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Interview with Deborah Rush

Blithe Spirit

By Beth Herstein


Simon Jones and Deborah Rush in Blithe Spirit
I recognized Deborah Rush the moment I noticed her across the street, heading from Shubert Alley toward the entrance to Sardi's. That is not surprising, of course; she has appeared regularly in film, television and theater for over 30 years. Among the highlights of her career are roles in Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig and in recent independent films such as The Good Girl and Half Nelson; and she plays Avis de Voto, the Knopf scout who helped discover Julia Child's first cookbook, in the upcoming Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. On television, she has had recurring roles in "Spin City" and "Strangers With Candy." Finally, Rush is a Tony-nominated actor (for 1983's Noises Off) who often appears on and off Broadway, and she was part of several acclaimed Shakespeare in the Park productions in the 1970s and 1980s. To say her stage performances have been well reviewed is an understatement. In singling out her performance in a 1985 production of Noël Coward's Hay Fever, for example, Frank Rich of The New York Times referred to her as a "born successor to Judy Holliday."

It was more impressive, therefore, that Deborah Rush recognized me—or, more precisely, that she quickly identified me as the reporter waiting to interview her about her role as Mrs. Bradman in the engaging, star-studded production of the Noël Coward favorite, Blithe Spirit. After she introduced herself, we walked upstairs. She let me know she'd done some research, reading several of my articles in advance of our interview. She was pleased that I'd interviewed her "buddies downtown at LAByrinth" in connection with 2005's The Last Days of Judas Iscariot; Rush played Judas' mother in that production. Working with the gang at LAByrinth "was a treat," she said. "I just lucked out. It came to me because I have a relationship with the Public Theater."

As we sat down and commenced the interview, Rush was gracious, warm-hearted and sharply observant. We discussed literature, as Rush is an avid reader. She commented on the pleasures of her first New York apartment downtown, where "the buildings are lower ... and there's a lot of sky." We chatted about politics, history and family, which for Rush are inextricably intertwined; as the daughter of Joseph Rush, a retired New Jersey newspaper editor, the daughter-in-law of famed news anchor Walter Cronkite, the wife of film editor Chip Cronkite and the mother of two bright sons aged 16 and 20, she has always been in an environment in which "ideas get tossed around all the time." In addition, while we sipped our tea, we talked about Blithe Spirit.

At around 7:10, Rush glanced at her watch. The slender actor, who bikes to work from her uptown home, explained that for this part she has gone Method and wears period undergarments to get into character. "I've got to run. It takes me that long to get into my girdle." Then she was off, to charm the audience across the street.

Beth Herstein:  How did you get involved in this production?

Deborah Rush:  Through [Blithe Spirit director] Michael Blakemore. We had such a wonderful experience in Noises Off [which Blakemore also directed]. He kindly just gave me a holler. I wouldn't turn him down ever. He's very smart and very succinct. Although my experience on this is entirely different from my experience in Noises Off. Noises Off we started practicing right away. I don't remember him ever giving us character tips. We had to run the thing a million times a day. That was the process. Ran it, ran it, ran it, ran it, until it was tight and we had the timing down.

And it was so much fun ... I still feel as if I've betrayed [Noises Off co-star] Paxton Whitehead. I was with him again, two years ago in Absurd Person Singular. I played his wife. And we had worked for so long together those many years ago [in Noises Off]. And I feel by playing Simon Jones' wife, I've been somehow unfaithful to him. But he's forgiven me.

BH:  How has the preparation for this show been different?

DR:  This is just the opposite. Michael has been right there helping develop the characters. It is such a big and complicated play and there was very little time to prepare. He was also succinct about getting the character information directly to you.

Poor Dr. Bradford [Rush's onstage husband, played by Simon Jones] and I did not get enough time for rehearsal, because we're both old friends of Michael's. I think he just thought, "Well, they'll be ok." But no one really is ok, you really need to rehearse. But now I'm getting an idea of what to do with the poor woman. A little far into the run, but better late than never.

BH:  I found it interesting that your character makes the most overt statements about class in the show. The things that everyone else may think but doesn't say.

DR:  Well she's not the most articulate person. Her speech patterns are more colloquial for the time. Actually, they're so colloquial. She keeps saying, "I mean," and "Don't you think?" She repeats words. She has a more limited vocabulary than the other characters. It's funny that they're the same colloquialisms that people use today. A character such as she would still say, "You know?" and "Don't you think?" Colloquialisms that are ubiquitous. You hear it all the time in Times Square. It's interesting. How do expressions spread like that?

We're losing some of the individuality of speech a bit. Especially novelists miss the richness of local eccentricities and speech patterns. Television is responsible for some of that too.

BH:  It's interesting to hear you speak about that. You're the daughter of a newspaper editor, and the love of language has really been instilled in you.

DR:  I think for anyone doing a play, doing theater, language is our way in.

BH:  I noticed that you have a lot of ongoing relationships with people with whom you perform again and again.

DR:  There's a core group of New York actors, I think, and we all end up knowing each other, recognizing each other. It's part of the great thing about doing theater here.

I'm thinking for some reason about Jane Fonda, because she was inaugurated into the theater community last night here at Sardi's. I saw on the Broadway news that she got her caricature. And I thought, what a fabulous thing to be a part of now, especially after she's been a part of so many amazing communities. I hope it's been enough fun for her that she'll do it again.

BH:  You're working with another real legend, Angela Lansbury, in this show. What has that been like?

DR:  What a treat. She receives such a thrilling welcome at every performance. She has pleased audiences from the opening night. The love that comes out to Angela ... I had actually seen Sweeney Todd when I was at NYU. And of course I knew she was great and knew she was a legend. But I had never seen "Murder She Wrote," and I never really had a handle on who Angela was, what she meant to people. But I can tell you I do now. She's sparklingly alive. She's what you hope for. Sometimes you get actors who want to know what's going to happen [on the stage] and that's how it's going to happen. She's different. Of course, [what we do in Blithe Spirit is set] but within that, she changes. Mentally, emotionally, whatever it is, she is different every show. She changes the dance she does, she comes up with different little things, an "Oh my dear" or "Gosh." Just little things that show that she's in a new and exciting place. That translates to the audience a lot. The audience loves her, rightfully, and I do too. I'm grinning from ear to ear when she comes on, just sitting there watching.

BH:  What else helps you keep the show fresh?

DR:  The language is so clever. And, we get new things. There's one point where Angela says, "One knock for yes, two knocks for no. Is anyone there?" Of course, that's very funny. It just doesn't sink in quite at first ... My husband popped in to see it yesterday for the matinee, just for fun. He had been to the opening night with my two sons but he didn't hear the whole thing because someone near him had both his hearing aid and the headphones on—you know how it makes that high pitched noise. He said that he got a million more jokes since the first time.

BH:  Michael Blakemore and Rupert Everett have talked about the fact that the show first became a hit during World War II, when people needed that kind of relief from difficult times.

DR:  Noël Coward wrote it directly before the Germans bombed England. Then he went off to Wales—actually with Joyce Carey, who played Mrs. Bradman in the later production that he did and in which he appeared. Also, Joyce Carey played Mrs. Bradman in the 1945 film version, with Margaret Rutherford who was so funny.

BH:  You're working with such an amazing and accomplished group in this show. How has it been working together?

DR:  I have been in plays where, not because the cast wasn't good but because for some other reason—either it wasn't a good play, or it wasn't well directed or something—it just kind of didn't work. But Blithe Spirit needs to be buoyant. It really does. And they're having a good time. We all are. A really good time.

Photo: Robert J. Saferstein


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