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Make a Cell-ebration!

Cell phone discussions of Alan Alda in Q.E.D., James Hindman in Roadside, Baby Jane Dexter at Arci's Place, and Margo Martindale in Shove. logo

Alan Alda in Q.E.D.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
I'm still listening to Everybody Has a Story: The Song of Adryan Russ. While I'm enjoying it, I do take issue with one of her lyrics--where she says, "Every time I hear a cell phone ring, I think I'll go insane." Gee, Adryan, I don't know. I cherish my cell phone, for look how many people it allowed me to talk to today while I made my way to a number of errands on the sidewalks of New York (dull movie, by the way) and Newark, New Jersey.

First, I called my pal Ruth Lepie, who lives in Laguna Hills, California. She called me last week on Thanksgiving, but only now did I have a real chance to call her back and talk. "It's funny I'm calling you today," I told her, "because the last time I visited you was the afternoon before I saw Q.E.D. in L.A., and now I just saw it again in New York." Ruth is a venerable theatergoer--she gave me her Merman-Gaxton-Moore program from the original Anything Goes--so she was interested in hearing about the show. But when I said, "It deals with Richard Feynman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamic physics," she muttered an exhausted "Oy!"

"I know," I said empathetically. "Of 526 kids who took physics at Northeastern University, I finished 525th, just above a kid from the Philippine Islands for whom English was a second language. But the play's wonderful because it deals very little with physics and because Alan Alda, the most charming actor in America, is playing the role. You think Feynman is going to be this dull man who's barely a human being, but he's not, especially with Alda playing him. I thought, 'Whoever thought of him for this part was really smart'--but it turned out to be Alda himself, who commissioned the play as a vehicle. And, oh, does he drive it smoothly."

After Ruth, I called my pal Paul Roberts to tell him what I felt about Roadside, the new musical that Jones and Schmidt have adapted from a Lynn Riggs play and now have up and running at the York Theatre Company. "In a way," I told him, "it's a celebration of Jones and Schmidt shows. There's a guy like El Gallo from The Fantasticks and Potemkin in Celebration who frames the action. There's not only a song about how good marriage is, which could have fit into I Do! I Do!, but also a reference to a four-poster, the title of the play that inspired that show. More to the point, here are the guys who wrote 110 in the Shade, in which the girl goes for the nice, safe guy instead of the exciting ne'er-do-well; but now they've got Hannie, a girl who wants 'Much More,' so she doesn't eventually go for Buzzey, the four-square farmer, but Tex, the wild drifter. Oh, she doubts him at first--just as Lizzie doubted Starbuck in their earlier show. But she eventually comes to the conclusion that Buzzey offers no buzz, that Tex may be 'half-crazy' but that's not so bad because 'all men are crazy.' "

I went on to tell Paul that if a CD of Roadside is released, I pity my neighbors, who'll have to endure my playing "I Toe the Line" at least 600 times in a row. "No," I finally decided, "they'll probably thank me for introducing them to this toe-tapping song and it won't be long before we're all be in the elevator, humming the tune in harmony." I then mentioned what a treat it was to once again see Julie Johnson, of Das Barbecü and Paper Moon fame, back on the boards after taking some time off to have a baby. (What a lucky kid David Johnson is to have a mother such as she!) What I love about Julie J. is that she's one of those rare heavy-set performers who oozes sexuality and self-confidence. It's as though she's saying: "If you don't get my beauty, you're the loser, and a damn fool, too." Indeed, you are.

"But you know who else is terrific in Roadside?" I rhetorically asked Paul. "James Hindman as Buzzey. I've been a fan of Hindman ever since I saw him stop the show cold in Waiting in the Wings--no, not the Noël Coward play, but the annual extravaganza where understudies get to strut their stuff. This was back when Hindman was standing by for Stine in City of Angels. Since then, he's delivered impressive performances in Honk and The Scarlet Pimpernel and wrote the much-loved Pete 'n' Keely."

Baby Jane Dexter
Then I called cabaret diva Baby Jane Dexter, who'll be appearing at Arci's. That place gets lots of good people (Donna McKechnie, Christine Ebersole, etc.), so all of us now know by heart that it's located on Park Avenue between 30th and 31st Streets. Dexter's a delight to talk with, as is proved by my staying on the phone with her for 100 minutes. (I'm so glad that, last night, I recharged my battery.) The lady spent some time telling me that she'll be singing songs by Vernon Duke and Rodgers & Hammerstein, but it was her story about her accompanist, Ross Patterson, that really had me roaring. While they've now been together for years and years, they didn't start out so well. "In fact," said Dexter, "we went to couples' therapy. We did," she added, interrupting my guffaw. "We were drawn together musically but we just couldn't get along otherwise. So he told his problems with me to his shrink, who told him, 'Bring her in.' And I went. After a while, though, we just did the sessions by phone." She may have done that by phone, but I've never known Baby Jane Dexter to phone in a performance. Can't wait to see her again at Arci's, December 11-29; can't wait to hear her forthcoming album on Jerome Records.

Jerome Records! That reminded me that I owed them a call. I'll not bore you with the details of the conversation, but it went something like: "Mutter, mutter, mutter, mutter yes, Jerome, mutter, no, Jerome ..."

Then I was glad to hear from Mark Eisman, whose play Shove I recently saw at a reading at the Players Club. Granted, most readings I attend are pretty dismal affairs; but Shove, I told him, "has the potential to be a cash cow for you, a big Broadway hit and a show that will be done in every community theater in the land." It's about Jenette, a young woman who works at a newsstand and doesn't feel terribly fulfilled until she's called to jury duty, becomes a forewoman, and--12-Angry-Men-style--gets a jury to acquit Lowell, a drifter accused of pushing a woman onto the subway tracks. The case may be over, but it never will be for Jenette, who's so proud of what she's done that she's already planning a jurors' reunion. Well, nobody's interested in such a reunion except a guy named Selden, who really is only interested in Jenette and hopes they can have a relationship. To prod that along, he'll do whatever she asks, even going to the restaurant where Lowell works to say hello and wish him well. The problem is that Lowell has been canned, which makes Jenette feel worse, which makes Selden feel worse because he's worried that she may be interested in Lowell in the way that he wants her interested in him.

Eisman has given each of these figures a rich characterization that always rings true. I did suggest a new ending for the play and advised Eisman to change the title to Perfect Peers--a phrase used by Jenette, which would be a much more welcoming title than the one he chose. Of course, he said my suggestions were "interesting," which is what people say when they may not be interested at all. But I still wish him luck, and I won't be surprised if I'm visiting him in a Central Park penthouse some day.

Before I concluded the conversation, I commented on Margo Martindale, who played Jenette's employer. I've never forgotten how brilliant she was as the original Truvy in Steel Magnolias; I attended the first preview at the Lortel, before anyone knew the play would become a household-word title, and I have to say that Martindale's performance as the beauty shop owner got the production on the right track and was no small part of its winning us over. But I told Eisman that, as I was leaving the Shove reading, I saw Martindale and said: "I'll never forget how brilliant you were in Steel Magnolias." And she said, sadly: "Oh, that was a long time ago." Which made me reply: "So, that means it doesn't count?" Maybe I was a bit harsher than I needed to be, and I guess Martindale hasn't received a bushel of offers since her 1987 success, but there's still no taking away the brilliance of what she did.

Almost immediately after hanging up with Eisman, I got a call from Nick Bellitto, whose new play Novel is currently running at HERE on Sixth Avenue. He told me, "I haven't spent all of my 62 years writing. For a long time, I ran a company called Mighty Maids that provided maid service." "Everybody ought to have a maid," I said. "Well, especially in these busy times," he replied immediately before going on to talk about himself. Meanwhile, I was both wounded and astonished that he didn't get the joke.

"Then," he said, "I started to write a French farce." "Don't you love farce?" I crooned. "Yes, I do," he answered, missing my second joke, "though they're awfully hard to write." By then, I'd lost all interest in him and started to think that Adryan Russ might be right about cell phones after all.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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