Christine Lahti takes a first crack at Third. Plus: Marva Hicks moves into Brewster Place, Brian Murray gets into Shape, and Jerry Herman flies right.
Having starred in the late Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway and in the television film version of her play, An American Daughter, Christine Lahti is undeniably a logical choice to play Professor Laurie Jameson in the L.A. premiere of Wasserstein's final play Third, which begins performances at the Geffen Playhouse on September 11.
"It means so much to me to do this part," says Lahti. "The last time I saw Wendy was at intermission of a preview of the Lincoln Center run of Third. I went up to her and said 'You know I have to do this part in L.A.' She laughed and smiled and told me that would be great. I've always felt that Wendy and I were kindred spirits. Our political beliefs have been so aligned, and we've shared the same joys and frustrations in our activism with feminism. Of course, she writes the most intelligent and witty women characters, even if they're not completely likeable. And I love playing flawed characters."
Indeed, Jameson is a particularly complex character; bull-headed in her belief that her student, Woodson Bull III (played by Gilmore Girls star Matt Czurchy) is a plagiarist despite evidence to the contrary, and constantly battling both her teenage daughter (played by Sarah Drew) and ailing father (played by M. Emmet Walsh). "I can certainly relate to that aspect of Laurie's life. I have a 19-year-old son and a younger daughter, and I'm probably a better mother than Laurie," she says. "Laurie is too controlling and too judgmental - in all aspects of her life."
Having won an Oscar for directing the short film Lieberman in Love, Lahti admits she must constantly fight the urge to try to direct while she's acting. "Fortunately, this part is so demanding, I don't have time to watch the other actors," she says. Equally luckily, she has nothing but high praise for director Maria Mileaf. "She is an extraordinary collaborator," says Lahti. "I was really happy to hear a woman would be directing the work, but at first I was concerned that she was from a younger generation, and wasn't sure she'd get the play's concern with feminism, since women like her aren't struggling with what we did. But she offered a younger perspective, which is great."
Playing the role of a college professor who specializes in feminist interpretations of Shakespeare has had a beneficial side effect, adds Lahti. "In doing my research, I read a lot of feminist criticism of Shakespeare, and now I want to go back and re-read all his plays with that filter," she notes. "And even though I've only done Shakespeare in workshops and classes, now I want to do a real production. I think it would be very exciting for me to do Lady Macbeth."
Marva Hicks is no stranger to Atlanta's Alliance Theatre or Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage, having appeared recently in both places as the only woman in the show Cuttin' Up. Now, she's revisiting both theaters -- without any male co-stars -- as Etta Mae in Tim Acito's new musical The Women of Brewster Place, based on the best-selling novel by Gloria Naylor.
"I was a huge fan of the book and the miniseries, so I thought this musical was a fantastic idea," says Hicks. "Molly Smith, our director, had originally asked me to play Teel, but I really wanted to do Etta Mae. So my agent called Molly, who said yes. Etta Mae's spirit is a bit blues and rock n' roll, and being an R&B singer myself, I really responded to her aura."
While Hicks isn't a man-chaser like Etta Mae, the actress is enjoying dressing up for the role. "The highest heels, anything cut too short or too low, that's Etta Mae," she says with a laugh. "The story is set in the 1970s, and all the costumes are totally authentic; if you had to pick an era that's fun, this would be it. But when I first saw some of [costume designer] Paul Tazewell's sketches, I said, 'no, no, no." But we all work out at the gym every day, so even though I ate my way through summer, I'm ready for those hot pants."
Hicks admits working with an all-female company -- which includes Terry Burrell, Tina Fabrique, and Harriett D. Foy -- could be a negative experience. "It's true, when you put a group of women together, anything can happen," she says. "But when we did our workshop at Virginia Tech, there was nothing to do but work and bond. We stayed in the dorms and had dinners together, went kayaking, went shopping. It was like we were in college. And we all respect each other's talents and gifts. We've really all become friends."
Brian Murray has given so many indelible performances lately, most recently in the Irish Rep's Gaslight, that it's easy to forget he's also a first-rate director. He's behind the scenes again for Thomas Kilroy's The Shape of Metal, which bows at 59 E 59 on September 8. "I wanted to direct it mostly because Roberta Maxwell brought it to me; this will be the fourth time I've directed her," says Murray. "Roberta always projects the fact there's a life force is in her, whether she's playing a 50-year-old or an 80-year-old, or both."
Murray was equally attracted by the story, which tells of an artist (played by Maxwell) dealing with the long-ago disappearance of her daughter. "It's an extraordinarily powerful piece, and not what I would call an easy play," he says. "It's about the overwhelming egotism of artistic genius, and how that can destroy one's life and the lives of others. We all know people like that. There's one point in the play where Roberta's character acts in a way that is amazingly cruel, although she doesn't know it."
While Murray admits he misses directing during his long periods of acting, he doesn't always miss the responsibility of shepherding fellow actors. "There was a period when I was doing a lot of Broadway revivals where I was working with some very grand people; and the challenge was more about hand-holding than diving into the nitty-gritty of the play," he says. "But in the last few years, I've worked with directors like Charlotte Moore, David Esbjornson, and Mark Lamos, and I've been able to observe how they handle people. I've learned a lot from them about becoming a better director."
OUR MAN HERMAN
The 76-years-young Jerry Herman will be racking up the frequent flier miles this month. On September 19, the legendary composer-lyricist will travel to Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center for a screening of Amber Edwards' award-winning documentary Words and Music by Jerry Herman, which is scheduled to be broadcast by PBS next January. The film, which will also have screenings this month at the University of Miami's Jerry Herman Ring Theater on September 17 and BAM's Rose Cinema on September 24, features appearances by such leading ladies as Angela Lansbury, Carol Channing, and Leslie Uggams.
On September 20, Herman will be interviewed at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater by ASCAP's Michael Kerker as part of its Broadway Up Close and Personal series; there will also be special performances by Jason Graae, Debbie Gravitte, Ron Raines, and Donald Pippin.