Siân Phillips' return to Off-Broadway in Paul Rudnick's new play Regrets Only at Manhattan Theatre Club was the result of a perfectly-timed phone call. "I was home in London, where I had been trying to get this play written for me about Queen Elizabeth I off the ground, but hadn't been able to properly cast it," she says. "So I was feeling pretty blue because I had to postpone it, when my agent from New York called to say they were sending this script. I was familiar with Paul's work, both from his magazine writing and because a friend of mine had done Jeffrey, and when I got the script, it really made me laugh a lot. It's been a real treat working with a live writer. So often, I do the plays of dead authors, and I really wish sometimes George Bernard Shaw was alive so I could ask him about the character."
In the play, Phillips plays Marietta Claypoole, an Upper East Side matron. "I've played a lot of Americans in England, but it's the first time I've played one here. I usually play Germans [as in Marlene Dietrich], Italians, and a lot of Irish people, even though I'm Welsh," she says. Taking on the role has had other pluses, such as letting her return to New York, which she loves dearly, and getting to share the stage -- and a dressing room -- with co-stars Christine Baranski, Jackie Hoffman, and Diane Davis. "We get along very well," she says. "I only knew Christine from her television work, and she's brilliant, and Jackie is one of the funniest people on the planet. It really couldn't be a nicer group, and that includes George Grizzard and David Rasche."
Long considered one of the world's foremost dramatic actresses -- as evidenced by anyone who saw her unforgettable performance as Livia in the 1976 BBC Miniseries I, Claudius -- Phillips adores doing musicals. She's starred in London in Pal Joey and A Little Night Music, among other shows, and has toured the world with her cabaret act. Right now, Phillips has one particular Jerry Herman show on her wish list. "I've always wanted to do a scaled-down version of Dear World -- sort of as a chamber piece. The music is so great, but the source material never works for me. I've been asked to do The Madwoman of Chaillot many times, but I always turn it down."
A GREAT LADY
Like many of us, the last time Kathleen Chalfant read the classic novel Great Expectations, she was a teenager. Now, she's playing the bitter, elderly Miss Havisham in the 90-minute Theaterworks USA version of the beloved Charles Dickens book. "I am having the best time," says the multi-award-winning actress. "Bathsheba Doran has done a wonderful job of compressing the novel. I read the book again over the summer, when I was visiting my mother-in-law in Canada, and it was so interesting to read it from an adult's point of view. You get such admiration for Dickens' psychological perspicacity about how people behave. If nothing else, I hope people who see the show will read the novel."
Chalfant, who's celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary this year, may keep her own wedding outfit in a box like Miss Havisham; but otherwise, she has little in common with her character. Nevertheless, she finds Havisham fascinating to play. "She is the quintessential woman scorned," she notes. "But in the complicated Dickensian idea of redemption, she finally understands she's done a terrible thing to her niece Estella -- that she made her a prop in her own drama. There's something to be learned in a world where so much is driven by revenge, where revenge has become an acceptable reason for political action, and to see that, in this smaller stage, you can take so much action without getting any satisfaction."
The show marks the first time Chalfant has done a play specifically geared for youngsters, but, over the years, she has often found them to be the best audiences. "I've done a lot of student matinees, and one of my most satisfying experiences was the 10am shows we did when I was doing Endgame at CSC," she says. "Kids really get it; either you communicate to them or you don't. And their responses are completely honest; sometimes so much so, you find yourself slinking away."
TO THE VICTOR
"Delirium is the first Cirque show specifically designed for arenas, and it's based on the 21 CDs of music that have been written for the various shows," he explains. "It has 45 live artists and uses pre-recorded images on film to tell this story of a guy who's living on this conformist planet who leaves to travel the world. He sees other ways of living and come backs and contaminates his planet with this vision. What we're trying to do is to take away the boundaries between theater, music, dance, and acrobatics."
For La Tempéte, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the production uses live actors to play Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, and a character that combines Ariel and Caliban, while filmed images of actors play the rest of the island's inhabitants. "It was very interesting because sometimes when we did close-ups, the actors were playing to the camera, but we told them they had to remember this would be in a theater, not a cinema. It was a real challenge." This version, says Pilon, is considerably shorter than the Bard's original. "We spent about a year working on it, and we cut a lot of text," he says. "We know some people say you can't do that, but in Shakespeare's day, he repeated a lot of things because his audience would wander in and out of theater. Today, you just need to say something once for the audience to get it."
ALL AROUND THE TOWN
The cast of the Transport Group's acclaimed revival of All the Way Home includes actress Letty Serra, who was actually an usher during the show's 1960-1961 Broadway run. Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris will perform a special benefit concert for the proposed New Globe Theatre on Governor's Island on Monday, November 10; the Metropolitan Playhouse will present a rare revival of Clyde Fitch's The Truth, starting on November 10; Oscar winner Diane Keaton will be in the hot seat at Martin Short: Fames Become Me on November 12; that night, Short's fabulous co-star Capathia Jenkins and her wonderful collaborator Louis Rosen will once again dazzle the crowds at Joe's Pub with their concert South Side Stories.
Looking ahead, Laila Robins will use her night off from Heartbreak House to play "the Father" in Tim Crouch's intriguing an oak tree on November 13; Tony winner Rupert Holmes will be the special guest at the ASCAP/MAC Songwriters' Showcase at Iridium Jazz Club on November 16; Marni Nixon will be the special guest at the new interactive musical Piano Bar at the Triad on November 17; the legendary Barbara Cook will perform at Carnegie Hall on November 18; Broadway star John Treacy Egan will serve up his hilarious holiday show Rudolph Unplugged, November 19-20 at Ars Nova; and Kerry Butler, Alan Campbell, Fyvush Finkel, Barrett Foa, Hunter Foster, Megan Hilty, Lauren Kennedy, Leslie Kritzer, Terrence Mann, Jenny Powers, Kate Reinders, Miriam Shor, and Sarah Stiles will take part in David Kirshenbaum: Places You've Never Been Before at Joe's Pub on November 20.
As the month winds down, cast members from The Producers will participate in Gypsy Madness, a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, on November 26 at Helen's Hideaway Room; and Joshua Bell, Peter Yarrow, Gregory Turay, and Gizmo Guys will be among the many fantastic artists participating in the 7th Annual Winter's Eve at Lincoln Square on November 27.