At the last theatrical gala I attended, I was an insider. I served as one of the writers, and was privy to the chaos which precedes the event. Performers cancel at the last minute, there is limited or no rehearsal and certainly never a chance for a full technical or dress rehearsal. Performers may in fact be playing scenes together for the first time in front of the invited audience. Dressing room space is at a premium and there are many, many egos to be soothed.
Circle in the Square had about three dozen bona-fide stars at their forty-fifth anniversary gala last Monday (5/20/96) and if life was hectic backstage, it didn't show on stage.
The press is requested to arrive at 5:45 to meet the performers; we are given ochre colored identification tags. I don't recognize the usual critics and theatre columnists I generally see at openings. Instead, there are photographers who specialize in taking photos of celebrities. I hesitate to use the term "paparazzi," because they have been invited specifically to cover the event and the publicists want the photos to appear in gossip, entertainment and society sections of newspapers and magazines. "Entertainment Tonight" and network cameramen are waiting in the press area for Annette Bening and, more importantly, Warren Beatty. The area is not air conditioned.
Because of the heat and since I'm not taking any photos, my date, author Julie Gilbert, and I decide to take advantage of the champagne and hors d'oeuvre in the main lobby. The photographers and camera people have been given four bottles of sparkling water and a tray of finger sandwiches. Julie and I join the main party for champagne, baked brie, shrimp and pate de foie gras. Sylvia Miles charges through, knocking the champagne out of my hand.
I see someone very important I'd recently met and I hope to introduce Julie to the Very Important Person. (Julie is a Pulitzer Prize nominee for biography and not exactly chopped liver). After I reintroduce myself, the VIP smiles at me, turns away saying "You're not the person I want to talk to."
Downstairs again. still no Warren Beatty. An intern tells the press that there will probably be no photo opportunities until 7:30. Julie and I return to the upper level which is now packed with patrons who have paid $500 to $l000 to attend. A man wearing a sandy toupee collars me and says "You're a member of the press. I want you to meet someone. She has the voice of an angel, a nightingale and she's only seventeen. Hal Prince gave her two callbacks." I scribble her name in my notebook.
As we move away, I ask Julie if the gowns that women are wearing this evening are dressmaker originals. "No," Julie tells me. "The good ones look like they might be from Bendal's and there's a lot from Charivari." What about the gold lamé on the seventeen year old with the voice of an angel/nightingale? "Ann Taylor clearance."
We view the items which will be auctioned to benefit Circle in the Square. There are about thirty pieces displayed, either theatrical memorabilia or donated designer clothing and jewels. We chat with B.H. Barry, who stages fights for theatre and just directed a production of "Treasure Island."
Suddenly a television quartz light is beaming and Annette Bening appears. As luck would have it, I am standing directly behind the "Entertainment Tonight" interviewer and camera crew, so while I am not asking Ms. Bening the following questions, I am writing her replies in my notebook.
ET: Annette, do you intend to return to the theatre?
AB: I would love to do another play, but it means being away from my kids and family six nights a week and it wouldn't be fair to them. I'd love coming back to the theatre...I yearn to do another play, but not right now.
ET: Why are you co-chairman of this gala?
AB: I feel a debt to Circle in the Square and I always wanted to repay it. My appearance in Circle's "Coastal Disturbances" brought the critics in and led to my role in "The Grifters".
(She is only one of many gifted actors who got their start with the Circle In The Square and who have returned this evening in gratitude. The most conspicuous absence is Mercedes Ruehl, who has chosen to attend the Obie Award Ceremony which is knocking the Circle benefit out of New York media spotlight while the Hollywood "Mission: Impossible" opening is stealing national attention.)
Bening's skin is flawless and she looks like a movie star should look. I neglect to notice what she is wearing and ask Julia, who fortunately did. "It's a black slinky unitard type of outfit with a skirt, It's cut like a dancer's dress and it shows off how thin she is. Her hair is like a little boy's, sort of hoyden hair with earthy little boy colors. It's very well cut and quite becoming."
We miss the other celebrity arrivals because we attend the fundraising auction. I start to note prices in my program in case there are any Sotheby/Jackie O-like sales, but it's kind of dull, so I wander back to the bar area and see Phil Donahue and Elaine May. Ms. May seems as shy all press accounts tell; I am almost embarrassed standing next to her with my press tag for her fear that I might ask a question. She speaks hesitantly to order a drink end I go back to the auction so that she can enjoy it in relative peace.
When I return to the theatre, Teresa Wright is walking the perimeter of the stage showing off a Judith Lieber evening bag which is being auctioned. Ms. Wright looks exactly the way you hope she would. She is still Joseph Cotton's niece in Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt", still Myrna Loy and Fredric March's daughter from "The Best Years o[ Our Lives", only she is more mature. She wears her current age with as much joy and vibrancy as she wore her youth. She gave a luminescent performance at Circle as Linda Loman to George C. Scott's Willy and I only hope she returns to the New York stage next week if not next season.
Back to the lobby.
I spot my ex-agent who is glowering. He has gained back the weight he lost when I was his client and I figure this is not a good time to rekindle hard feelings.
An oil painting of José Quintero, from Colleen Dewhurst's collection, is withdrawn because the bids are too low. Quintero co-founded Circle in the Square with Theodore Mann, who is being honored tonight. Quintero reestablished Eugene O'Neill with the landmark production of "The Iceman Cometh" and rescued "Summer and Smoke" after a failed Broadway Production. Circle's subsequent production established Geraldine Page as a major actress. Quintero's portrait will be auctioned later for $l,700, the fourth highest bid of the auction. Diane Keaton's jacket from "Manhattan Murder Mystery" fetches $l,600 while Gloria Estafan's personalized Director's Chair goes for under $500. An autographed down jacket worn by Harvey Keitel, but not in a film, goes for $400.
We have been waiting for "Forbidden Circle," Gerard Allesendrini's send up of forty-five Years of Circle in The Square productions performed by Circle alumni, hosted by Robert Klein. That's the basic idea, but the evening will have any number of tributes to Ted Mann as well as some of Circle alumni's party pieces (Anne Jackson as Shirley Temple; Dana lvey singing "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington".) We wonder why Tony Goldwyn is singing a medley of "Stormy Weather" and "Body and Soul" until it is explained--too much later--that these are Ted Mann's two favorite songs.
The television quartz lights beam on the stage as Harry Hamlin enters in ripped T-shirt as Stanley Kowalski. This time, however, four of Tennessee Williams' heroines want him. Not just Blanche, but Serafina from "The Rose Tattoo", Alma from "Summer and Smoke" and Maggie the Cat. It's funny material and worth the wait.
In "The Iceman Dumbeth", Hickey's compatriots (Austin Pendleton and Eli Wallach and the ever stunning Salome Jens) leave the Bowery Bar to Join A.A. John Cullum, playing Hickey, says if they're deserting him, he'll have to resort to musical comedy and starts singing from "Shenandoah". This is not only funny. but like the Tennessee Williams sketch, custom tailored for the stars performing the material.
Elizabeth Franz and Victoria Tennant join Simon Jones in a sketch written by him in which "The Grapes of Wrath" is played in the style of the Old Vic.
Two hilarious "Forbidden Broadway" classics are reprised. "Anna Karenina" has Carole Shelly waiting to jump in front of the Minsk Express to the tune of "The Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe". And "Teeny Todd" brings back Beth Fowler to recall Circle's streamlined production of the Sondheim musical., in which she played Mrs. Lovett. (The blackout sketch has the five cast members slitting the throats of Thumbelina-sized puppets.)
Unfortunately, "Design For Present Laughter", a parody of "Private Lives" with Kate Burton and Michael Moriarty goes on way past its punchline (she's honeymooning with her new husband and he's honeymooning with his new husband).
The reminiscences by George Grizzard, Rosemary Harris and Elizabeth Wilson are heartfelt and we begin to have a sense of the forty five year history of the company. George C. Scott and Jason Robards are not in attendance, but their presence and their contribution to the company are felt. Memories of Geraldine Page and Colleen Dewhurst bring them to back to life for an instant. Earlier in the evening Campbell Scott, son of Scott and Dewhurst, and Philip Bosco perform "Brush Up Your Circle". The two actors sing of Circle's past, but in a touching way, they also represent the company's present and future.
Marlo Thomas singe a parody of "Try To Remember", which ends "Ted Mann is a hard act to follow. Follow, follow, follow." After citations from Jane Alexander, Mayor Guiliani and President Clinton are read, the entire company sings "The Brotherhood of (Ted) Mann".
What about Circle's future? There's good buzz about their adaptation of "Tartuffe", now in previews. And in July, Circle Alumnus Al Pacino promises sold-out houses in O'Neill's "Hughie". Ted Mann may be hard act to follow, but Josie Abady, new artistic director, has already started to return the company to its former glory. As the evening concludes, I feel as if I have been included in a very special part of theatrical history and I am rooting for the company's continued success.
P.S.: The name of the seventeen year old actress in the gold lame dress from Ann Taylor is Jacqueline Maloney. And Warren Beatty never showed.
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