Rick Lyon and Nicky(Photo © Nick Ruechel)
Rick Lyon and Nicky
(Photo © Nick Ruechel)
Well, I had an easier time moderating this year's Drama League holiday luncheon panel discussion than I did last year. On that December day in 2003, I had expected to host a discussion of Wonderful Town with stars Donna Murphy and Gregg Edelman. I whipped up a bunch of questions for each of them, but when I arrived at the National Arts Club that Friday afternoon, I saw the members of the Drama League brass looking pale: Murphy had missed her first performance the night before, and she wouldn't be in attendance. "But luckily," I was told, "we have 'her sister Eileen."' That's when my face gew pale: "I don't know a thing about her," I said. They replied that they'd expected as much and handed me a photocopied page of the program. I immediately started memorizing the credits listed after the italicized character name Eileen: Kissing Jessica Stein, The Fantasticks, Sweeney Todd, etc.

Soon I was up on the dais, introducing "the man who's made his mark in City of Angels, 1776, Into the Woods, and many more -- Mr. Gregg Edelman!" Then I turned to introduce "the woman who's been in Kissing Jessica Stein, The Fantasticks, Sweeney Todd" -- at which point I realized -- oh, no! -- I didn't really 100% know for sure know the actress' full name! I knew that her first name was "Jennifer," but what was her last? Even the slightest miss of the name would be quite the faux-pas. So I just said my words in a staccato fashion: "So! Would! You! Welcome! Miss! Jennifer!" Then I paused, turned slightly away from the mike, and with a big, confident smile on my face, said something like "Warfmult." But, God love the Drama League lunchers: They applauded before I said it, thereby covering for me. (Of course, the actress' real name is "Westfeldt.")

This year, I prepared questions for three of the Avenue Q cast members: Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who manipulates and provides the voices for the puppets Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut; Rick Lyon, the alter ego of Nicky, the Newcomer, and Bad Idea Bear #1; and Jennifer Barnhart, who brings to life Bad Idea Bear #2 and Mrs. Thistletwat (Kate's former boss, who's also known as Mrs. T.) But once I arrived, I heard that Stephanie had missed the previous night's performance. Oh, no -- would I once again be finessing someone else's name? Nope. Trouper that she is, Stephanie still made it to the luncheon, and I was grateful that she realized that there is life outside her apartment. Once we were on the dais, I asked her to tell the crowd what she told the audience at the Theatre World Awards. (She was honored this past May.) Stephanie then received the laugh I knew she'd get when she repeated, "This is the first award I've received since I was named Burger King Employee of the Month."

Though all three performers get along splendidly, I decided to pit each against the other. "Okay," I said, "who can be the first and the fastest to spell 'schadenfreude?"' In Avenue Q, this is the job of Natalie Venetia Belcon, who plays Gary Coleman; still, I expected every one of them would be able to do it, since they've been listening to someone spell it eight times a week for the last 17 months. Jennifer was first out of the box to make a stab at it, but Stephanie was quicker and got the spelling out faster than a Baby Boomer Mickey Mouse Club fan could say "e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-e-d-i-a." I assumed that the audience knew what "schadenfreude" was, but just in case they didn't, I gave them two definitions: (a) a song in Avenue Q, and (b) what some people felt when Wicked lost the Tony.

Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Lucy the Slut(Photo © Nick Ruechel)
Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Lucy the Slut
(Photo © Nick Ruechel)
I figured that the audience would want to know how the trio got involved with Avenue Q. "Stephanie," I said, "Broadway powers-that-be once decided to bring in 'da noise and bring in 'da funk. What made them say, 'Bring in D'Abruzzo?'" Said the actress in an ecstatic voice, "My sister and I have been waiting for years for someone to make that joke on our name!" But Rick Lyon was actually the first person involved with the show; he was asked to come in and sing one of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's songs at the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. After Rick and his puppet had performed, the class kept saying that they really enjoyed watching both puppet and master, so the creators decided that this was the way to go. Rick then invited his pals Stephanie and Jennifer to join in, for they'd all been involved in various puppet activities through the years. And while we all admire the clever book, tuneful music, deft lyrics, and smart staging of Avenue Q, it's clear that the production got a tremendous boost from having puppeteers who've worked together in harmony for more than a decade.

Not only does Rick perform in the show, he also had the task of making all of the puppets. I asked him which one proved to be the hardest challenge. "Lucy the Slut was the most difficult to make," he replied, and I then quipped, "I would think that Lucy the Slut would be the easiest to make" -- which got deserved groans from the audience. (Let the punishment fit the pun.) After my insensitive interruption, Rick noted that director Jason Moore was disappointed that Lucy's breasts weren't as large as he expected them to be.

I asked how the line that "George Bush" is "only for now" has been playing as of late. Rick said that, since the election, people have still been laughing and applauding -- but much more hollowly than they used to. Jennifer and Stephanie nodded when he said that they'd all become used to the increasing intensity of laughs and applause that audiences had been giving the joke about Bush -- with the exception of the week of the Republican Convention, when the line spurred some very loud boos. In September and October, when there was a distinct possibility that Bush was on his way out, the crowd would roar their approval at the line; now they don't, because four more years seems like a very long time.

We'd arranged in advance that the first 45 minutes of the hour would be dedicated to the trio and the last 15 to their charges. So out came Nicky, Kate Monster, and Mrs. T. -- all of whom were slipped over their custodians' right arms. I'd decided in advance that when I spoke to the puppets, I would look directly into their faces and avoid their human counterparts, but that didn't turn out to be as easy as I assumed it would be. Still, I managed to to zero in on Mrs. T.'s face when I asked if she were the mother of E.T. No, she replied. "Are you married to Mr. T?" I then asked, referring to that star of the A-Team TV series who -- here's an irony -- had voiced some Sesame Street characters during that show's first season. "No," Mrs. T said, "I never married." At that, I heard a bitter, mocking laugh come from Kate Monster.

Mrs. T. and Jennifer Barnhart(Photo © Nick Ruechel)
Mrs. T. and Jennifer Barnhart
(Photo © Nick Ruechel)
That's right, I realized; these two did not leave on good terms. You may recall that Mrs. T canned teacher-wannabe Kate Monster when Kate overslept after her passionate night with Princeton and didn't show up to cover Mrs. T's class. I asked if there were a hard feeling or two lingering, and when each sniffed out an affirmative response, I decided that this would be an ideal opportunity for them to kiss and make up. I assumed that, in the spirit of the Christmas season, they'd rise to the occasion and forgive and forget. Boy, was I naïve. Mrs. T observed that she would always consider Kate Monster "incompetent," and Kate Monster -- in mixed company -- called the woman a "bitch."

One more question: In the 1945 movie Dead of Night, and the 1978 movie Magic, a ventriloquist finds that his dummy is taking over his personality. Had the trio ever come to feel that these puppets were real people? I was surprised to hear how matter-of-factly all three said no. Commented Stephanie, "When you see them hanging on hangers and wrapped in plastic, it's pretty hard to think of them as anything more than what they are." Rick made the point more dramatically: After reiterating what Stephanie had said, he slammed his hand face down onto the table, crushing Nicky's nose in the process. The audience and I moaned in horror. Thanks to these three, Kate Monster, Nicky, Mrs. T, and the others will always be real to us.

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

[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]