What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Dorothy Lyman
By Nancy Rosati
Actor/director/producer/writer Dorothy Lyman has returned to New York city in a new play, My Kitchen Wars, based on food writer Betty Fussell's 1999 memoir. Called a "declaration of food, infidelity and emancipation," the play takes audiences through the tumultuous thirty years of Betty's marriage, while Dorothy whips up a gourmet meal in her kitchen.
Known primarily to television audiences as two-time Emmy winner Opal Gardner on All My Children or Vicki Lawrence's daughter-in-law Naomi on the sitcom Mama's Family, Dorothy also produced and directed three seasons of The Nanny and directed the CBS sitcom Payne starring John Laroquette. Her stage credits include four Dramalogue Awards for A Rage in Tenure, and directing/starring in John Ford Noonan's A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking.
Nancy Rosati: Dorothy, I'm looking over your career here and it's just incredible. You've been an actress, director, producer, writer... does any one experience stand out in your mind?
Dorothy Lyman: As far as the theatre goes, the first thing I ever produced and directed was A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking. It ran for a year and became one of Samuel French's top ten best selling play scripts of all time. It had a national tour. That was one of the high points of the theatre stuff. Of course, playing Opal (All My Children) was the high point of my acting career.
NR: You won two Emmys for that.
DL: Exactly. Directing The Nanny for three years was a whole other use of my organizational powers, as well as the creative ones. I got to produce and direct that show, which was quite eye-opening and broadening.
NR: In what way?
DL: When you're an actor, you do your part and go home. When you're the director, you're there before, during, and way after it. You're in the editing room. It makes acting look quite easy.
NR: When you went back to acting, I assume you had a whole new appreciation for the process.
DL: Exactly. It was like taking a nap in the sun. How a network TV show gets on every week is an amazing machine that takes hundreds of people. As the director, you're basically in charge of all of them.
NR: What about the process would surprise people the most?
DL: The incredible number of hours that the writing staff spends honing the scripts and honing those jokes, how far in advance the scripts need to be first outlined. Then they're assigned to a writer for a first draft, and then a second draft. Then it gets into rehearsal where it changes completely four more times between Monday and Friday. It's absolutely incredible.
It spoiled me for directing in theatre, because if you have an idea in television such as, "I'd like them to have some chocolate chip cookies in the scene," you'd snap your fingers and instantly they were there. Well, chocolate chip cookies are pretty easy to produce instantly, but let's just say we suddenly want a Mr. Softee truck from New York to drive by. Next thing we know, it's been put on a flatbed truck in New York and it's halfway across the country. The ease with which you can carry out your ideas on TV is great.
In the theatre, if I have an idea and if I own that prop, then it's going to be in the play. We built the set for My Kitchen Wars in my garage up in the Catskills. We drove the truck down ourselves, loaded it into the theater, moved most of the contents of my kitchen here in New York down to the set, and that's what we have.
NR: Tell me the background behind the decision to put it into a cooking scenario.
DL: It's the story of a woman who spent more time in the kitchen than anywhere else, for at least the first fifty years of her life. My own life has been centered around food and the kitchen. I learned to cook during my first marriage. I was married to Broadway director John Tillinger for 12 years. He was born in Iran, so I learned how to cook Persian food, and Turkish food and Greek food for him. In the 70s, when we were living in suburban Connecticut, I got involved in competitive gourmet cooking. We were making our own bread and growing our own gardens of herbs and vegetables so that we could have the freshest table. There were four couples and we traded dinner parties once a month. So, even though I am almost 20 years younger than Betty, a lot of her experiences over the years are similar to mine. When I read the book I recognized a lot of myself in it, and I felt it was material that I could present in a very personal way.
NR: I was struck by the similarity between your bio and Betty Fussell's.
DL: Yes. I had three children and two husbands, she had one husband and two children, but basically the stories ended up the same - in divorce. There are certain women who just end up eating alone. If I was with someone, I couldn't be pursuing my directing career the way I am. I couldn't be developing all of these scripts if I had someone else to take care of, the way you have to when you're in a committed relationship with someone.
NR: Because you're alone, you have more freedom to develop your career?
DL: I think so. I was a mother for 32 years. My last son just went off to college in September. I'm now in a situation where nobody needs me. I have to use this to my advantage as an artist. Concentrated work is something that men have always had a right to, but women have always had to drop it and go make dinner.
I think there are some surprising twists and turns in Betty's story. I'm very gratified that people are sitting there listening for the whole time.
NR: When I saw it, there was a woman in front of me who was clearly relating to it. Everything you said, she was just nodding her head. It seemed like you were bringing back so many memories for her. Are you seeing that? It's a very intimate space, so you can certainly see the audience reaction.
DL: Yes I can. I'm in direct address to them the entire time. I feel I get to make 50 new friends every time because I'm really looking at people out there. It especially hits home to women of a certain age, which is the generation above me. I feel this is my mother's story, and it's a lot of older women's stories. I've had young women say, "I understand my mother much better now, having seen this show." There are men too who come to the play with their wives, who end up squeezing the shoulders of their beloved a little bit harder that evening going home in the cab. I think there's some increased understanding into what a woman is actually going through while she's seemingly such a happy wife and mother.
NR: Her story was definitely in a time when women were told they couldn't have a career. My generation was told we could, but the reality was that it wasn't as easy as they made it seem.
DL: Right. We were promised we could have everything. I made great sacrifices in my own personal life to have the career that I had. I divorced the father of my first two children when they were 3 and 5, and essentially they lived in Connecticut with him until my daughter was 15 and came out to California to go to boarding school near me. When my son was 18, he moved back home with me in California. He and I really got to know each other then. After the age when most boys are leaving home, my son came back home to me.
NR: I was going to ask you what attracted you to Betty's story, but that's pretty clear.
DL: I met Betty in the early 1980s before I moved to California. We were introduced by mutual friends here in New York and I immediately liked her. I looked in her face and had one of those immediate fond reactions to someone - when you just know that you could be good friends with that person.
NR: Have you stayed in contact with her?
DL: Yes, and our friendship has grown over the years. Of course, it deepened when I read this particular book and got in touch with her. Actually, she got in touch with me. She told a mutual friend that she'd been approached by an actress to turn her book into a one-person play but she didn't feel that the actress was right. She said to my friend, "If only your friend Dorothy Lyman wanted to do my play." My friend called and said, "Why don't you take another look at that material. It might make a good piece for you to do." I did look at it again, and at that point I was getting my own painful divorce from my second husband, the Frenchman, the "great chef," and I thought, "Ugh. How can I do a piece about divorce? People will think it's me being bitter." But then I reread the book and saw that it was so good, and that it was such a great opportunity for me that I put those thoughts aside and went ahead with it.
NR: How long have you been working on this?
DL: The book came out in 99. It took me a year to write the adaptation. We did a workshop production in 2001 in California. At the end of that production, which was not entirely successful, I knew that I wanted to try the piece again in New York City, where I feel the audiences are better for it than in California. I think it takes a college-educated, mature person to see it. I'm cracking Beowulf jokes up there! I think people who don't know what Melville is or the other pieces that I mention in there are probably going to wonder what the fuss is about.
NR: Is it just coincidental that there are all these cooking shows on stage in New York at the same time?
DL: Yes, it's purely just a convergence of the stars. I think all of the cooking shows on TV have made stars out of chefs. It was only a matter of time before the theatre took that idea. The idea to cook on stage came to me around 99 and 2000.
NR: What about the idea to use a singer?
DL: I saw Melissa Sweeney singing at a club when I was writing the adaptation. It occurred to me that she would be a great addition by helping me move the story through the decades. She read the book and had some great ideas of how the music would fit in. She chose all the songs. She and her arranger/composer, Bill Cunliffe, did all the arrangements of it. I think it's wonderful, and it sets this one-person play apart from so many other monologues that are being done at the moment. There are not only a lot of kitchen shows right now, but a lot of one-woman shows being done. Frankly, that's because it's economical. It's cheap to do.
NR: It is, but it puts a tremendous burden on you. Do you have an understudy if you're not there?
DL: No. I had a hideous flu last week and was really worried, but I got some wonderful pills from the doctor and they fixed me right up. My thought is that if it turns out to be a success, and there's a reason to continue, then we would find another actress who might enjoy stepping into it. I was also thinking that it would be a good piece to tour.
NR: Where do you think you would take it?
DL: Colleges. Women's groups, things like that.
NR: What do you hope audiences take away from it?
DL: That, at a time of life when most people's careers are considered over, Betty's began. All of her great achievements happened after the age of 50. You can re-invent yourself at any point. You can take a left turn, which is frankly what I did. I sold up and left California when my son went off to school. He went to school September 20th, and by October 20th, my life was on a truck heading back east. I just knew the time had come to make a change. Change is always painful but it's always for the best.
NR: Where do you think you're going to go after this?
DL: Well, I honestly don't know. I've just come back to New York City and I'm really enjoying it. I'm loving going to the theatre and being in the theatre. I love being on the streets where people look so real. In California everybody looks fit and plastic. I'm really having a good time being back and looking forward to spring up on my farm. I wrote another play that I did in 1995 in California and I'd like to do some more writing. I'm also going to be part of a friend's project at the Downtown Urban Theater Festival, which takes place in late May. There are a few plans afoot. I'd love to get back on a soap.
NR: You've said that it's tougher for an actress to find work after you get to a certain age.
DL: Yup. That is true. I'm sure everyone including Diane Keaton will say that she doesn't work as much as she ought. It's a complaint that's not original with me, but instead of bitching about it, I'm trying to create stuff for me and women like me to do. I think we have a lot to say and our stories are not solicited. We're sort of forgotten. We're silenced by nothing other than the fact that we now look like people's mothers. They didn't like their mothers, so why would they want to tell their stories? That's my personal mandate as an artist, to promote the mature woman. My best years have been after 40. I feel I have more to offer now than ever before. That's me!
My Kitchen Wars
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