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Episode 32

IMPRESSING THE PRESS


August 30, 1998

In Rehearsal with The Rehearsal; Drema Paige is Back, and Ready to Remind Us of What We've Been Missing


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By JOHN SLYMON

he first thing I encounter, on admission to the foyer of Drema Paige's penthouse apartment - tellingly enough, perched atop a theatrical warehouse in Greenwich Village - is a 16- foot tall image of the legendary actress herself, circa 1938.

"Hello, darling! I'm so glad you could make it. Which one are you?"

Miss Paige makes her entrance on the second floor landing of the towering staircase. Her penetrating, husky voice is as hypnotizing in person as it is on stage. I fumble to introduce myself and identify my newspaper as she slowly descends. Her eyes never leave mine, never glance away to confirm her footing on the stairs. Nor does her hand ever come in contact with the mahogany handrail. I feel as if I'm somehow in the presence of a goddess. It's a bravura performance. I can't help myself; I applaud as she reaches the last step. Her eyes go wide with feigned surprise and then we both laugh. She decides to take me into her confidence, speaks to me as if we are old friends.

"Admit it, darling, I had you going there for a minute. Josephine Baker taught me how to do that when she came back from Paris. It's an old trick. All the Follies mannequins could manage it blindfolded. Although actually doing it every night prematurely ended more than a few careers."

I ask her about the poster.

"Oh, heavens. Promise me you won't write that I have an ego this big. We were downstairs in the warehouse, pulling props for The Rehearsal a few weeks ago and ran across it. I had it dusted off and hung in here because . . . because I wanted to. I don't really have a reason."

I told her that none of my research revealed she had ever played The Little Foxes on Broadway.

"I did, but only for one act. It was quite a scandal! You don't know the story? (Well, it was 60 years ago.) Tallulah opened the play, of course. But she had the producers worried. During rehearsals she was very demanding and was being a total bitch to everyone except the director, Herman Shumlin, who she was sleeping with. She threatened to walk out several times. After they opened and Herman wasn't around to calm her down anymore, things got worse.

"I had just closed in a successful run of High Tor, and the producers secretly hired me to learn the part and be ready to go on in case Bankhead made good her threats. They had these posters made up and the programs with my name in them printed and waiting. Long story short; about four weeks into the run, after a matinee, Tallulah blows up at something or other, announces she has had it with the play, storms out of the theatre and disappears.

"They had my posters covering the front of the theatre by the time I got there for the evening performance. The audience that night hadn't bought tickets to see Drema Paige as Regina Giddens, but not one person asked for their money back. I was magnificent! Unfortunately, Tallulah arrived in time to hear the applause for the first act. After an "argument" that lasted for half an hour and sent two of the stage hands to the hospital with concussion and broken bones, Tallulah went on to finish the play and I was out of a job. A couple of years later, when the first class tour was ending, I bought the production and toured the hell out of it in the provinces during the war. I always felt that the character Regina and I had a lot in common."

I ask how she feels about playing the role of Laura Hope-Crews in The Rehearsal.

"That's a bit different, isn't it? Laura was a real person, a great actress. Fortunately for me, nobody these days - except me - is old enough to have clear memories of her. It gives me a bit more leeway in how I play her, and how I play her playing Judith Bliss. I do try to be as true to her and her performance style as possible. But, time changes everything, and a lot of her technique simply wouldn't work on a stage these days. We've had to update a bit here and there.

"J. B., our director, actually played her son in something or other when he was a young boy, and remembers her as being truly innocent and naive. A contemporary audience would find it very difficult to accept that in an adult woman these days. I'm playing her naivete as somewhat calculated rather than sincere, and it seems to work in the context of the play."

I ask her about the play.

"Willy - Wilbur Valentine, the playwright - is a genius! The Rehearsal is a two-character play about NoŽl Coward rehearsing Laura Hope-Crews to play Judith Bliss in the Broadway premier of Coward's comedy Hay Fever, which is all about the romantic antics of an English bohemian theatrical family. When I first read the play, it scared me to death. It's just the two of them, Laura and NoŽl, having at each other during a long, trying rehearsal. Nerves are frayed, tempers lost, and a lot of things are said that perhaps shouldn't be. In a sense, it's a critical portrait of two wildly divergent creative talents at work. I mean, we are really talking very dangerous territory here. What makes the play work is the humor, both intentional and otherwise. The bloody thing's hilarious!

"Of course, none of it would work without a really good actor playing NoŽl Coward. We first offered the part to Billy Crudup, whom I consider to be the best of the recent generation. Billy had prior commitments, though. I was in despair of ever finding a good NoŽl until David walked in, literally off the street, to audition. David is the young NoŽl Coward. He has the talent, the looks, the timing, the personality, everything; it's absolutely frightening at times how good he is."

To prove her point, she invites me to a run through of The Rehearsal the following morning. I accept and arrive at the rehearsal hall, on the top floor of the new Drema Paige Theatre, a bit early, hoping to have a few minutes to speak with various members of the production team. George David shows me the model of his set design.

"When Hay Fever first went into production, it was still fairly common for a straight play's entire rehearsal to take place on the stage of the theatre where it would open. It wasn't unusual for the actors to find the set forming around them, in bits and pieces, over the course of the last few weeks of rehearsal. That's what I've done here for Rehearsal, the unfinished set for Hay Fever."

Clara McComiskey, the lighting designer, walks over.

"And he's made my life impossible in the process, the old goat! He's making me do all the hard work with the lights. Rehearsal has more than a thousand light cues, all because this old fart refuses to fly in a couple of walls. And don't get me started on the problems with the costumes."

Mildred Turtle, the costume designer, joins in.

"Clara, deal with it. She's grumpy because all the costumes are in dark jewel tones and she has to back- and sidelight the entire stage."

"No. It's that one damn white outfit Drema keeps changing into and out of. Every time she does, I have to re-balance the whole light plan in a split second without the audience realizing what's happening. She's giving me ulcers."

I leave this group to seek out David E. Leigon, the newcomer playing NoŽl Coward, across the room. He and a young girl are quietly discussing a Rehearsal window card hung on the wall.

"She's beautiful, isn't she? On the poster?"

I remark that the photograph used for the poster looks a great deal younger than Drema does in person.

"She laughed when she first saw it. But then she said makeup and lights and sheer force of will can take 40 years off, on stage, if you work it right."

I tell him Drema was highly complimentary of his performance the previous day.

"Miss Paige says nice things about everybody. She's a very positive person. That's one of the big things I've learned working with her, to let go of all your doubts and negative feelings and concentrate on doing the best you can. It seems too simple when you just say it like that, but it really works. It's a privilege to work with her."

J. B. Howard, the director, has joined the group of designers across the room. I ask David if it has been easy working with a cast and crew significantly older than he?

"It was intimidating at first. Everybody was on edge and nobody knew what to say. But then Robin explained that they were all waiting for me to start being an arrogant and "know-it-all," smart-assed kid. She suggested I start asking them for their opinions and help, and listen to what they have to say. I took her advice and everything has worked out great. When you stand back and realize that those four people over there between them have over 300 years worth of experience in the theatre, how could you not learn something every time you talk to them? They're like wonderful, feisty, loving grandparents to me now. Except for Clara; she thinks she is my mother and keeps bringing me homemade chicken soup. I keep trying to explain I'm a vegetarian, but she says that's just a phase I'm passing through."

The young girl introduces herself as Robin Paige, Drema's granddaughter.

"I don't want to intrude, but I heard you were going to be here this morning and I wanted to drop by and introduce myself. Actually, I wanted to ask if you would be interested in doing a piece on me and my show? I've just signed on to direct Neverland Theatricals' next project, a musical titled Neverland. We're working on it down the hall, if you want to stop by on your way out and meet everybody."

I comment that she seems very young to have just been signed to direct a musical.

"I'm 19. We Paige women always start young. Did that sound flippant? Our producer warned me that I'd have to defend my age for the next 20 years and that I'd better have a standard answer ready. Does that one work?"

I said it did for me.

"Good. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some reading to do. One of the stipulations in my contract is that I've got to read one book a week that the producer recommends. This week it's a biography of Joseph Papp. It's fascinating. He started young too."

Right on the stroke of ten, Drema Paige enters the room saying her first line in the play. Without fuss or any further words, the day's rehearsal has begun.

Everyone has their treasured memories of some startling theatrical moment they have experienced in a play or musical. From this day on, I shall remember the sight of a woman, entering through a rehearsal room door, tossing her straw hat and bag on a chair in passing, timing her speech and herself to hit a mark taped on the floor perfectly on cue. Theatrical magic is being conjured in this room. I quietly slip away so as not to distract the magicians.

PRODUCTION NOTES

'THE REHEARSAL'

A new comedy by Wilbur Valentine, starring Drema Paige with David E. Leigon as NoŽl Coward. Previews begin September 18 for a September 24 opening.


Was Joseph Papp a prodigiously creative cultural entrepreneur, a contemporary Robin Hood who stole art from the rich and gave it to the poor, or was he, as critic John Simon argues, a man with vulgar notions of what culture is?

Joe Papp: An American Life by Helen Epstein is a sympathetic biography of the legendary New York-based theater producer, who died in 1991. Epstein was a close friend of Papp's; although she makes an attempt to be evenhanded, she admits that this is a "friendly" biography. Born Yussel Papirofsky in Brooklyn, Papp discovered the allure of the theater while putting on amateur shows in the Army. He joined the fledgling West coast based Actors' Laboratory after WW II and then moved to New York, where he worked as a stage manager at CBS. Meanwhile, he founded his New York Shakespeare Festival and, working out of a tiny Lower East Side church, vowed to bring the Bard's works to the masses through touring productions in the city's parks. Papp's first great battle was fought with New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who resented his pushy behavior and his "do-now-pay-later" attitude. His successful battle with the aging power broker led to the establishment of free Shakespeare in New York City's Central Park, which has since become a beloved tradition.

Papp established the Public Theater in the landmark Astor Library building, producing such surprise hits as the first rock musical, Hair, and the second longest-running Broadway show ever, A Chorus Line. Meanwhile, his attention moved to championing contemporary plays, often by women, black, or Latino authors. Papp spent his last years hiding the fact that he was suffering from cancer and championing freedom of speech. His sympathy for the urban poor, his open-casting policy at a time when it was hardly trendy, and his basic libertarianism are all to be admired, but he comes across as a tireless self-promoter who often confused his personal good with the common good. Spending so much time with Papp is like spending a long holiday with an annoying, if lovable, relative. Recommended for theatrical mavens and cultural historians.

Joe Papp: An American Life
by Helen Epstein
List Price $18.95
Da Capo Press
ISBN 0306806762


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