The Kesselring Awards on Sunday night should be terrific. Not just because Rosie Perez, Fritz Weaver, Pippa Pearthree, and Michael Potts will do a staged reading of Brooklyn Bridge -- a play by Melissa James Gibson, who won the $10,000 prize that's annually given "to a new playwright of promise." The shindig at the National Arts Club always has a charming moment when everyone raises a glass of elderberry wine to toast both the winning playwright and Joseph Kesselring himself.
Kesslering wrote one of Broadway's most durable properties: Arsenic and Old Lace, the only comedy to run over 1,000 performances both on Broadway and in London's West End. Its plot involves two lovely little old ladies who rent rooms to passersby. If they find that a new tenant has no relatives or friends, they soon think, "So sad to be all alone in the world..." But unlike Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie, they have neither an ulterior nor a profit motive; they give each a glass of elderberry wine laced with arsenic so that the lonely tenant will peacefully pass on to a presumably better place.
Needless to say, the elderberry wine that the Kesselring Awards dispenses is arsenic-free. So is the bottle that I keep in my wine rack, from which I now pour to toast some deserving folk such as Evalyn Baron, who's become the associate artistic director of the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. Many theatergoers will remember her as Mme. Thenardier in the midst of Les Misérables' Broadway run, but now she's letting the South see her in such delicious roles as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. She directs there, too, and will soon stage a production of 1776 starring her fiancé, Peter Yonka. I was concerned that their working together might hurt the relationship -- it's been known to happen when one beloved directs another -- but Evelyn tells me that last season, when she directed Peter as Curly in Oklahoma! things were O.K.
I hope to get down there in 2003, to see 1776 and raise a glass to both the engaged couple and the Barter itself, which is celebrating 70 years of operation. Some things have changed a bit; back in the day, it was quite common to barter your way into seeing a show by offering food. It can still be done, but the theater much prefers that you pay cash for your ticket. (Wonder how many seats I could get in exchange for my bottle of elderberry wine?)
And here's to Lou Berger, Gary Adams, and John Kroll, who -- 20 years ago -- lived on the same street in Queens and wrote a musical. Yes, long before Bat Boy, they did Wild Boy, about a 19th-century doctor who attempted to humanize the "wolf-child" that, for years, had lived alone in the woods of France. "But we didn't want simply to write a case study about a boy and his teacher," Berger says. "Then you might as well musicalize The Miracle Worker. So we invented a troupe of strolling players, the 1800s equivalent of the New York Post, to put on a series of rollicking comic numbers about the true nature of the wild boy: Is he a potential knight in shining armor, a destructive force of nature, or an erotic enchanter? Each number dramatizes the point of view of one of the main characters in the story."
In 1984, I saw a most promising reading of the show, directed by the then-unknown Scott Ellis; in subsequent years, I wondered why I didn't see it again. Well, as it turns out, librettist Berger became the head writer for Sesame Street and composer Adams, who'd been playing piano for A Chorus Line on Broadway, decided to try farming in Kansas and raised four kids, while Kroll headed to California to work for Disney. But last year, Adams happened to mention the show to Charles Rogers, director of the Carlson Center for the Performing Arts outside Kansas City. "There is real humanity in this piece," Rogers says, "about a search for meaning and the balance between civilized and uncivilized behavior." So, in January, Wild Boy gets its chance -- and I hope that after its premiere, I'll have another reason to toast everyone involved.
I'd also like to raise a glass to Mary Liz McNamara, who's written a terrific song that begins, "Tried to write a sonnet, but the words didn't rhyme. Tried to write a novel, but it took way too much time. I tried to write a screenplay, but I had these other things to do, so I started writing haiku." The rest of "Haiku" is just as delightful, and Page Sampson sings it splendidly in her cabaret act First Person Singular at Don't Tell Mama's. (I don't believe they serve elderberry wine there, so B.Y.O.E.W.)
A whole bottle of elderberry wine to Stephen Rourke, chairman of Friends of the Biltmore, which is dedicated to restoring both the Biltmore Theatre and other playhouses in Times Square. They're raising funds which they'll contribute to Manhattan Theatre Club to help pay for the restoration of MTC's Broadway home. The organization is selling T-shirts sporting the Biltmore's facade, with the marquee proclaiming "I'm a Friend of The Biltmore." Check it out at members.aol.com/friendsbiltmore/myhomepage/profile.html.
A tall glass of elderberry wine to celebrate Tovah Feldshuh's diplomacy. The actress-singer (who'll perform with Jamie deRoy and Friends at the Laurie Beechman Theater this coming Saturday and on Monday, December 2) was talking to me about her career and happened to mention that in 1974 she was in Brainchild, a Michel Legrand musical that closed in Philadelphia without braving Broadway. It was produced by Adela Holzer, who has endured more than one stint in jail for shady dealings. When I asked about Holzer, Feldshuh pointed a no-nonsense finger at me and said, "I'll tell you this: Adela Holzer was very good to her actors." That was all she'd say.
And a liter of elderberry wine in toast of Patrick Quinn, president of Actors' Equity, who's currently playing the den mother of a troupe of drag queens in Blessing in Disguise. "Though," he says, "I am getting a little tired of people telling me that when I'm dressed as a woman, I look like Bea Arthur or Jo Anne Worley. Someone even said that I reminded him of Karen Ziemba -- to which I said, 'Don't let me be the one to call Karen and tell her that.'" (Maybe it was a compliment in disguise to the Blessing in Disguise star.)
Quinn swears -- as so many actors do -- that this is the first time he's ever, ever done drag. "And that includes Halloween," he insists. "When I got a call from an agent who got me a lot of commercials, he said it's a play, it takes pace in a drag club, and you're supposed to be the oldest living drag queen. Which made me wonder, how old have I actually become? I started talking to the writer, Larry Pellgrini, and asked if [the character] could just be the den mother and not be 75. I mean, I don't think I read that old, do I? But I gave it a try at a couple of readings; I invited friends who thought the script was awfully funny. I was offered a revue at the same time as this and I thought, 'Well, I've done revues but I've never done this.'"
But, Quinn admits, he was wearing his regular butch clothes when he did the readings -- "and it's a whole different ballgame when you have put on a dress, not to mention the high heels," he says. "As I put my 12-D feet into them, the reality slowly began to sink in. When I had to walk through a common area of rehearsals studios where all these people were around, I would drop my head low and slink quietly through. Now, I just walk right through."
Another shock came when Quinn saw what theater he was playing -- a converted Eighth Avenue porno house that has myriad slivers of mirrors strategically placed in various designs. "The Lunts didn't play here," he says. "They never even drove by! At first, I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' But I've since made my peace with it. I even added a line to the show, explaining that the guy who owns our theater had to spend his 100 hours of community service gluing on all those little, mirrored pieces."
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]