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Loose Lips

Brian Scott Lipton chats with Frances Sternhagen and keeps tabs on Lucy Liu, Jai Rodriguez, Lynn Redgrave, and Ana Gasteyer. logo
Frances Sternhagen
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Imagine doing a play for the second time in your life, 60 years after the first go-round. That was the case when two-time Tony winner Frances Sternhagen tackled J.M. Barrie's one-act "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals" as a benefit for the Mint Theater this past April. "I played the part when I was 13 at summer camp," she says. "I've been playing older ladies on and off for a long time, I just have an affinity for them. Of course, nothing about the play really struck me back then other than the fact that I loved that people laughed and I had more attention paid to me than ever before."

Now Sternhagen feels differently about the play, and that's why she's thrilled to be doing a production of it for a two-month run at the Mint as half of a double bill called Echoes of the War. (The other half is another Barrie one-act, "The New Word," starring Sternhagen's old friend Richard Easton.) According to the actress, "these plays are so touching and so appropriate for now. ['The Old Lady Shows Her Medals'] was written in the early days of World War I; the attitude was that all these boys are heroes and we're fighting because of what we believe in, so the old women in the play approach the war almost as if it were a football game. But nobody knew how devastating the war would turn out to be. England was left bereft of young men."

As great an actress as she is, Sternhagen probably takes more pride in being a mother than anything else. Three of her six children have followed her into show business: Her daughter Amanda has guest starred on Friends (as Rachel's obstetrician) and is a member of the Interact Theater company in Los Angeles; son Tony is just finishing up his stint as Nicky Henson's understudy in Jumpers; and son Paul is spending the summer at the Goodspeed Opera House, playing Sir Francis in Where's Charley?. Says Sternhagen: "I really hope I get to see that, in part because I never saw the show originally. And I always love seeing Paul's work. I am just afraid that our schedules might conflict."

Motherly pride has also been a characteristic of her two most famous television roles: Cliff Clavin's domineering mother on Cheers and Charlotte's even more domineering mother-in-law, Bunny, on Sex and the City. But neither woman was much like their portrayer. "They were both the same kind of obnoxious women that made you think. 'Aren't you glad you don't have that sort of mother or mother-in-law?'" she jokes. "I think Sex and the City, was such a clever and fun show. And the nice thing about it is that it was never mean; the writers really had such a good sense of humor about the character's failings, and the messes that people get themselves into."

In Touch the Names, a production of the recently formed Apartment 929 that begins performances today at the Abingdon Theater Complex, an eclectic cast of distinguished actors --including Marylouise Burke, Matthew Cowles, Carolyn McCormick, Ray Anthony Thomas, Charles Weldon, Zabryana Guevana, and Catherine Curtin -- read actual letters that were left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. "My friend Chic Street Man and I were doing Ain't Nothin' But the Blues at the Arena Stage and one day we wandered down to the Wall," says the show's co-creator and director, Randal Myler. "I found out that the National Park Service tags and bags everything that's left there, except flowers, and sends them to this warehouse in Maryland. So I petitioned the U.S. Government to get access to the warehouse and I sifted through all of these letters and poems. It's really devastating material."

The letters Myler chose from that vast pile for this 80-minute evening are somewhat unusual, he says. "They are from people you never hear from -- moms who lost their sons or daughters who never knew their fathers. They're not usually addressed to anyone specific -- it's more like 'Hi, sweetheart' -- and they're rarely signed. But I think there's so much power in them being the real thing." (Myler didn't serve in Vietnam but his brother did -- and returned home safely.)

Up next for Myler is a somewhat lighter piece: the musical The Immigrant, which will christen the new 37 Arts Theater on October 1. It's based on the true story of co-author (and actor) Mark Harelik's grandfather, a Russian Jew who emigrated to southern Texas. The four-person cast will feature Adam Heller, Cass Morgan, Walter Charles, and Jacqueline Antaramian. "Mark and I created the original play [in the mid '80s] and it's nice to see it work so well in a musical form," says Myler. "When it was done at the Mark Taper Forum, it set box office records. It's definitely a piece that there's a niche for because it really is the story of so many people's families who came to this country."

Jason Graae
Jason Graae might not want to be known as a mama's boy but the comedic actor-singer spent a couple of days last month visiting his mom in Oklahoma before heading to visit his partner Glenn's mom in Alabama. More precisely, Graae was singing at Glenn's mother's wedding. "I wanted to do 'Maybe This Time' but it got vetoed," he jokes.

Singing and traveling are par for the course for Graae this summer. He's participating in a concert titled Bernstein, Comden and Green at Caramoor, in Katonah, New York on July 3, alongside Sylvia McNair, Judy Kaye, and the late Adolph Green's wife and daughter, Phyllis Newman and Amanda Green. "We did this concert before in Chicago and it was really fun," says Graae. "Of course, when I learned that I was singing 'Captain Hook's Waltz' -- which is Adolph's signature song -- I freaked out. But Phyllis was very supportive. I'm also doing 'Make Someone Happy' with that wild verse no one does. It sounds like a Schoenberg symphony but, once you get it in your head, it makes sense."

At the end of July, Graee travels to Sacramento Music Circus to play Ali Hakim in a week-long run of Oklahoma!. "I am from Oklahoma and I've never done the show," he says. "It was actually my first professional audition, for the national tour in the early 1980s, and I got turned down because I was told I didn't look like I was from Oklahoma. As for Ali, I know he's supposed to be Persian but I think I'll play him like he's from Nebraska."

August will be another busy month for Graae: As soon as he leaves Sacramento, he heads to the Yale Cabaret Conference in New Haven, where he will be teaching and performing. Then he's off to San Francisco's Plush Room for a two-week engagement of his new cabaret show Coup de Graae, beginning August 24. "I am working with my newfound musical genius Alex Rybeck, who is a riot to play with," Graae enthuses. "He raises my act about 10 levels. We really hope to do it New York sometimes this year if we can find the right room."

Lucy Liu is following in the footsteps of her Ally McBeal co-stars Calista Flockhart, Greg Germann, and Jane Krakowski by stepping before the footlights: She will star in Zach Helm's new play Good Canary at New York Stage and Film at Vassar College, July 9-11. The show is already sold out and has a waiting list...Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Jai Rodriguez returns to the role of Angel in the Broadway company of Rent, July 5-17...Drama Desk and OBIE award winner Lynn Redgrave will be honored at the opening performance of Women Center Stage 2004 on July 7 at 45 Bleecker..."Saturday Night Live veteran Ana Gasteyer will perform her fabulous solo show Let It Rip at Ars Nova on July 12 and 13.

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