You can make a killing in the theater, but not a living.
FATHER UXBRIDGE WANTS TO MARRY (1980)
Entering the lobby of the Ansonia always takes me back to a grander time when New York City was glamorous and prosperous. This opulent Beaux-Art style building was originally designed to be the grandest hotel in Manhattan. However, like the rest of the city, it’s sort of gone to seed and is now home to artists of every ilk and acts as part of the New York campus for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. The lobby has a fountain that used to house real live seals and a grand sweeping stairway. And even though Plato’s Retreat, the private swinger sex club, is also located in the building, you’d never know it as it has a private entrance on the north side of the building.
The 3 Muses Theatre is located off the lobby and when I open the large double doors leading into the 99-seat Off-Off Broadway theatre I smile. I love this quaint little theatre with its red velvet seats, ornate design, and proscenium arch. This is a huge step up from the Nameless Theater where I did my last show that also housed a porno/dominatrix show. I’m grateful to be working with my once New York roommate and fellow college thespian, Dinah. Dinah is producing and directing Father Uxbridge Wants to Marry and my husband is co-producing.
Everything about our production is top-notch. We have excellent actors and a good script. My husband’s friend, Mariana Cook, is an amazing photographer, a protege of Ansel Adams, and she does museum-quality black and white production shots. We put these amazing photos into a press packet and send them out.
I play Debden. Debden’s the girlfriend of the lead character, Morden, an elevator operator who’s losing his job due to automation. Debden was injured in a car accident that killed her husband leaving her alone to care for their young daughter. Due to the accident, Debden walks with a limp and she’s in the process of leaving Morden.
One evening the playwright, Frank Gagliano, came to a rehearsal and worked with us. “You’re gonna be a star,” he tells me. “All the actors in my plays become famous.” That was certainly the case of Raul Julia and Olympia Dukakis who were both in the original 1967 production of Father Uxbridge.
Then we discover John Simon; the extremely influential and acerbic critic from New York Magazine is coming opening night to review the show. This is quite a coup. A review from John Simon can make or break a show. I’m excited and petrified. It’s terrifying because John Simon is known for saying vicious things about actors especially women and the way they look. I mean this is the guy who wrote, “Barbara Streisand’s nose cleaves the giant screen from east to west, bisects it from north to south. It zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning” and referred to Kathleen Turner as a “braying mantis.”
Nonetheless, this is a huge coup for us. We reserve two seats for Mr. Simon near the front, which we drape with wide purple satin ribbon, and hang reserve signs over them written in large Old English Gothic letters–which ironically look kind of like they belong in a funeral procession. On opening night when our stage manager comes backstage to call places he informs us, “Mr. Simon’s out there. Have a great show and break a leg.”
My stage fright kicks in and the butterflies in my stomach accelerate. Honestly, I want to run screaming from the theater as far away as possible. The show goes well, but at one point I have to go way downstage to do a monologue and I think, John Simon is out there, please don’t let me suck.
The next week my husband brings home a copy of New York Magazine, “Look what I found.”
“Is it in there?” I ask.
“You want to read it?” he says offering me the magazine.
“No, no, no, you read it. I’m scared.”
Slowly and carefully he turns the pages like maybe there’s a bomb inside until he locates the review.
“Don’t tell me if it’s horrible. I don’t want to know.”
He reads the entire review in silence then closes the magazine and places it on the coffee table.
“Well…?” I ask. “How bad is it?”
“I thought you didn’t want to know.”
“Well…not if it’s horrible, but of course, I want to know.”
“Okay,” he says opening the magazine and flipping to the review, as I chew the cuticle of my thumbnail.
“It’s titled, ‘Craft and Art’ by John Simon. Ready?”
Yes, I nod and give him a look like duh.
“It begins, ‘There was, however, a good deal of craft in the revival of Frank Gagliano’s Father Uxbridge Wants to Marry, somewhat revised from the 1967 original version, at the 3 Muses Theater, unfooortuuuuunatley,'” he says dragging out the word. “Unfooortuuuuunatley,” he says dragging the word out again, “for an all too limited run.”
“What? That’s promising.”
“Then…let’s see…he describes the plot.”
“Skip that. I know the plot.”
“Oh, FYI, he says your character is a woman of ‘doubtful morals’.”
“That’s fine,” I laugh. As long as he doesn’t call me ugly or say I sucked. Keep going.”
“Okay…let’s see…oh, he says and I quote ‘surprisingly well-acted’…and…oh yeah…’ deserves a full-scale Off-Broadway revival.’”
“What? Yay! Awesome! This is huge! Huge!” And then it hits me, “Hey, let’s extend the run.”
“We can’t do that.”
“Why not? We just got a great review from John Simon. Come on. We need to capitalize on this.”
“Nope…wish we could, but there’s no money.” He says shaking his head. “We need money to do that.”
“What about the box office money?”
“That’s Dinah’s money. Luckily, she broke even, but that’s all.”
“Shit. Why does every frickin’ thing come down to money?”
“It just does, Jill. Just does. You want to make money? Get on a soap opera.”
“And why’s there no support for the arts in this country? Huh? England has a National Theater. It’s supported by their government. We have the National Endowment with a minuscule budget that gets smaller every year and if our ex B-actor president Ray-Guns has anything to do with it the NEA will be completely obliterated. I mean, what’s the point? It doesn’t matter if I do a horrible production or a first-rate one…the result’s the same. It’s so discouraging. It reminds me of the old adage by playwright Robert Anderson, ‘You can make a killing in the theater, but not a living.’ And that just sucks.”
Theater Review by John Simon in New York Magazine, September 1, 1980
TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED, AND BLACK
by Lorraine Hansberry (1981)
In 1981 I was cast to understudy Elizabeth McGovern in a production of “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” by Lorraine Hansberry at the Theatre Off Park. Anna Deavere Smith was cast as an understudy in this production as well. We spent a lot of time together watching rehearsals. Lynne Godfrey (Eubie) directed the piece. It was a stellar production.
When I went to the first reading I saw this young, beautiful girl sitting there and I said, a little too enthusiastically, ” Hi!” She smiled and said hi back. Then I sat down and thought to myself, do I know her? How do I know her? She looks so familiar and then I realized it was Elizabeth McGovern who I’d seen in the mega-hit film “Ordinary People,” that in 1980 had won four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actor. I understudied Elizabeth and went on once during the run. She left a box of cookies for me at her make-up mirror. What a kind gesture.
Exxon came to see the play and put up the money to move it to a full Off-Broadway run, but they were unable to locate an empty theatre and after six months Exxon pulled out their backing.
This is a sampling of a few of the Off-Off-Broadway shows I did.
. . .
SAVAGE IN LIMBO
by John Patrick Shanley (1988)
In 1988 I was cast as April White in “Savage in Limbo” by John Patrick Shanley at the T. Schreiber Studio. The play was directed by Steve Zimmer.
I loved playing April White, the down on her luck alcoholic. I loved inhabiting that world with the rest of her down on their luck friends. I saw April as a fallen angel and although you can’t see it in the photo my sweater has sequenced wings on the front. I found the sweater in a second-hand shop and thought it was perfect or her. I also put a little grease in my bangs like she hadn’t washed her hair in a while.
It was a great production with a stellar cast.
. . .
ONE SHOE OFF
by Tina Howe (1999)
In 1999 I became a member of TNT Repertory Company. David Crommett was the artistic director. We were based in New York City and this was my first production with them that we took out of town.
I know they say never read your reviews, but I always do.
Ms. Dalton is perfect as she tries on and cast off clothing in an attempt to dress for dinner. She never goes overboard, never gets hysterical or high pitched — a real danger with a part like this. She steals the show with an aria she recites on the life of vegetables in the second act, as she tosses a salad large enough to feed the audience.
Joseph F. Caputo, The Scranton Times
Sadly, after this amazing production, the group disbanded. No one contacted me to let us know. Instead, I was told David Crommett had been hired as a sportscaster and no longer had the time to continue with the group. It was extremely disappointing for me, as I loved working with this talented group of people.