In only a short time, the Food for Thought series of lunch hour readings has become known not only for the quality of the authors represented--Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, etc.--but even more for the starry casts that are often assembled to bring one-act plays and other short works to life at the National Arts Club. Past programs have showcased the talents of everyone from Patricia Neal to Campbell Scott to Hayley Mills to Kathleen Chalfant.
On Monday, April 29 at 1pm, the bill of fare is Miller's The Last Yankee, directed by Ulu Grosbard and featuring film and Broadway star Treat Williams along with Rose Gregorio (Grosbard's wife and an exceptionally fine actress in her own right), Bob Dishy, and Kit Flanagan. Williams is excited about the project, as he told me in a telephone interview from Atlantic City following two weeks of press junkets and interviews for Hollywood Ending, the new Woody Allen movie in which he appears.
THEATERMANIA: So, you're in Atlantic City. Who's performing there?
TREAT WILLIAMS: Actually Carrot Top is performing here...and he's selling out.
TM: What brought you to A.C.?
TW: I'm a partner in a company called Helicopter Services and Instruction out of New Jersey. We fly people here from Trump's pier dock, and we were having a little soiree for the hotel owners.
TM: Tell me about The Last Yankee.
TW: To be honest with you, I don't know a whole lot about it yet. I've read a shorter version of it and I'm going to read the longer version over the weekend. Then we're going to do the reading on Monday.
TM: There's more than one version of the play?
TW: Apparently so. There are only two characters in the script I read but there are four in the one we're doing. It's basically about two men of different social strata who are in the waiting room of some kind of institution for people with mental problems. Both of their wives are residents there, and the men start talking. In the longer version, the wives are actually brought into the play.
TM: Have you done Miller before?
TW: Yes: We did a reading of Memory of Two Mondays in this series.
TM: Food for Thought is pretty amazing in terms of the casts and the spontaneity of the readings.
TW: I had a great time. It's exciting to do something like this because usually what happens in theater is that, after the first or second reading of a play, it falls apart completely and the rehearsal process is such that you begin to pick up the pieces and put it back together again. These readings are fun because you have one rehearsal, sort of stop and go, where you work on particular sections and a little bit of character--and then you just go and do it. The adrenalin comes from the fact that the performance is basically the first reading. You give 100% to the audience and hope for the best.
TM: You were in the Roundabout's Follies last season and, just a few years ago, you did Captains Courageous at MTC. It's nice to have you working on stage in New York so frequently.
TW: Thanks. We've been renovating our apartment, and in theater--particularly Off-Broadway--you don't quite make the amount of money you need to do the things you need to do, as compared to film or TV. The wonderful thing about Food for Thought is that it lets you keep your hand in theater and be in front of a live audience without a commitment of six months, or even three months. I'm starting a new television series called Everwood for the WB but, hopefully, the hiatus will afford me the opportunity to do more theater.
TM: Everwood? What's it about?
TW: It's kind of a Frank Capra meets Northern Exposure thing. I play a doctor in Manhattan who has an epiphany after his wife dies tragically: He decides he's going to do something different, so he moves with his two children to a very small town in Colorado, in the Rockies, and opens up a free clinic. It's more or less about the learning curve involved in being a parent.
TM: Is this just a pilot, or has the show been picked up by the network?
TW: As far as I'm concerned, it has! I'm a positive thinker. Here's the deal: If it doesn't get picked up and I've told the entire universe that it has been picked up--which I've been doing--nobody is going to remember it a week from now, anyway. So I'm saying that it's been picked up, we're going to run for six years, and we're all thrilled.
TM: That must be the best of both worlds for an actor: to have a steady job on a TV series and also be able to do theater during your time off.
TW: Well, I've got two small children and this is a very important time for me to be around them. If we have to go to L.A. for a few years, it's not an unpleasant place to be, weather-wise. Also, if you're in a TV show that does turn out to be very successful, you then can do whatever you want to do in theater for a very long time. That's the tradeoff...and it's not such a bad thing.