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Isle de Franz

Elizabeth Franz works her special brand of stage magic in Morning's at Seven. logo
Elizabeth Franz
There's a know-it-all sibling in every family, but it's hard to imagine a more adorably thin-skinned busybody than Elizabeth Franz's Aaronetta in the Lincoln Center Theater Broadway revival of Morning's at Seven. A Tony winner three years ago for her heartbreaking Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, Franz now also gets to show off the razor-sharp comic timing honed during her star turn in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You 21 years ago. Not surprisingly, she has picked up another Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress, one of nine awarded to Daniel Sullivan's production--but this time, she is competing with two of her co-stars, Frances Sternhagen and Estelle Parsons.

"I was at a doctor's appointment when I heard about the Tonys and was surprised and thrilled that we got so many nominations," says Franz, a petite blonde with a warm, no-nonsense manner. Perched in her cell-like dressing room in the Lyceum Theatre, the actress is dwarfed by a pair of congratulatory bouquets. "Of course, it was difficult when we found out that three of us had been nominated and Piper Laurie [the play's fourth sister] wasn't. That's why there really needs to be an ensemble Tony. But Piper was very gracious. She embraced us all and said, 'For two seconds after I heard, I went to a place [mentally] that I shouldn't have. Then I looked in the mirror and said, 'You're the luckiest woman in the world because tomorrow you get to do this play again.' Wasn't that lovely?"

Franz is obviously having the time of her life as Arry, the youngest of four elderly sisters in a Midwestern town in the 1930s. "This is my ingénue role," she says with a laugh, warning with mock indignation, "Don't call me frumpy!" Unfamiliar with the play when LCT artistic director Andre Bishop asked her to anchor the ensemble, Franz now ranks Morning's at Seven with Our Town as part of America's theatrical heritage. "It's brilliantly constructed, and every laugh comes from the characters," she says of Paul Osborn's play, which flopped on Broadway in 1939 but won the Best Revival Tony in 1980 for a production that starred Nancy Marchand, Maureen O'Sullivan, Teresa Wright, and Elizabeth Wilson as Arry.

This time around, Sullivan has created an ensemble from a group of veteran actors that one wouldn't necessarily picture together on the same stage, including Julie Hagerty, Buck Henry, Christopher Lloyd, and Tony nominees William Biff McGuire and Stephen Tobolowsky. Sternhagen and Parsons play against type as the dumb sister and the mild-mannered one, and Franz stirs the pot with sharp asides--understandable, once it's revealed that her unmarried character has spent 40 years living under the same roof with the man she loves, her sister's husband.

"It's painful to be the youngest and to constantly feel ignored," Franz says with sympathy. "Last night, Thor [Arry's secret flame, played by McGuire] kept mistakenly calling me Cora in a scene and I finally stomped my feet and said, 'I'm Arry!' It wasn't a moment that was supposed to happen, but the audience loved it. I was infuriated!"

The feisty Franz loves sharing theatrical war stories, joking that her late husband, character actor Edward Binns, used to say: "The theater would be a great place if only we didn't have audiences." She doesn't agree, calling the audience "the tenth cast member in our play." But she's had her moments. Recently, for example, a cell phone began to ring as Franz delivered the play's biggest laugh line. "And then there are the nights when the audience decides to applaud every time a new person comes on stage--our entrances and our exits."

But that's nothing compared to her experience as the star of Donald Margulies' The Model Apartment at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT. "I loved the play but boy, the subscribers hated it," she says of Margulies' dark comedy about a Holocaust survivor and her obese, manic-depressive daughter. "The front row was within a foot of the stage and one night--as I was telling a story about Anne Frank to my daughter's boyfriend, who was black--I heard a man say to his wife, 'I wish I had a gun so I could kill them all.' I was terrified. All I could think was that if Roberta Wallach, who played my daughter, had heard him, she would have talked back!" Franz laughs mischievously as she recalls the stage manager's reaction when she mentioned the audience's lack of appreciation for The Model Apartment. "He said, 'You think this is bad? In the last play we did, they were stomping their walkers and saying 'Let me out of here!'"

Franz in Morning's at Seven
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The walkers are quiet down front at the Lyceum these days, and Franz is savoring being back in the fast lane during New York's theatrical awards season. She has kept busy since Salesman with recurring roles on TV's Judging Amy and Gilmore Girls, traveling between coasts with her companion of seven years, a screenwriter who is 10 years her junior. But her heart belongs to Broadway. "I love making new friendships with the cast and going out after the show with dear friends like Kate Burton and Kevin Spacey," she says. "There's nothing like the theater."

Soon, there'll be another Tony red carpet to walk. Three years ago, Franz accepted her award in a sparkly slip dress by Tommy Hilfiger, and she savors the details of how that outfit came together. "Tommy told me the precise pair of $500 pumps that I was supposed to get from Manolo Blahnik," she says, "but they were sold out because it was wedding season. I had Christopher Pelham, the man I live with, out looking all over town for these shoes. I finally had to call Tommy and say, 'I'm running out of time and I can't find them.' Well, he called the factory in Italy and they sent a pair to me and to Kristin Chenoweth at no cost!" On Tony night, she remembers putting her borrowed Harry Winston bracelet and earrings, worth $250,000, in a paper bag to return to the jeweler at 2am.

Franz is unsure which designer to tap for this year's frock, saying only, "I'll have to talk about it with 'my sisters.'" And she swears she'll be calmer during the ceremony. "Last time, poor Chris kept saying, 'Breathe. You're not breathing.' This time, I feel like we're all winners."

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