Katherine Helmond is very happy to be part of the old girl's club. That's one way of describing the cast of The Oldest Profession, Paula Vogel's play about a group of aging prostitutes, which begins previews on Saturday at the Signature Theatre. "I play the madam, which is actually a bit of a departure for me," says Helmond. "She's a much tougher woman than my usual characters, who are known for all-out crazy comedy. I'm having such fun working with Marylouise Burke, Anita Gillette, Carlin Glynn, and Joyce Van Patten. Even though I've only worked with Joyce before, we have about 1,000 years of collective experience between us, so we have a kind of shorthand that allows us to leap right into the center of things."
Helmond is also enjoying working closely with Vogel, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive and Signature's resident playwright this year: "I didn't really know Paula's work before I got this play, but I think she's a very impressive writer and a very serious person. She really has empathy and sympathy for these older women. The play is ultimately about how they survive in a tough arena and deal with being alone."
While she is best known for her television work -- notably her starring roles in the hit sitcoms Soap and Who's The Boss? -- Helmond has had a remarkable theatrical career. She earned a Tony Award nomination in 1973 for the revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Great God Brown and has performed in almost all of the plays of her favorite writer, Tennessee Williams, including the original production of Orpheus Descending. But her greatest theatrical triumph was as Bananas in the original Off-Broadway staging of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves.
"That play was such a departure because it incorporated everything from farce to slapstick comedy, and yet it was also tragic," Helmond says. "I remember John laughing about one of the reviews that criticized him for not making up his mind about what kind of play he wanted to write! Bananas really gave me a chance to display my wares as an actress, and that's the reason I got the part of Jessica Tate on Soap; it turned out that the writer and director of the show had seen me in the play and remembered me when it came time to cast Jessica."
When Heather Tom says she likes to keep busy, she's not kidding. Not content with putting in long days on the set of the ABC soap opera One Life to Live in the role of the increasingly unhinged Kelly Cramer Buchanan, the two-time Daytime Emmy winner -- and survivor of the Broadway fiasco Prymate -- has a variety of projects on her plate. Tom's currently down at the Access Theater in Moonchild, a Fringe Festival comedy about the early days of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, in which she plays a sort of femme fatale. "I thought it was a really funny script," she tells me, "and that was even before I realized it was based on a true story."
On August 30, Tom will participate in a one-night reading of Elektra with Marisa Tomei, Kathleen Chalfant, and David Straitharn at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts as part of the Imagine Festival. "What I really like about doing the piece is that it's a way for me to be political but not really partisan," says Tom, who has a lifelong interest in classical literature and is actively involved in many political and charitable causes. Then, in early September, Tom will star as Catherine in a two-week run of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof at Theater Fest in Montclair, New Jersey. "It's an amazing play," she says. "When you read it, it's remarkable how those words go together so well."
New York has long had one well-known restaurant where you can eat surrounded by pictures of celebrities. But now there's one where you can eat surrounded by pictures by celebrities. Arte Café on West 73rd Street is now the home of the Drama Desk Art*Kives, a collection of 83 sketches drawn by various Drama Desk nominees since 2001; among the scores of actor/artists represented are Antonio Banderas, Lily Tomlin, and Kevin Kline. "It's our way of capturing and honoring these performers for all the hard work they do," says the collection's creator, Sarah Galvin. "It's not surprising that people who are creative in one arena prove to be creative in another."
While none of the artists were on hand for the official unveiling on Monday night, the party didn't lack for star power. Spotted were One Life to Live star Robert S. Woods and his lovely wife Loyita (who are the producers of the Fringe Festival hit Graceland), not to mention such Broadway veterans as Jana Robbins, Marilyn Sokol, and Doris Belack with her husband, producer Philip Rose. Also taking in the festivities was Hairspray cast member John Jeffrey Martin, who's looking forward to a couple of nights next month when he won't be singing that show's score. "On September 19, I'm joining a lot of the cast of Hairspray for a night at Joe's Pub," he tells me. "And the next day, I'll be singing my own stuff at CBGB's Gallery, which I try to do once a month."
THE DOCTOR IS OUT
The invitation-only presentation of the new musical A Tale of Two Cities, today and tomorrow at the Little Shubert, is a veritable Les Misérables reunion. Producers Barbara Russell, Ron Sharpe, and David Bryant, and cast members Timothy Shew, Ed Dixon, and Alex Santoriello (the brother of the show's composer, Jill Santoriello) are all vets of the legendary Broadway musical. So is the show's star, Gary Morris, whose character, Dr. Manette, is released from prison as the tale begins. Doesn't that sound familiar?
"I think we need to talk to Charles Dickens about that similarity," says the Grammy-winning Morris, who spent six months on the Great White Way as Jean Valjean. "But Valjean was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread and, no matter how unfair that was, he was complicit in his actions. Dr. Manette is jailed just for being a witness to a crime." Morris does point out one striking coincidence: "Manette has been in prison for 17 years, and it's been 17 years since I was last in a show in New York," he notes. "I guess 17 is the magic number."
WHAT'S THE LATEST?
Word on the street has been that two of the musicals to be presented in concert by the popular City Center Encores! series this season would be the famous Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents flop Anyone Can Whistle and Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella. Now I hear that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn -- a 1951 show with music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and a book by George Abbott and Betty Smith -- has replaced Happy Fella in the lineup. No word yet on what will fill the third Encores! slot. Meanwhile, on the casting front: Tony winner Cleavant Derricks has stepped in to BROOKLYN, The Musical, replacing the ailing David Jennings...Liz McCartney and Judy McLane will go into Mamma Mia! later this fall as sidekicks Rosie and Tanya, and Carolee Carmello may also join the show in the lead role of Donna Sheridan...Former Hollywood Squares favorite Jim J. Bullock will join the cast of Hairspray when funnyman Bruce Vilanch takes over from Michael McKean in October...Jonathan Freeman and Brooks Ashmanskas will step into The Producers on August 31 as Roger DeBris and Carmen Ghia.