Playing a scientist on stage can be a tricky business. Just ask Lois Nettleton, who's starring as a botanist with a mission in Mark Giesser's new comedy How to Build a Better Tulip at the Acorn Theater. "It's not easy learning some of these lines, rattling out words you've never heard of," says the veteran actress. "It really all comes down to sheer memorization. But I am having a great time with this play, which is based loosely on a novel by Alexandre Dumas. Mark is such a bright, lovely man, both as playwright and director. Usually, I think it's a mistake for playwrights to direct their own work, but this time, it's really right on."
Many people know Nettleton for her television work -- she has earned two Emmys (and a total of six nominations) and appeared on everything from Bonanza to General Hospital to Crossing Jordan -- but her heart belongs to the stage. Her all-time favorite role, bar none, is Blanche DuBois, which she played in the 1973 Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. "I was about 14 when I first read the play and I fell in love with the character of Blanche," says Nettleton. "From then on, it was always in the back of my mind that I would do that part. But when my manager called me to take over the role [from Rosemary Harris], the first thing I told him was 'I'm not good enough to do it yet.' But he told me to get my butt on a plane -- I was in California at the time -- and I did. I had just 10 days to learn the part. I didn't go to see Rosemary in it; if I see someone else do a part, what they do stays with me. And I've never seen another production of the play since. It holds that special a place in my life."
Nettleton's only regret about the production is that, as a replacement, she wasn't eligible for a Tony Award. But she was nominated three years later in the Best Featured Actress category for her performance in the short-lived revival of Sidney Kingsley's They Knew What They Wanted. "I lost to Shirley Knight in God's Children," she says. "The other nominees were Mary Beth Hurt and Meryl Streep, so I figured I was in good company." Had she won, where would she have displayed her Tony? "I feel a little boastful about having my awards out too prominently," she tells me. "The Emmys are on top of a chest in my house in California and I keep the Clarence Derwent Award with me in my apartment in New York."
To say that June is a big month for Charles Busch would be an understatement. He's one of 25 playwrights -- including John Guare, Terrence McNally, Wendy Wasserstein, and Douglas Carter Beane -- who have contributed to The Direct Line Play, which inaugurates the new home of the Provincetown Theater this weekend. To show off his acting skills, not to mention his fabulous figure, La Busch is beginning a two-week run as the title character of Auntie Mame at Maine's Ogonquit Playhouse on Monday; the production will then move to the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, where it will play July 13-August 1. And the writer-performer's Sundance Film Festival favorite Die Mommy Die is due out on DVD on Tuesday.
If all of that isn't enough, Busch's Tony-nominated comedy The Tale of the Allergist's Wife is being produced all across the country this summer, from Ashland, Oregon to Parsippany, New Jersey to Dallas, Texas (where it begins a six-week run at Theater Three on August 26). And talk about icing on the cake: Manhattan Theatre Club has just announced that it will present C.B.'s new play Our Leading Lady, which takes place at Washington D.C's Ford's Theatre on the night of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, early next year.
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES
Sally Mayes is back on the cabaret circuit! Her upcoming gigs include the Bradstan Country Inn in White Lake, New York (June 27), Milwaukee's Stackner Cabaret (July 9-10), and the Hamptons Cabaret Convention (August 21)...The lovely Lauren Kennedy will co-star with Robert Evan and Kate Shindle in a concert version of Jekyll & Hyde at the Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center in Marlton, New Jersey, June 25-27. Then she'll play Holly Golightly in the St. Louis MUNY's production of Breakfast at Tiffany's, July 19-25...Edie Falco will reportedly co-star with Brenda Blethyn in the Broadway revival of Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother this fall.
THE LETTERS MAN
Director Stafford Arima hopes that good things really do come in threes. He's already earned excellent notices for his two current productions, The Pajama Game at the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, Illinois and the Paper Mill Playhouse's Guys and Dolls, starring Robert Cuccioli and Kate Baldwin. "I am glad audiences are embracing this production of Guys and Dolls," says Arima, who has yet to read the reviews. "What I love about approaching any piece of material is exploring its heart; I was interested in really breaking down who these colorful characters are. That's one reason why I cast Karen Ziemba as Miss Adelaide. I wanted someone who had not just vulnerability but also a lot of strength."
Project three is Children's Letters to God, a new musical now in previews at the Lamb's Theater, with a book by Stuart Hample (based on his best-selling book of the same name) and a score by David Evans and Douglas Cohen. "I'm excited by the universality of this piece," says Arima. "The issues these kids are grappling with -- death, divorce, first love, self-esteem -- are things we grapple with whether we're 15 or 35." Is he enjoying working with his young cast? Absolutely. "There is almost no ego involved," he says. "We very carefully handpicked these five young people because we wanted actors who are professionals but not yet bathed in that sheen of stardom that makes them lose their authenticity."
Speaking of trinities, Arima is developing a new musical called Altar Boyz, about a Christian boy band. Later this summer, he's heading out to the Sacramento Music Circus to direct a production of Jesus Christ Superstar (August 24-September 5), starring Max Von Essen. "I think there is a wonderful presence of faith in the air," he says. "You can definitely say that Jesus has made a comeback. This will be a traditional presentation; I am not setting it in Iraq. And if you want to see a gritty version of the crucifixion, go see The Passion."
The surprisingly calm Arima has at least two more directing jobs lined up. In October, he will helm Aida at the North Shore Music Theatre; and, next spring, he will return to Paper Mill with his scaled-down production of Ragtime, which earned him an Olivier Award nomination when it played the West End in 2003.
AWARDS OF THE STATE
Harvey Fierstein, Alan Cumming, Laura Linney, John Tartaglia, and Christopher Seiber will be honored tonight at City Hall at the 2004 Pride Awards ceremony, to be emceed by John Cameron Mitchell...Oscar winner Shirley Jones, currently starring on Broadway in 42nd Street, gets her caricature hung at Sardi's today...Playwright Charles Randolph Wright and producer Gwen Gilliam received the New Professional Theater's Theatre Spirit Award on Monday night...Tony winner Tommy Tune watched the New York City Gay Men's Chorus perform his show-stopping number "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish" in the group's "Out on Broadway" concert on Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall...Award-winning daytime TV divas Louise Sorel and Marj Dusay were among those roaring with laughter last Friday night at Afterbirth: Kathy and Mo's Greatest Hits.