Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Len Cariou has moved from Shakespeare to Sondheim and now to Simon, as he returns to Broadway The Dinner Party.
Though Cariou will always be remembered for his terrifying, heartbreaking, Tony Award-winning performance as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, this Canadian actor/singer's stage roles have been amazingly rich and varied. He was Tony nominated for his work in Sondheim's A Little Night Music; he's made a specialty of playing historical figures, such as Ernest Hemingway in Papa and William O. Douglas in Mountain; and he has myriad classical roles to his credit. The Dinner Party is his first Simon play. Cariou spoke with TheaterMania about the experience a week before the show's opening on October 19.
TM: How does it feel to be making your Neil Simon debut at this stage in your career?
CARIOU: It's fun. He's a very skillful playwright, and it's a pleasure to be in a play of his... especially this one. I like it better than Proposals or Rumors.
TM: People are saying The Dinner Party is his best work in years.
CARIOU: I think that's true. It's interesting; the play is definitely Simon, but it's a new Simon. He writes in a different kind of rhythm, and he set the play in Paris. I think he feels that Europeans would talk about the play's subject matter more freely than we would. It's about three divorced couples, and somebody has the bright idea that they should get back together again.
TM: Penny Fuller plays your ex-wife. It must be a kick for the two of you to be sharing a Broadway stage again, so long after Applause.
CARIOU: Yeah. Penny loves to say, "You left me in that one, too!" We haven't worked together since Applause, but we've kept in touch.
TM: I read that you did Sweeney Todd again recently.
CARIOU: Yes. I did it in London for a couple of performances, and it almost killed me. I mean, 20 years later! We had one week of rehearsals. When I first got there and we started to work on it, I didn't even remember singing some of the music. And we didn't do it with books in hands. It was a full-out production in costume and makeup, so there was nothing to refer to. You couldn't read your music or your dialogue; you had to have it in your head. Thank God, the computer chip is still in there somewhere. After I jogged it for the first couple of days, stuff started to come back. But that was a rough one! Still, it was fun to do, because my wife had never seen the show. Judy Kaye and I did it at the Royal Festival Hall with a huge orchestra and a huge choir. We had everything but the barber's chair.
TM: They didn't really have one for the New York Philharmonic performances, either. But they had one for the Reprise! production in L.A.. Kelsey Grammer had a barber's chair.
CARIOU: Did the bodies disappear?
TM: Yes, they did. That was pretty much a fully staged production.
CARIOU: We had a chair in London, but no chute. So the bodies couldn't go down the chute.
TM: Sweeney is the role of a lifetime, yet you've also played Macbeth and King Lear. Your bio lists a great deal of classical theater. Was any of that on Broadway?
CARIOU: Yeah, I did Henry V at the Anta Theater in the late sixties -- the one we brought from Stratford, Connecticut. And, the year before that, I did The House of Atreus on Broadway when the Guthrie came here on a tour.
TM: Any classical roles lately?
CARIOU: I haven't done a Shakespeare play in a while. There's all kinds of stuff on the wish list. I still haven't played Richard III, and I wouldn't mind playing Lear again. I've done Lear twice. That was awesome; I think it's his best play. That and The Tempest, which I got to do at Stratford, Ontario.
TM: You did Macbeth in Toronto. Was that a good experience? So many of them aren't.
CARIOU: Nothing disastrous happened in our production!
TM: You've been turning up on TV a lot in recent years. I see that you did an episode of The West Wing, but I guess I missed it.
CARIOU: It hasn't been on yet. It's supposed to be on this month, I think. I play the head of a pharmaceutical company. Most of my scenes were with Brad Whitford and Richard Schiff.
TM: So you're keeping busy. Are you still based in Manhattan?
CARIOU: We now live in West New York, New Jersey, just across the river. But I still think of myself as a Manhattanite, even though we've moved out of the city. Now, I get to look at the city. Broadway is still an exciting venue to be a part of. And it's nice to be back in a quote/unquote "commercial" play by one of the most prolific playwrights in the history of this country. I think that's the ideal way to come to Broadway, as opposed to doing something classical, where you're taking a big chance and you know that you're probably only going to play it for a few weeks or months. The Dinner Party, I think, has a shot at a long run.
TM: Much has been made about the fact that Simon had a couple of his plays produced Off-Broadway, rather than on. He said a few negative things about the economics of Broadway, which a lot of people would agree with. But some people also suggested that maybe Simon's day on Broadway was over. What do you think of all that?
CARIOU: When somebody as talented as Neil Simon starts hearing that stuff, I think he goes: "Oh, yeah? Watch this!" You can be sure he heard all those remarks. I think he answered them by writing something that's really good, and that he's proud of. He's dealing with an absolutely timeless subject matter [in The Dinner Party], and he's found an interesting way to explore it. He also deals with writers and writing in this play -- two of the characters are writers -- so he's being pretty courageous from that point of view. He's taking some chances.
TM: It sounds like an all-around winner: a play that's extremely commercial but also has some real ideas in it.
CARIOU: It's very good... funny and poignant. It's done in one act, about an hour and thirty-five minutes. It just goes like a bat out of hell. And we have a wonderful cast. The only one I've worked with before is Penny. You know, she and I came into the show after they had done it in Los Angeles; they had a commitment to bring it to Washington, to the Kennedy Center, and the two people who were in our roles didn't want to do it or weren't available. So they asked us, and we said "Sure, why not?" We had no idea the show would come to New York. But, once we got reviewed in Washington, Neil said, "I want to bring it in."
TM: Well, it's great to have you back.
CARIOU: Thank you. I can't really tell you too much about the play, because I don't want to give anything away. But the buzz is pretty good. People love it.
TM: And the season in general seems like it's going to be terrific.
CARIOU: There are actually some plays, aren't there?
TM: Yes. And new musicals, with new scores.