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Broadway Bound

Episode 41


September 25, 1998


ĎThe Rehearsal': Did you ever have one of those plays where everything goes right?


Robin Paige Related Articles
The New York Tribune on the Web: Current Theater

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EW YORK - Four of NoŽl Coward's plays recently found a place on the Royal National Theatre's list of the 100 most Ďsignificant' English plays of the twentieth-century. Although frequently revived and a staple of small theatre groups on both sides of the Atlantic, Coward's Hay Fever was not among them. The story, of a weekend in the country with Judith Bilss, a bohemian actress, her husband the novelist, their two adult children, and the self-centered games they play, using four guests as pawns in never-ending rounds of romantic one-upmanship, is classic Coward; brittle, sophisticated, and amusing in a way typical of English comedy of the 30s.

Playwright Wilbur Valentine has taken Hay Fever, or rather the rehearsals for the play prior to the opening of the original English cast in the New York production, as the starting point of his The Rehearsal, which opened last night at the Drema Paige Theatre.

We witness a rehearsal, just days before Hay Fever opens, conducted by NoŽl Coward - directing his own play - with the play's star, the English actress and comedienne, Laura Hope- Crews. She may be a great star in England, but Mrs. Hope-Crews has suffered savage critical attacks and abuse several years before, on her Broadway debut in Rudolph Friml's The Three Musketeers, and is now, in a towering display of pre-opening nerves, absolutely convinced that all Americans hate her and are preparing to hand her the ultimate humiliation of her career on opening night. Coward, as author and director, is forced to resort to an increasingly absurd series of tactics, ruses, and deceptions in his efforts to help her regain her confidence.

The Rehearsal works on all levels. It is an absorbing and illuminating critical expose of the effects two strong and highly talented personalities have on each other when locked in creative and emotional battle. It is a historical documentary, revealing in lavish and authentic detail the social and theatrical arts as practiced by professionals sixty years ago. And it is that rare gem, a comedy that is actually funny.

As written by Mr. Valentine and ably directed by J. B. Howard, we soon forget that we are supposedly watching a famous playwright/actor and glamorous actress scurrying around up on that stage. What generates the rolling-in-the-aisles laughter is the realization that we, were we to find ourselves in a similar situation, would probably end up doing exactly the same things to equally disastrous and hilarious results.

The set, by George David, evocative of the period and capable of seeming nothing more than an empty stage at one moment, only to appear crowded and maze-like the next, is a miracle of efficient and unobtrusive stage design. The costumes, by Mildred Turtle, surprisingly reveal the character of each actor without sacrificing a sure sense of period style. And the lighting, by Clara McComiskey, is so subtle you don't see it, you only remember the effects afterwards, on your way home.

David E. Leigon plays NoŽl Coward as the man Coward unquestionably was at this period in his career, and not the well-known public persona Coward himself crafted and polished to the point of caricature. Leigon's Coward is a talented and pretentious young man, ever on guard against revealing his true self, capable of great compassion but prevented from expressing it by the lie he feels he must live to win the respect he covets. It is a masterful performance.

Robin Paige plays Laura Hope-Crews. She's not old enough, she's too good-looking, and, despite being raised in London, her accent is pure New England nasal. But, none of that matters in the least. With her first line you relax, realizing you are in the hands of a very capable actress. Her unexpected delivery of her second line shocks you into gales of laughter. (Be forewarned and take a deep breath; you won't stop laughing for the next two and a half hours.) Five minutes into the play you gleefully accept you are in the presence of a manic comic genius. (Comparisons are inevitable; think Bea Lillie, Katharine Hepburn, and Lynn Fontanne.) Ms. Paige is an actress, the likes of which theatrical legends are made.

I won't advise you to rush right out and buy tickets; I don't need to. Robin Paige and The Rehearsal will be with us for a long, long time.



By Wilbur Valentine; directed by J. B. Howard; set by George David; costumes by Mildred Turtle; lighting by Clara McComiskey; sound by John Mitchell; production stage manager, Norman Desmond. Presented by Neverland Theatricals. At the Drema Paige Theatre.

Cast: Robin Paige (Laura Hope-Crews) and David E. Leigon (NoŽl Coward). _____________________________________________________________

Saturday, September 26
A phonecall from Seattle
4:20 AM


"Hey, it must have been some opening night party! I've been trying to reach you all day and most of the night. What is it, Saturday morning there now? I've got some great news."

Hold on a second. Let me turn on a light.

"I saw the review in the Trib this morning. Are all of them that good?"


"How's the advance?"

We've got problems.

"No advance sales on reviews like that?"

We've got advance all right. We did almost three hundred thousand before five this evening.

"That doesn't sound like a problem to me!"

It is.

"Let me fill you in on my end. Then I want to hear all about our first opening."

I really think you should listen . . .

"Let me tell you my news first. Drema was right! This Jonathan Franks guy is Billy Finn. He's the right age. He's the right look. He can belt. He can act. I had him read a couple of scenes today and it took him all of three seconds to get what Billy Finn is all about. He's a natural. Only problem is, he's not a dancer. But I figure a couple of weeks working with the choreographer and it won't look like he's faking it. I'm ready to sign him right now. He's doing some cabaret thing for the next couple of nights. Can you fly out here today to take a look? Oh, and by the way, Seattle isn't south of LA. Bring an umbrella. And a coat. I haven't been this excited about Neverland since we started working on it. All of a sudden, with this Franks guy standing in front of me, it's real. Billy Finn is real and Neverland is real and I'm already rewriting stuff because now that I hear Billy Finn saying it, I know how to make it better!"

Are you through?

"What? Come on! Get excited with me! This is great!"

Are you through?

"Wait a minute . . . what's wrong?"

Put this guy on hold for a couple of days. Tell him you'll get back in contact by the end of the week. Get out to the airport and get on the first flight back to New York. I need you here. We have problems.

"I see . . . so tell me, we got great reviews, a damn good advance . . . what's happened?"

Remember that electrical fire we had in the footlights? It looked like somebody deliberately did it?


Tonight about 7:25, just before they opened the house, it happened again.

"Jeez! Did the crew catch it in time? Much damage? Did you have to cancel the performance?"

Nobody caught it in time. And, it looks like the sprinkler system and the fire alarms were sabotaged too. The Drema Paige Theatre burnt to the ground. We have seven people missing, presumed dead, in the blaze. Robin is one of them.

"Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare's greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness." So Harold Bloom opines in his outrageously ambitious Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. This is a titanic claim. But then this is a titanic book, wrought by a latter-day critical colossus - and before Bloom is done with us, he has made us wonder whether his vision of Shakespeare's influence on the whole of our lives might not be simply the sober truth. Shakespeare is a feast of arguments and insights, written with engaging frankness and affecting immediacy. Bloom ranges through the Bard's plays in the probable order of their composition, relating play to play and character to character, maintaining all the while a shrewd grasp of Shakespeare's own burgeoning sensibility.

It is a long and fascinating itinerary, and one littered with thousands of sharp insights. Listen to Bloom on Romeo and Juliet: "The Nurse and Mercutio, both of them audience favorites, are nevertheless bad news, in different but complementary ways." On The Merchant of Venice: "To reduce him to contemporary theatrical terms, Shylock would be an Arthur Miller protagonist displaced into a Cole Porter musical, Willy Loman wandering about in Kiss Me Kate." On As You Like It: "Rosalind is unique in Shakespeare, perhaps indeed in Western drama, because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective upon her that she herself does not anticipate and share." Bloom even offers some belated vocational counseling to Falstaff, identifying him as an Elizabethan Mr. Chips: "Falstaff is more than skeptical, but he is too much of a teacher (his true vocation, more than highwayman) to follow skepticism out to its nihilistic borders, as Hamlet does."

In the end, it doesn't matter very much whether we agree with all or any of these ideas. What does matter is that Bloom's capacious book sends us hurrying back to some of the central texts of our civilization. "The ultimate use of Shakespeare," the author asserts, "is to let him teach you to think too well, to whatever truth you can sustain without perishing." Bloom himself has made excellent use of his hero's instruction, and now he teaches us all to do the same.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
by Harold Bloom
List Price $35.00
Riverhead Books
ISBN 1573221201


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