAT COMES NATALIE
The versatile and vivacious Natalie Douglas is getting a chance to show off both her dramatic and musical skills this month. Through March 13, she's part of the cast of The Atrain(re)plays, a "best-of" compilation of short works that were written while the authors were riding the famed New York City subway line. On March 21, Douglas returns to Birdland with To Nina, her blazingly brilliant concert tribute to Nina Simone; the evening will also serve as the release party for her CD based on the show. And even if you're not in New York, you may get your chance to hear Douglas live later this year; among other dates outside of NYC, she's set to play the Empire Plush Room in San Francisco from May 3 through 7.
Dessa Rose is set in the pre-Civil War South, but there's no denying that the musical's main storyline -- about a runaway slave and an abandoned wife (played by LaChanze and Rachel York) who travel together on a dangerous journey -- bears more than a passing resemblance to a popular 1990s movie. "There is definitely an element of Thelma & Louise in it," says co-creator Lynn Ahrens of the show. "These are two women in dire circumstances who have to rely on each other. I won't give away the ending, but I promise you that they don't ride their horse off a cliff."
Ahrens first read the Sherley Ann Williams novel on which the musical is based about 12 years ago. It took a while for her to start on the adaptation, but once she and composer Stephen Flaherty got going, there was no stopping them. "I wrote 60 pages of the libretto in just one summer," Ahrens tells me. "The book is so rich, so full of detail, and it definitely had the right flow for a musical. But we had to make some significant changes; the book is purely told from Dessa's viewpoint, but we decided that both women were equally powerful characters and that it would enhance the story to give both of them voice."
From the get-go, the team wanted LaChanze -- who starred in their Broadway shows Once on This Island and, as a replacement, in Ragtime -- for the title role. (In the show's workshop, the wife was played by Donna Murphy.) And it turns out that maybe they weren't alone. "After we did the first workshop, I found a paperback copy of the book in a store and the artwork on the cover looked exactly like her," says Ahrens. "If I had seen it before, I didn't remember."
COLOR MY WORLD
Violet, the award-winning Off-Broadway musical, may be produced by London's Donmar Warehouse next season...David Greenspan will star in Target Margin's production of Faust in Love, beginning March 17...Tony Award winners Anika Noni Rose and Lillias White will headline the Encores! production of Purlie, March 31-April 3 at City Center, along with Blair Underwood in the title role.
[To contact Brian Scott Lipton directly, e-mail him at BSL@theatermania.com.]