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Loose Lips

Making his theatrical rounds, BSL checks in with George S. Irving, Lisa Kron, and Scott Schwartz. logo
George S. Irving
Still Carrying On is the perfect title for George S. Irving's one-man show, which will be seen June 18-20 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre as part of this month's special White Barn Theatre series. The 81-years-young Tony Award winner describes the show as "an amalgam of stuff that I've done on Broadway and some things I've written. I'm basically doing it because Donald Saddler, who's associated with the White Barn, asked me to; he's an old friend and I couldn't say no."

While the show will run about 90 minutes, it would take closer to 90 days to fully recount Irving's Broadway career, which began in 1943 with Oklahoma! While his most memorable show might be 1948's Call Me Mister -- that's where he met his wife of more than 50 years, the late Maria Karnilova -- his other favorites include Irene and The Pirates of Penzance (in which he briefly replaced George Rose). "It was also great working with Eva Gabor on Tovarich," Irving tells me. "She replaced Vivien Leigh after she had her breakdown. In addition to being beautiful, Eva was one really smart cookie. She didn't want to throw away anything that Vivien had done to refine the part. And working with Bette Davis on Two's Company was fascinating. She was really nervous and didn't get along with Jerry Robbins; they had a true mutual aggravation society. She used to go back to her dressing room and scream at her husband. We all kept our doors ajar so we could hear!"

But perhaps his all-time favorite show is one you've never heard of: "In 1972, I did An Evening with Richard Nixon and..., where I got to speak his actual words. It only lasted two weeks. I think the critics had it in for Gore Vidal [who wrote it], though he really was such a sweet man. We were at the Shubert Theatre acting our hearts out but the real drama was outside, with all the anti-war demonstrations going on in Times Square. We even got a death threat. That was quite traumatic! One of my daughters was played by Susan Sarandon. She was a sweet young kid; I'm glad she got somewhere."

Irving jokes that he's retired but it's not remotely true. From July 9 through 11, he will play Winston Churchill in a concert staging of the musical Only a Kingdom at John Drew Hall in East Hampton alongside Kaitlin Hopkins, Joanne Worley, and Dina Merrill and her husband Ted Hartley.

It's practically unheard of for someone to be offered a major theater role without an audition -- and it's even more unheard of to turn it down flat. But that's what actress-playwright Lisa Kron did when she got a call just a few weeks ago to take over the role of Dr. Emma Brookner in the Worth Street Theater production of The Normal Heart at The Public Theater. "After my play Well closed at the Public, I had gone out to L.A. to work with my group The Five Lesbian Brothers," Kron relates. "The day I got the call, I had just flown home on the redeye and I was wiped out. Plus I had tickets that night to see Homebody/Kabul at BAM. So I said no."

Fortunately, she got a second chance. "By the following Tuesday, I found out they still hadn't recast the part -- the show had gone on hiatus for two weeks [after Joanna Gleason left] -- so I found a copy of the script and went to read it in a coffee shop. Then I called my girlfriend Peg to see if she would divorce me if I took the part, since we haven't spent much time together lately, but she said it would be okay. I also called Jayne Houdyshell [who played Kron's mother in Well] to see what she thought and her first question was whether I'd be comfortable spending my summer on stage in a wheelchair -- but I had experience doing that in The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. So I called my agent and told him to put my name back in consideration. By the end of the day, I had the part."

Now it's back The Public every night, an experience that Kron describes as slightly surreal: "We [the cast of Well] shared a green room with The Normal Heart but I never got to see it. In fact, they used to get out so much later than we did, and every night I thought, 'Thank God, I'm not doing that play!' I've had a lot of conversations with Larry Kramer about the role and he has been completely charming. And I'm really looking forward to developing an on-stage relationship with Raúl Esparza. He's so dynamic; he's just totally there every minute. It was weird doing his groin check at first but now I've done, like, 30 of them."

Of course, it's the role of Emma -- not Raul's crotch -- that truly excites Kron. "I think it's a good fit for me," she says. "I am interested in people whose compassion springs from not lying to other people. I find that a very compelling trait. The play is fascinating because there's no subtext; it's about people who say things that normally never get said. Emma's monologue is an actor's dream."

Scott Schwartz may not have had the cheeriest Tony Awards night -- his dad Stephen and his Golda's Balcony star Tovah Feldshuh both went home empty-handed -- but he's hardly had time to brood. This super-busy young director has a fuller-than-full plate, starting with a production of August Strindberg's Miss Julie at the Cherry Lane. "It was brought to me by Beowulf Boritt, who's both one of the producers and the set designer," says Schwartz. "He already had the rights to this new translation by Trude Stockenstrom that I think retains the poeticism and lyricism of the original but feels quite contemporary. Miss Julie is such a complicated, multi-layered work; the characters change and then change back again."

Soon after accepting the project, Schwartz decided that he didn't want to use the original setting of the play, which is 19th-century Sweden: "I thought there must be a way to make the play seem as revolutionary now as it was in its time, and what kept coming to mind -- maybe because it's on TV every day -- is the Middle East. Miss Julie has two central issues. The first is the power relationship between men and women, and I discovered that the gender rules in Middle Eastern societies today are not that different than they were in Strindberg's time. The second is the issue of class differences, and I think there's a parallel between the ways Iraqis who work for the American occupiers must react to their bosses and the way the lower classes in the play handle themselves. But I don't want the play to be seen as a political treatise, so I didn't set in a specific country or time. It could be 20 years in the future."

Up next for Schwartz is Eugene's Home, a new three-character play by Kathy Levin Shapiro about a socialite who falls in love with a man with cerebral palsy; it will play the Berskhire Theatre Festival August 5-21. The director then returns to New York to helm a revival of Larry Shue's The Foreigner at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre in October. "I've been trying to do this play for a long time in New York because it's so damn funny," he says. "It gives the actors so many opportunities to cut loose and go wild."

On top of all this, Schwartz hopes that there will be a fall presentation of My Antonia, his adaptation of the famed Willa Cather novel. But he won't predict whether this or any of his other projects will be successful. "I didn't expect Golda's Balcony to run past its initial six-week engagement at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater," he confesses. "Sometimes, you think a play is a sure-fire hit and you turn out to be wrong; sometimes, it's the other way around. I think you just have to do what you want to do."

Tandy Cronyn (daughter of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) is co-starring in Jeffrey Sweet's The Action Against Sol Schumann at the 14th Street Y through July 11...Prentiss Benjamin (daughter of Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss) and Tessa Auberjonois (daughter of René) co-star in How To Build a Better Tulip, beginning June 18 at The Acorn...Elizabeth Waterston joins dad Sam Waterston in The Public Theater's Much Ado About Nothing at the Delacorte, beginning June 22.

Dick Cavett, applauding the Pizzarelli family's fabulous new show, Bossa Nova at Feinstein's at the Regency...Rosie Perez and Judy Kuhn, sitting one row apart at BAM for the Mark Morris Dance Group...Ebony Jo-Ann, making two visits in two days to Lynn Nottage's Fabulation at Playwrights Horizons.

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