A TACT Act
Filichia chats with three of the people behind TACT and the troupe's upcoming production of The Good Soup
Because I began going to the theater in 1961, I'm always curious about the shows I j-u-s-t missed -- and The Good Soup, which opened on March 2, 1960, counts as one. That it closed on March 19, 1960 after only 21 performances doesn't change my mind. I want to know more about this script by French writer Félicien Marceau, adapted by Garson (Born Yesterday) Kanin from the original Paris production by André Barsacq.
It tells of Marie-Paul, a woman "of a certain age" (as they used to say) who's thinking about her life while standing at a roulette wheel in a Monte Carlo casino. Her experiences haven't always been totally on the up and up, though she did try to start out honestly as a shop girl before becoming a courtesan. How did she go from the oldest profession to a prosperous businesswoman to respectable wife? That's what I want to see.
Both Kanin and Barsacq directed the Broadway version, and no less than David Merrick produced it. It starred (in alphabetical order) Diane Cilento, Ruth Gordon, Pat Harrington, George S. Irving, Sam Levene, Zero Mostel, Mildred Natwick, and Ernest Truex. (By the way, those eight performers represented less than half of a 19-character cast.) Alas, Mostel had an accident just as rehearsals were beginning and had to be replaced by Jules Munshin. I'm not, of course, saying that that's why the play closed, but I will see for myself next weekend thanks to TACT.
The troupe began in 1992 with 10 actors at the helm. Seven are still with it, which is a pretty successful rate of retention in this topsy-turvy theatrical world. TACT has a rare situation for artistic directorship: It's a triumvirate comprised of Scott Alan Evans, who often directs the shows, and Cynthia Harris and Simon Jones, who often perform in them. Before Evans arrived, the troupe just wanted to do readings of plays they liked -- Twelfth Night was the first -- but matters began to change when Evans was asked to direct a reading of Uncle Vanya. "I did it," he says, still sounding slightly annoyed, "but I couldn't see why we were doing a reading of that play. I mean, we all know it works."
Still, Evans had a good time working with the troupe, and decided to join the company on its annual retreat -- if that's the right word, considering that everyone stayed in midtown Manhattan and didn't even make it as far north as the Cloisters. But the play-making was the thing, and everyone tossed around ideas and came back with a formulated plan. The company mission became to present neglected works that make a person say, "Hmmm, I wonder how that is?" "So many times," says Evans, "plays don't get done because they have too many characters. Or, if they do wind up getting that rare revival, it's all because some movie star wants to do it. This way, we get to do it."
Simon Jones -- who's been seen on Broadway in Waiting in the Wings, Ring Round the Moon, and other shows -- will appear in The Good Soup under the direction of Kyle Fabel. Jones, like Harris, came on soon after the troupe's inception. He says, "I get so fed up with casting directors who pigeon-hole you into a certain type while they completely ignore that you could do something else." Jones looks back on his TACT appearance in James M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton as one of his highlights with the company -- and not just because his son Timothy was in the show, too.
The Good Soup happened because the group approached Garson Kanin's estate. "We do that a lot with estates," jokes Jones. "We're vultures with estates. Sometimes, we're even at the reading of the wills." Those who hold the rights to Kanin's work offered the TACT folks a few scripts and The Good Soup struck their fancy. "We can also be found at plenty of libraries," says Evans -- to which Jones adds, "I was uncertain how many books one could take out of the library at a given time, hoping it would be at least six. So imagine how delighted I was to find that the limit is 30. I like the titles you've seen but that's all you've seen of them: titles. You don't know the works themselves, like that dramatization of Look Homeward Angel, which we did." "Or The Potting Shed, which we did," Evans continues. "Or The Chalk Garden, which we'll do next."
Says Harris, "I loved doing Mme. St. Pe in The Waltz of the Toreadors and Mrs. Pampinelli in The Torchbearers. Then we did Anita Loos's Happy Birthday, where I played a character much like one Lucille Ball would have played a long time ago." Evans jokes: "She was a tart, is what you mean. And yes, we certainly did include the Rodgers and Hammerstein song that they wrote for [Happy Birthday] -- which was fitting because it was Rodgers's centennial year when we did it."
Each concert performance offers a bit of a concert, too, via original incidental music. That happened because Harris went to a dinner party and sat with a woman who politely asked her what she was doing these days. When Harris told her about TACT, the woman said that she was associated with the Manhattan School of Music and asked if they would like some of her students to compose. Harris said yes, and some productions -- like The Women -- have been orchestrated for as many as seven instruments. (The Good Soup will have a piano and a clarinet playing Marcus Paus's music.)
So TACT does what it tactfully can to jazz up the shows a bit. "I told everyone that I don't find plain old readings entertaining," says Evans. "I asked, can't we do a little bit more? I mean, I know that people are going to hold scripts, considering the limited amount of rehearsal we have -- less than two weeks and certainly not all-day-long sessions. But if actors have to hold scripts, I would like them to hold them as a reference, just in case. I'd prefer to see them off book as much as possible. But it's funny: If theatergoers didn't see actors with scripts in hand, then they'd start expecting something more from us. Though we do make an effort to give some suggestive costuming, too."
Of course, production values are modest for a three-day run; but Harris takes a strange kind of pride in that, as well. "We were doing a show once and chairs was all it had for scenery. But I noticed that a woman who attended came to our next show, too, and excitedly told her friend, 'Wait till you see what they do with their scenery.' I think that means we do such a good job with the scripts that theatergoers start imagining all the scenery that should be there. I'll tell you, over the years, I've gone to a lot of gypsy run-throughs of musicals before the scenery was in place and just before they went out of town, and I would be very much impressed by what I saw. And then, when the show came back to town with the sets, I'd go again and feel that they'd lost something. I guess the scenery in my head couldn't be matched."
"What we are," says Evans, "is the Encores! for straight plays. We don't have as much money but we've had to leave our previous home at the New-York Historical Society because we outgrew it. Now, we love Florence Gould Hall." With three dynamos such as these at the helm, can an even bigger theater be far in the future?