Sir Ian McKellen
Sir Ian McKellen
SIR IAN GOES INTO HIS DANCE

After 40 years a professional actor--an anniversary he's celebrating this very month, in point of fact--Ian McKellen finds that it's getting marginally easier. But just marginally. During rehearsals, he insists, "I go into a terminal decline. I say I'm never going to act again and the play's beyond me. Then, like a mountaineer climbing up Everest, I give up and face it--only I don't really give up. I go on plodding and I don't feel like I'm getting anywhere, but sometimes it just sort of happens. At the moment, this is sort of happening. I enjoy coming in every day." This past Tuesday, he went into his Dance of Death at the Broadhurst, partnered with the elegant (and sexy!) Helen Mirren for a limited gig of 17 weeks. The show can't, and won't, run any longer because Sir Ian is needed on a movie set to start sequeling X-Men.

His belated screen career slightly surprises him. "I used to envy my contemporaries, like Alan Bates and Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay and, recently, Tony Hopkins," he says. "When they were kids in their 20s, they were having huge film careers and I was just chugging away at theater. I'd had a few forays into film but none of them got anywhere. I didn't resent it; I was just, 'A pity I can't do that.' Then, when I did Richard III as a film, I had to set that up from scratch pretty well. I sort of trained myself to be a film actor. For about a year, I did all sorts of odd jobs--including an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie shot in Times Square called The Last Action Hero. By the time I'd done all that, I began to feel more at ease with the camera."

One of his best screen turns was his cameo in David Hare's Plenty, playing a career diplomat who is confronted by the hysterical wife (Meryl Streep) of his subordinate (Charles Dance). "I enjoyed doing that enormously," McKellen recalls. "I'd seen it on stage, and that was a wonderful scene. In the movie, it was kept almost entirely intact--it wasn't cut--so I knew that scene really worked. But I was very busy at the National Theatre doing Coriolanus and other plays, and I said, 'There's no way I can do [this film] except on a Sunday, because I'm working.' They said, 'Well, that's fine, because we're going to film it at the actual Foreign Office in Whitehall and the only day of the week we can get in there is Sunday,' because that's when the office is closed. They were very generous to us during the filming; Meryl and I, between shots, used to go into a little office that looked right down into Downing Street, where the prime minister lives."

McKellen's pleased that Strindberg's Dance of Death, bowing October 11, is coming at a time when New York theater is reacquainting itself with the classics via major, high profile productions. The trend was started by Streep and company with The Seagull up in Central Park in August and will be seconded as of October 4 by Kate Burton et al. in Hedda Gabler at the Ambassador. "It's good to balance stuff," Sir Ian contends. "There's a lot of froth on Broadway."

Save for the films that pay the bills, the Tony winner (for Amadeus) has been froth-free for a while. "The Seagull was almost the last play I did," he notes. "Two years ago, I went to a little company in the north of England and played the best part in that play: Doctor Dorn. It's one of those parts. I say to actors, 'Play Doctor Dorn.' It's like 'Play Mercutio. Don't play Romeo, play Mercutio--that's the part.' Like Hedda Gabler's husband. Everyone forgets Tesman, and he's the one who always comes through and gets the reviews."

********************

KINGDOM COMING

Standup comedian Ella Maxwell is in today's by-invitation-only, 45-minute reading of Only a Kingdom, Judith Shubow Steir's musical take on the romance between King Edward VIII of Great Britain and the American divorcée Wallis Simpson, at 4pm at the Westside Theater (407 West 43rd Street). Malcolm Gets, who played a facsimile of William Finn in A New Brain, plays the moonstruck monarch, and the object of his affections is the mother of Bat Boy, Kaitlin Hopkins.

Director Scott Schwartz, possessor of a highly eclectic bag of directorial tricks and stunts (Jane Eyre, Bat Boy, tick...tick...BOOM!), helms the reading, a Fringe production of the National Alliance for Musical Theater's Festival of New Musicals. Also in the cast are Rita Gardner (who originated the role of The Girl in The Fantasticks 41 years ago), Jo Ann Cunningham, Ryan Binder, and Jim Price.

********************

Stephen DeRosa
Stephen DeRosa
DEROSA'S TURN

A very funny fellow, Stephen DeRosa, made his Broadway debut just last year as one of the subsidiary zanies in The Man Who Came to Dinner, but he has been turning in hilarious performances Off-Broadway ever since he and Everett Quinton sprinted through The Mystery of Irma Vep --and, even before that, in Love's Fire at The Public. His most recent Off-Broadway work was sillying up The "IT" Girl for the York Theatre Company. Now, it's been confirmed that DeRosa has at last been rewarded with his first big Broadway part: The Baker in the revival of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, which lifts off in L.A. this winter before trudging East to The Great White Way. Vanessa Williams, as the Witch, will make the trek with him.

********************

THE PRIDE OF MIDTOWN

The firehouse at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan (Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9, "The Pride of Midtown") was flying its flag at half-mast on August 24, the day after Kathleen Freeman died. I wondered if that was an extraordinarily neighborly gesture to the veteran actress who spent her last year a block away from the firehouse in The Full Monty at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, so I asked the fireman at the front desk. He went to check; the tribute, it turned out, was for a fellow fireman who'd died the same day. As I was waiting, I noticed that the door he walked through, marked "Kitchen," had a sign on it saying: "To a rat, this is a four-star restaurant." A few days later, I dropped by the firehouse and asked another fireman for permission to show a friend the sign. He obliged.

Now, the flag on the firehouse is again at half-mast in the face of an unimaginable tragedy. On behalf of the entire Broadway community, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is donating $50,000 in memory of the firefighters lost from Battalion 9, "The Broadway Firehouse." One of the first to report for duty when the World Trade Center was attacked, the battalion lost 14 of its members in the rescue efforts of Tuesday, September 11. If you would like to match or add funds to this donation, please call 212-840-0770.