Patricia Neal
Patricia Neal
Lunch hour in New York got a lot more interesting last fall with the launch of "Food for Thought," a series of midday one-act play readings that began at The Producers' Club and then moved to larger quarters at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park. The series features an array of the theater's finest actors: Where else can audiences enjoy a box lunch while listening to Marian Seldes read Arthur Miller, Campbell Scott perform Pinter, or Patricia Neal tackle Tennessee Williams? No wonder "Food for Thought," which has returned to Gramercy Park for a second season through December, attracts a mix of theater-loving locals and savvy tourists.

Neal chatted with TheaterMania recently about her upcoming appearance in Williams' Portrait of a Madonna, a one-act forerunner of A Streetcar Named Desire, on November 14. (She will also read the beloved Truman Capote piece A Christmas Memory with her friend Joel Vig on November 5.) First published in 1945, the Williams play presents the musings of a Southern gentlewoman who has retreated into a fantasy world and is on the verge of being evicted from her seedy apartment. Unaware that she's about to be taken away to a mental hospital, she reviews the events of her life with the building's porter, who will be played by Eli Wallach in the readings with Neal.

"We did the play for the first time about two months ago and it was a great success," says Neal, adding with a throaty laugh: "I read well, it seems." Physically slowed by strokes, the 75-year-old actress has maintained her distinctive growl of a voice and keeps busy with such readings and an autobiographical presentation that covers the highlights of her very dramatic life. For those too young to remember: Neal had a long affair with Gary Cooper, was married for three decades to writer Roald Dahl, lost a child to measles, and suffered a series of debilitating strokes at age 39. She was awarded one of the very first Tonys in 1947 for Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, won an Oscar opposite Paul Newman in Hud (1963), and--post-stroke--earned a Best Actress nomination for The Subject Was Roses in 1968.

"As you can imagine," Neal says cheerfully, "after having a stroke, you are not what you used to be. I cannot learn lines the way I used to. I just cannot do enormous stage parts--but I can read them. I've traveled all over the place with the Theater Guild for more than 20 years, and I love that. I do all kinds of readings--The White Magnolia Tree, which Helen Hayes made famous, and This Life. And I make a speech about my life that lasts about 45 minutes. It's a good speech!"

"Food for Thought" artistic director Susan Charlotte felt that Neal, a native of Packard, Kentucky, would be a good match for Williams' wounded heroine in Portrait of a Madonna. "She's a very strong actress with that wonderful voice," says Charlotte. "I thought that it would be great for her to do a meaty part that also has a vulnerable quality." Noting that Kathleen Turner will play the same role in the series on October 26, Charlotte says: "Often, we have five different casts performing the same play. Audiences enjoy hearing different interpretations of a text."

Shrewdly, Neal suggested Wallach as her reading partner for the Williams piece. "I've loved Eli forever," she says. "Years ago, we did one of the first Off-Broadway things. James Dean and Anne [Jackson, Wallach's wife] were in it, too. I forget the name of it." Warren Langton, Neal's friend of 25 years, prompts the play title from the other side of the room: The Scarecrow, mounted in the 1952-53 theatrical season, the same one in which Wallach starred in the debut production of Williams' Camino Real.

Dates may elude her, but Neal has a sharp memory for reviews. Asked about her previous experience performing Williams, she says, "I did Suddenly Last Summer in London before the film was made and I got rave notices, I really did. That was gorgeous." Langton interjects: "She got a rave from Kenneth Tynan." Called to the phone to brag on his friend, Langton says, "Pat is still very active. She does a wonderful Fanny Cavendish from The Royal Family and she tears down the house every time she sings 'Send in the Clowns.' We were up at a theater conference in Alaska, and Edward Albee called Sondheim and told him that he had never heard that song more beautifully sung."

Langton is helping Neal catalog her letters, a future gift to the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Hospital in her childhood hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. "When I die, I'm going to leave all my awards and papers to them," the actress explains, "and they will have a room at the hospital to show them." All except the Tony, that is. "I was given a silver compact with my initials on it," she recalls, "and, inside, it said what the award was. I was idiotic enough to give it to two boys who said they would have it preserved for me, and I never saw it again." Neal perks up at the notion that the American Theatre Wing might be willing to give her a replacement statue. "They should do that!" she exclaims. "But I'm sorry about that compact."

As she looks to the future, Neal sees herself remaining active with speeches and readings, dividing her time between her Manhattan apartment and her home on Martha's Vineyard. ("I don't want to impress you," she says teasingly, "but my house was built by the captain of the ship written about in Moby Dick.") She and Vig and Sinthea Starr will offer a program of "songs, stories, and surprises" entitled Old Friends at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on November 3. Mostly, Neal will continue to spend time with family, including her model granddaughter Sophie Dahl--"a good girl and a good model," pronounces grandma.

"Pat has done it all," says Warren Langton. "Her life has been terrific and horrific. And now she does a lot of volunteer work for organizations that involve children. She's great at raising money because she is beloved by 90 percent of the population. The other 10 percent, the young people, don't know her...but anybody over 30 knows her and loves her."

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

[For more information, visit the website www.foodforthoughtproductions.com or phone 212-362-2560.]