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Letter Perfect

Kathleen Chalfant plays a Holocaust victim in The Last Letter, a solo play by Frederick Wiseman based on the Russian novel Love and Fate. logo
Kathleen Chalfant
Vanity is a trait one would hardly associate with Kathleen Chalfant. This magnificent actress has stood before us stark naked and with her head shaven in Wit, dressed in the remarkably unstylish duds of a Mormon matron in Angels in America, and clothed in funereal garb as the aunt in Caryl Churchill's Far Away. But Chalfant wants to make one thing perfectly clear about her latest project, Frederick Wiseman's The Last Letter: "Anya is 60 when the play takes place in 1941 and I will only be 59 in January," she tells me with a laugh, referring to her character, a Jewish ophthalmologist in World War II Russia who faces the impending doom of the Holocaust.

Adapted from the Russian novel Love and Fate, this solo show will run from December 11 through January 11 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The Last Letter opens the 2003-2004 season of Theater for a New Audience; it will be followed by a new production of Pericles, directed by Bartlett Sher, and W.S. Gilbert's rarely-seen Engaged, helmed by Tony Award winner Gerald Gutierrez.

Despite the depressing nature of the play's subject matter, Chalfant was thrilled to be offered the part. "Of course I wanted this job! It's perfect: It's 55 minutes long and it's five minutes from my house," she says, once again half-joking. "Seriously, I consider this role to be the last of my Wit perks. Jeffrey Horowitz [artistic director of Theater for a New Audience] came to see me about two years ago, after seeing me in Wit, and asked if I wanted to do this show. It's taken this long for all our schedules to come together. And I found out that Fred [Wiseman] has come to see everything I've done in the last two years -- which is amazing, considering that he lives half the year in Paris."

Wiseman, a well-known documentary filmmaker (as is Chalfant's husband of 36 years, Henry), has worked on various versions of The Last Letter for five years, and has filmed it with the French actress Catherine Samie. Chalfant has not the seen the film -- she says she will do so after the show closes -- but she read the novel in preparation for the role. Or, rather, she began to read the novel: "I stopped halfway through when I realized I was discovering more about Anya than I wanted to know," she says. "Everything I need to know is really in the text of the play. It's a letter she's writing to her only son, who lives in Moscow, and it covers about two months of time, from when Anya's first put into this ghetto in the Ukraine to just before everyone will be marched out to the forest and shot. I was born in 1945, so World War II and the Holocaust were part of my history growing up, even though my family isn't Jewish. But I knew much less about what happened in Russia than what happened in Germany or Poland." Chalfant says that, surprisingly, the play has many laughs that spring from Anya's ironic sense of humor. "I'm having about as much fun as one can when doing a play about the Holocaust," she remarks, "but I will be very curious to see what the audience reaction is."

Chalfant is used to dealing with unusual audience reaction; in the past year alone, she's heard it all, having performed Far Away (she succeeded Frances McDormand), Talking Heads (for which the entire seven-person cast of monologists won OBIE Awards,) and Marguerite Duras's Savannah Bay, which she performed at the same time as Talking Heads for nearly a month, shuttling between Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street and the Minetta Lane Theater. "With Savannah Bay," she says, "I eventually got used to the fact that we were only going to have about 100 people a night and some of them were not going to get it. On the other hand, there was this whole class of audience -- these older European women -- for whom the play was kitchen-sink realism. They used to come back and bring their daughters! No matter what, the reaction wasn't as violent as with Far Away. People used to stop me on the street and scream, 'You were fine but what the hell was that play about!'"

Chalfant in The Last Letter
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
These days, people are more likely to stop her and ask how she feels about HBO's $60-million, six-hour film version of Angels in America, in which Meryl Streep takes on Chalfant's stage role of Hannah Pitt. Chalfant hasn't seen it -- and doesn't intend to. "I can't watch it," she says. "They keep inviting me to the screenings and I just can't go. Maybe I'm being chicken, but that show is six years of my life; I was with it from the beginning. I have to say, I am very excited that it's making such a splash. I think it's one of the most important pieces of art of our times. I also feel that way about Tony Kushner's new work, Caroline, Or Change at the Public. I've still never watched Wit, which HBO filmed with Emma Thompson in the lead. I did talk with Emma about it afterward and she was really wonderful. I haven't spoken to Meryl. Maybe someday I will be able to watch both of them."

Chalfant is looking forward to some quality time off from her career after she's finished with The Last Letter. "This is the first time since Angels -- well, definitely since Wit -- that I don't have another job lined up," she notes. "I feel a bit nervous, like I'm walking on the edge. But in a way, I am pleased to have time for myself. We renovated the house recently, and I still haven't taken all the books out of the boxes and ordered them on the bookshelf. If this show is my swan song, it's been a good run." She says that she'd be perfectly happy just playing grandma to Amelia, the 2½ year-old-daughter of her son David (a musician and record producer) and his wife Katryna (the lead singer of the rock group The Nields). The Chalfants' daughter, Andromache, is a set designer.

But the thought of Kathleen Chalfant retiring is laughable. Already, there are some possibilities on the horizon; among them is a return to the CBS series The Guardian, in which she has a recurring role, and a project with the International WOW company. If she had her druthers, what would be next on her dance card? "When I first came to New York in 1973, I started doing new work and it's been that way ever since," she says. "So if I don't get going on the classics, I may miss out. People keep saying I should do The Glass Menagerie, though I don't have any idea why. I've only done one Shakespeare, Henry V, and I would love to do the Queen in Richard III or a female version of King Lear.

"I'd love to do more Beckett," she adds. "I adored doing Endgame. But since Marian Seldes is doing those short plays peerlessly now, I guess I'll wait! I've really wanted to do Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard; I almost did it with Doug Hughes at Long Wharf, and there's a chance I may do it next year with Les Waters [her Savannah Bay director] at Berkeley Rep. And, of course, I'd love to do Long Day's Journey. Fortunately, I've got a few years left before I'm too old for Mary Tyrone."

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