Elizabeth Franz is hot for The Piano Teacher; Sam Robards gets bookish for The Overwhelming; and Sally Murphy comes full circle for August: Osage County.
With a Tony Award on her shelf (for her incredible work as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman) and a scrapbook of great reviews, Elizabeth Franz might be entitled to retire. But thankfully, for us she keeps on acting. "My heart won't let me retire," she says. "I talk about this all the time to Alvin Epstein, and we both keep saying we have so many characters left to discover." Her newest character is the title role in Julia Cho's demanding new play The Piano Teacher at the Vineyard Theatre. "When they first called, I didn't think I wanted to work this hard or be this terrified. But then I started to think about her and uncover her mysteries, and I was just going to have to live with my terror to go through this amazing emotional journey."
Franz is also enjoying her collaboration with Cho and director Kate Whoriskey. "I've never worked with a living woman playwright or woman director before, and I'm finding they're both very accessible and very passionate, like me. I find men are sometimes terrified of my passion," says Franz. "Julia is very open to changes, but she also has a great understanding of her own work. Kate is a great thinker, but she also has a great sense of humor. We're getting along so well we're thinking of doing something else together."
That future project might have to wait if producer David Richtenthal succeeds in bringing to Broadway the Williamstown Theatre Festival's production of Lillian Hellman's The Autumn Garden, in which Franz gave a remarkable performance as the worldly-wise Mary Ellis. "It's been one of my favorite pieces since drama school, and it's okay that when I finally got to do it, I was the oldest character," she says. "There wasn't a bad penny in the cast; we played on and off stage 24-7. I told David I'd do it again for nothing, just as long as he pays all our bar bills."
HELP ME, RWANDA
Preparing for his role as Jack Exley, a naive American professor who travels to Rwanda in the midst of their 1993 civil war in The Overwhelming, was a decided learning experience for Sam Robards. "I knew people were killing each other there back then, but I really didn't know why," he says. "Our director, Max Stafford-Clark made us do lots of research. In fact, each member of the cast had to read a book on the subject and give a report. I chose the thinnest one I could find, Into the Quick of Life, which was by this French journalist who interviewed survivors. I still can't understand how this happened, even if I know on an intellectual level to what extremes we're capable of going."
Jack is not the world's greatest father, a trait he shares with Robards' other current role, as Howie Archibald on the hit CW series Gossip Girl. "I don't think either Jack or Howie sees themselves as bad fathers; they're just selfish people who want what they want," says Robards, the son of Lauren Bacall and the late Jason Robards. "Gossip Girl is a fun show to do -- to play scenes about rich people on the Upper East Side. I grew up on the Upper West Side, but I knew those kind of people."
In this large-scale family drama, Murphy plays Ivy, a wife and mother who is deeper than she first appears. "There are so many layers to her. I had an illness I never told my mother about and a relationship I haven't told anyone about. Ivy is really blooming for the first time in her life, and that's a lot of fun to play." Murphy admits she was initially skeptical that the show would move to Broadway, given its lack of big stars and its 3-hour-plus length, "but once we opened in Chicago, you really felt the power of the piece and the response of the audience, and after that, it wasn't a surprise at all."
Murphy, who turned 45 this year, has often played characters much younger than herself, including Julie Jordan in Lincoln Center's Carousel and Tzeitel in the 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof. So is it refreshing to play the age-appropriate Ivy? "Yes, it is nice to play someone a little more womanly," she says. "But when I play a younger character, I don't think about that a lot. I just try to think about the person, the situation, and where she is in her life, and hope it comes off. But do you have to change your brain a little bit, because when you're younger you do think differently than when you're my age."
STARS IN MY EYES
Debra Monk at the November 5 performance of Young Frankenstein; Abigail Breslin, Leelee Sobieski, Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Meloni, Jesse L. Martin, and David Rockwell at the November 7 performance of Wintuk; David Zayas and wife Liza Colon-Zayas at the November 9 performance of Peter and Jerry; and Alan Cumming, Cynthia Nixon, Jessica Hecht, and Mario Cantone and Jerry Dixon at the November 13 performance of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
DESIGNS FOR VIEWING
The art of designing for theater doesn't always get the respect it deserves, especially in the art world. Fortunately, guest curators Peter Harvey and David Noh are rectifying that oversight with StageStruck, an exhibit of over 150 sketches, models and props to run at the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation Gallery, November 15-December 22.
The exhibit, which also includes designs from the world of opera and ballet, features the work of such visionary -- and gay --- artists as Oliver Smith, Cecil Beaton, John Lee Beatty, Santo Loquasto, William Ivey Long, Martin Pakledinaz, and David Hockney, to name just some of the 60 designers who are represented.