Front & Center
Jan Maxwell in Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Adrienne Barbeau in The Property Known as Garland
Kath would be aghast at the idea that she's perceived as anything but a proper lady. "I love the dichotomy of presenting yourself one way and feeling so completely different inside," says Maxwell. "Kath's wants and needs are never expressed bluntly; it's always in a roundabout way." Also starring in the play are Alec Baldwin as Kath's brother Ed -- who has his own lascivious desires for young Mr. Sloane -- and Richard Easton as the siblings' father, Kemp. "Everybody is lovely to work with," says Maxwell. "The play is so wonderful, and all of us are incredibly excited to be doing it."
As part of her preparation for the role, Maxwell read John Lahr's Prick Up Your Ears, a biography of Joe Orton. "I became engrossed and fascinated by Orton's entire story," she comments. "His writing seems somewhat autobiographical, so it's fascinating to learn about his life. But, of course, you can't stay there; you've got to feed the play with your own blood and then make it buoyant and joyous."
Maxwell is the older sister of downtown auteur Richard Maxwell, who's known for directing his actors in a manner that falls somewhere between hypernaturalism and abstract stylization. "In a theatrical sense, it's like being in this sanctuary of what theater is and someone's just opened a window," remarks sister Jan. "But I don't think we'd work well together; I'm more a collaborator, and his plays are directed within an inch of their lives. I'd probably be arguing with him the whole time."
The actress earned a Drama Desk Award and Tony nomination for her role as Baroness Bomburst in last season's short-lived Broadway production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. "I'm almost embarrassed to say that it was a ton of fun," Maxwell recalls. "Marc [Kudisch, who played Baron Bomburst] and I got to write a lot of our own stuff. Also, we had so much fun backstage, just howling and playing tricks. I started a petition to get Chip Zien fired from the show, and I got about 87 legitimate signatures. Of course, I love him to death, so it was a complete joke."
The child-hating Baroness is a far cry from her role in Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Maxwell has also played very dissimilar parts in such shows as Sixteen Wounded, The Dinner Party, and The Sound of Music. "I always try to have the next project be completely different from the last one," she says. "For me, it doesn't make any sense for an actor to keep doing the same kind of roles. That would be horrible."
It's hard to believe that it has been 34 years since Adrienne Barbeau's Tony Award-nominated turn as Betty Rizzo in the original Broadway production of Grease. Right after that, she went west to do the hit TV series Maude and subsequently appeared in such films as The Fog and Escape from New York (both directed by her then-husband, John Carpenter). Most recently, Barbeau was seen in the HBO series Carnivale. She's also mother to three boys: Cody, who's in his 20s, and eight-year-old twins William and Walker.
This month, she returns to the New York stage in the title role of The Property Known as Garland, a play written by her husband, Billy Van Zandt. The fictional drama unfolds as the legendary Judy Garland prepares to take the stage for a 1969 concert in Denmark -- her final performance before her death. Surprisingly, Barbeau describes herself as an admirer but not a megafan of the great star. "I wasn't what you'd call an aficionado," she says. "I knew her music and I had seen The Wizard of Oz, but I hadn't seen her later movies like I Could Go On Singing, A Child Is Waiting, or even Judgment at Nuremberg until I started work on this show."
Having taken on the assignment after some prodding by Van Zandt, she's worked hard to emulate the Garland persona: "Billy has all these tapes she recorded for her autobiography, and a lot of her television interviews with people like Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. I've listened to all of those, and I'm working with a dialect coach. But I'm not doing an impersonation; it's more an impression of her that I hope will seem accurate, like Zoe Caldwell did in Master Class."
Although Barbeau never met Garland, she does know all three of her offspring: "I actually ran into Liza [Minnelli] recently and told her I was doing this show about her mom. As for Lorna [Luft], our kids were together in Gymboree around 18 years ago, so I sent her a Christmas card to tell her about the show. And we met Joey [Luft] when I took the kids to a special screening of The Wizard of Oz. My eight-year-old was really excited to meet the Munchkins."
Barbeau's memoir, There Are Worse Things I Could Do, is scheduled to be released during the run of the play. "A couple of years ago, I lost my best friend to cancer," she says. "Billy was working a lot, and I was looking for something to do. So I started taking this writing class with Claudette Sutherland, who had been on Broadway in the 1960s and 1970s. I would write these pieces about my life, like coming to New York at age 19 or doing this low-budget horror film in Russia or working for the Mob when I was struggling to be an actress. She finally said, 'You need to do something with this,' and she helped me get an agent."
So, is Barbeau's memory good enough that she remembers everything about those early days? "I couldn't have finished the book without the Internet," she says with a laugh. "Every time I would forget who was in the cast of Grease, I'd just go to IBDB.com, and there was the answer."