Tovah Feldshuh
Tovah Feldshuh
Sometimes, it's what you know and who you know. What Tovah Feldshuh knows about acting qualifies her for just about any role. In the past 30 years, this petite dynamo has triumphed in every medium--theater, film, television, cabaret--and every genre, moving effortlessly between drama, comedy, and musical theater. She has earned three Tony nominations (for Sarava, Yentl, and Lend Me a Tenor), one Emmy nomination (for the searing miniseries Holocaust), and a panoply of other awards, including the Drama Desk, Obie, and Theatre World.

But it's who she knew that has led Feldshuh to her two current projects. Kilt, a new Off-Broadway comedy, was offered to her by Tony-winning director Jack Hoffsis. "Jack had directed me in Sarah and Abraham at George Street in New Brunswick," Feldshuh recalls. "He sent me this script and told me 'Read it, you will love it.' And I could not put it down. Jonathan Wilson, who's a young Canadian playwright, really knows what he's writing about. It's a phenomenal piece."

In an odd twist of fate, Feldshuh's role in Kissing Jessica Stein, a new independent film that is proving to be a hit around the country, also never would have come about if it hadn't been for Sarah and Abraham. "My understudy at George Street was this lovely, talented actress, Amy Wilson, and eventually she became my personal assistant," Feldshuh relates. "One day, she brought in a classmate of hers from Yale who also needed a job, and that was Jennifer Westfeldt. Then Jennifer and Heather Juergensen wrote this play Lipstick and we all decided during its development that, if it ever went further, I would play Jessica's mother." Lipstick became Kissing Jessica Stein and Feldshuh was, indeed, the central character's mother in both pieces.

Playing a Jewish mama, as she does in the film, is doin' what comes naturally for Feldshuh; but was she nervous about essaying Kilt's Esther, a Scottish-born, Canadian dance school owner? Not at all. "It feels like my destiny," she says. "Scots are a very hot-blooded people and so are my people. I did a Scottish accent once before, when I played Jean Brodie up at Cornell, but Esther has a very different accent; it's a Glaswegian accent overlaid with an Edinburgh one to make her sound more sophisticated. I've been working with a brilliant dialect coach."

As different as the two characters are, both mothers have to deal with their child's sexuality--or, more precisely, homosexuality. In Kilt, son Tom is a gay exotic dancer (his grandfather's military kilt is part of his act), a fact that his mum has trouble handling. As it turns out, Tom is not the only member of the clan who has experienced same-sex sex. "The message of the play," according to Feldshuh, "is that truth will out in the end. It's really about what is the truth and what is a lie, and what truth we can stomach and what lies we invent to survive."

Meanwhile, Jessica Stein's mother, Judy, is the stereotypical Scarsdale Jewish mother who wants nothing more than to dance at her beloved daughter's wedding. But when she finally puts two and two together and realizes that Jessica is more than just "best friends" with Helen, she lets her daughter know that's okay with her in a very moving scene. "We did that porch scene in one take," confides Feldshuh, "and I'm very proud they kept it that way. I am grateful to Jennifer and Heather for their loyalty and their writing talent. We shot this film while I was rehearsing Tallulah Hallelujah! [her one-woman show about Tallulah Bankhead, which had a four-month Off-Broadway run] and they graciously worked around my schedule."

Feldshuh and Chris Payne Gilbert in Kilt(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Feldshuh and Chris Payne Gilbert in Kilt
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Feldshuh is thrilled by Kissing Jessica Stein's critical and financial success, much more for Westfeldt's sake than hers: "It's a great lesson to us all that if we want something badly enough and we're willing to work through our fear and forge ahead, in this great country, we can fulfill our dreams," she declares. Her own most pleasant dream at the moment is for Kilt to move to Broadway. "The producers, Chase Mishkin and Leonard Soloway--both of whom I have worked with before--are prepared to take this to Broadway before May 1 [the deadline for the Tony nominations] if the reviews are positive," says Feldshuh. That possibility has led her to drop out of her planned spring project at the York Theatre: a new musical called The Lady in Penthouse B, in which she would have played a demanding gossip columnist known as Lady Susan.

"It's only the second time in my career that I have switched gears like this," Feldshuh tells me. "Kilt truly swept me off me feet. Although I had been announced for the show at the York, the contracts hadn't been signed yet. It was a very difficult call to make to them; I love the York and I love the piece and hope to do it someday." (Rather than mount the show without her, the theater has postponed The Lady in Penthouse B until next season.)

Looking further ahead, career-wise, Feldshuh would like to increase her film and television work; she has starred on the soap opera As The World Turns and now has a recurring role as an attorney on Law & Order. "I love the improvisational factor of film and television, the opportunity to vary my takes and enjoy that instantaneous moment of creation," she notes. Less improvisationally, she would like another chance to work on Tallulah Hallelujah!, which she co-wrote. "I need to go to Lincoln Center and see the videotape of the play so I can see how to make it better," she says. "It deserves another run. In fact, Terrence McNally and Charles Busch--both geniuses--have offered to view it with me and make suggestions."

Oh, and she has another interesting idea: "I've done three plays with the Roundabout and I'd love to work with them again. I wonder if they'd be interested in me doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." You see? Tovah Feldshuh really does like playing mothers--even if their children are imaginary