Celebrating Old Friends

One of my dearest friends in the world is visiting us this week from her home in South Africa, where she has lived there for (gasp) 25 years. She arrived in Los Angeles last week just in time to catch Jimmie’s performance in Endgame. Or, to be more accurate, she flew half way around the world, stopping in Dubai along the way, in order to catch Jimmie’s performance in Endgame. We are truly blessed to have a friend like Susan.

Susan and I met, as best as we can remember, our two addling brains competing for the discretely retreating details of our youth, as Juniors at Princeton University. She was living in a brick two-story house near the Princeton Inn College, where I was working as an RA. Somehow, someone at the university or at PIC determined that we would be good students to put in charge of producing events in a small black box theatre in the basement of PIC. We laughed this week as we tried to remember what had been involved in this assignment. I can’t imagine such a thing, but we produced a few shows that year and bonded in the process.

I was a horrid R.A. I was responsible for advising an entire floor of freshmen in PIC for which I received free housing and board that year. That was also the year my Mom went to Columbia University to get her graduate degree in journalism at the age of 45. At 20, under the guise of writing a religion class paper about cults, I managed to get sucked into the EST movement. It was an eventful year.While Mom was at Columbia, she loaned me her car, which was great to have at college; come to think of it, it probably enabled me to go to the EST Trainings and drag along all multiple friends. You are welcome, Susan, Bob and Bill.

I remember visiting Mom in New York, where she was living in a rented room in a woman’s apartment at 101st and Broadway while she attended Columbia.  Mom’s room was filled with antiques, a burled walnut bed with a tattered canopy, but the woman’s kitchen was filled with cockroaches, and after watching my proud and extremely elegant mother eat her Lean Cuisine on the oilcloth covered kitchen table, I promptly drove back to Princeton and got black-out drunk. It was a complicated year; why I was probably not in a position to advise freshmen.

Aside from the low phases described above, I met Susan, and she and I hit it off extremely well. We ran together, like gazelles, through the woods, leaping over the trickling brooks in the Princeton woods surrounding the campus, training for a half marathon, until 10-mile runs seemed routine, and then, a week before the race, I got the flu and had to drop out. Susan went on to run the race; I was proud of her for finishing.

Susan went on to become assistant production manager at the McCarter Theatre, and a year or so after we graduated, she was the one who called me back from Venice, Italy, where I’d been living for a glorious 13 months. She invited me back to be a dresser on a new Joanna Glass play, called “Play Memory”, directed by Hal Prince. I may have told you about how Jo Henderson,the actress I was responsible for dressing, used to call the foam enhanced brassiere she wore her ‘play mammories.’ Anyway, I did come back from Europe to take this job, meeting my now husband of 32 years who was in the cast. I like to tell people that I was his dresser when we met not only because it’s true, but for its naughty shock value. But again, we have Susan to thank for that blessing.

Susan was the maid of honor at our wedding just about a year later, and I remember her standing in the apse of the church playing the flute in her bare feet for our ceremony rehearsal.  Jimmie and I honeymooned at a little inn in New Hope, NJ, near where Susan lived. He was going to have to go off the following Monday to New Haven to rehearse a play, so we just snuck away for the weekend. We walked into the beautifully decorated room, where a bouquet of yellow flowers awaited us. Susan again.

When Jimmie turned 80, we planned a party in NYC with some of our oldest friends, and a day or so before the party, we were invited to come to dinner at our friends Bob and Mitchell’s apartment. We went and sat down; soon after, there was a knock came at the door. When I opened it there was Susan at the door holding a dish of potatoes or something for the dinner. She had flown from Cape Town to be there for Jimmie’s party, and she had been able to keep it such a good secret.  I think I burst into tears; we were both so floored.

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Susan, Bob, Nathan, Els and Jimmie

Later that week, we went to Bryant Park with our life-long friend, Bob, where we witnessed a flash mob of drunken and disorderly Santa Clauses. You think I’m making it up, but I am not. Here’s the proof. Yes, the large Santa Effigy is holding a beer guzzling device, which pretty much sums up how you get that many people to participate in a Santa Flash Mob…

There are some people in your life with whom you can just pick up and continue a conversation like you never stopped talking. We have had a long ongoing conversation about life and its challenges and joys for the past 30+ years, and it never seems to end or sour.  When we were in college, we anticipated how we would spend our retirement years together. We discussed various scenarios, but the one I remember consisted of us sitting in adjacent rocking chairs on a porch in Portland, Oregon. Now, with Susan in Cape Town, Bob in New York, and our friend Bill long gone to his poorly timed encounter with HIV, our lives are more complicated, but this week, we have renewed the retirement conversation. Of course, we are trying to reel Susan in closer to our home in Los Angeles. It probably won’t work, but we’ll keep trying. You don’t let a good friend like Susan get away.

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Ending Endgame

The run of Endgame at the Kirk Douglas is celebrating its final moments. That flurried time when ticket availability has waned and now, of course, everyone wants to see the show. I am so pleased that the show has done so well. Public support of really good theatre makes you feel good about having a life in the theatre. Tonight on the way to the theatre, I asked Jimmie if he was getting blue about the show’s impending close, and he admitted he was nervous about the upcoming adjustment to “real life.”

At dinner tonight between the two Saturday performances, we dined with Alan Mandell, who is studiously avoiding an adjustment to “real life” by embarking on a tour of “The King’s Speech” to Australia, then Toronto and then New York. He seemed unphased by the magnitude of such an undertaking. I know Jimmie and I will always be grateful to him for making the call to Jimmie that brought him back to the stage in Los Angeles.

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Endgame has been such a great way to see friends;  so many have come out to see the show. The green room is filled with folks every night after the show; Ian, the doorman, tries valiantly to keep the corridors clear when all anyone wants to do is talk to the actors in the hallway. Doing a well-received play in Los Angeles is a little like how it might be to sit in your rocking chair on the front porch at dusk. Friends and long lost acquaintances come wandering by, and surprised to find you there in the gloaming, with fireflies twinkling around, they whisper enduring endearances.

It’s been too long since we’ve seen each other. You look marvelous. Thank you for being so wonderful.

I’ve tried to take pictures of some of the friends who’ve come backstage after the show. I’ve not captured all who’ve visited, and for that I’m sorry. But for those whom I have skewered with my lens or iPhone, my apologies as well.  I’ve been told I take terrible pictures and then post them without photo clearance. It’s a Collins trait, I’m afraid.

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Veronica Brady Harrington, Jimmie, Ed Harrington, Molly Harrington and Tim Ransom backstage.

I ran into local playwright Henry Ong this week at the Geffen Playhouse at the marvelous “In and Of Itself” starring Derek DelGaudio. Henry, who, as an Ovation voter, sees more shows than anyone I know, at least has the decency to check with his subjects after snapping a photo – “Photo Approval,” he says, thrusting the face of his iPhone toward you. Everyone always looks so happy to see him and they are smiling, looking their best. That’s how everyone seems to look when they come backstage after Endgame. We’ve seen people in the green room at KDT in the past few weeks that we haven’t seen in 15 years. Happy reunions around such a special piece.

With one day left in the run, both Jimmie and I are trying to fight off the closing night blues. This one will be hard to let go of. The play is a touchstone in our lives, and we will miss everyone who made this amazing adventure possible. And we’ll go back to the porch to rock away the summer months. Come by and rock with us a while, won’t you?

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Embedded at Endgame – Opening

Charlotte Rae, James Greene, Endgame Photo credit above to Craig Schwartz

Today is the long awaited opening night of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. We are happy to have our niece, Martha here for the opening, who drove down from Los Osos yesterday, bringing her usual bounty of vegetables, or home-made breads to add to our larder. She arrived with a huge box of the biggest strawberries I’ve ever seen, some of which were quartered in a bowl on the counter this morning when we emerged from our bedroom at 9:15. Mind you, I was supposed to emerge at 7:00, so as to be ready to go to my YAS class at 8:30, but that didn’t happen. I swatted the clock onto the floor, coughed, donned my purple eye shades, and rolled over onto my side back into slumber.

This morning as we drank our tea and coffee, we talked about opening nights in general. Jimmie, in his long Broadway and off-Broadway career has had probably over 100 openings. I asked him what his favorite opening was.

The Iceman Cometh.

Which one?

Because he had done the revival in 1956 and again in 1985. Both times, as in Endgame, he played the same role, thirty years apart in time. In The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill’s four and three quarter hour masterpiece portrays the denizens of a dingy bar who clutch their “pipe dreams”, stories they tell themselves and each other about how they will one day emerge as successful participants in society. The play featured a startling Act IV confession by the character of Hickey. In 1985, it was the play that brought us first to Los Angeles, direct from the Washington DC performances at the Kennedy Center.

In 1956 when we went on stage in the semi darkness for the final act, the audience broke out in applause as we entered. Peter Falk (who played Rocky the bartender) leaned over to Jason Robards (Hickey) and said, “Don’t blow it now, Jason!”

James Greene recalling the opening night of the 1956 production of The Iceman Cometh

That production was done at Circle-In-The Square, a funky little cabaret space, which, in the set’s thrust configuration (David Hays), placed the audience elbow to elbow with the inhabitants of Harry Hope’s bar. Jimmie was working a day job as well as acting in the production – he got up early in the morning for his job at a cigarette store in the village during the day and frequently came to the theatre exhausted. During the first act, all the actors were discovered at their tables, many of them with their heads down, sleeping. Jimmie, who played “Jimmy Tomorrow,” would take advantage of this opening to take a nap each night, because a fight broke out near his table which would wake him up. One night, the fight woke him up, and immediately, (like me this morning when I swatted my alarm clock) he fell back asleep. Suddenly he heard another of the actors calling, “Jimmy! Jimmy!” He sat bolt upright, said his first brief line, then began shaking uncontrollably, appropriate behavior for his sodden character.

That opening night party took place at Jose Quintero’s Greenwich village apartment. They were very aware of the positive feedback of the opening. It had been an early performance, 5:00pm, which would have come down around 9:45pm. Someone would have been sent out at or after midnight to the back of the New York Times building to grab a paper and bring it back to report to all the results of Brook Atkinson’s review. This production, which was off-Broadway, ultimately garnered massive support both critically and via word of mouth, resulting in a run of 565 performances.

Jimmie talked about the opening 29 years later of the Broadway production of Iceman, again starring Jason Robards as Hickey and himself as Jimmy Tomorrow, again directed by Jose Quintero.

At Lunt-Fontanne theatre in 1985 – I could look out on the street from my dressing room. After Act II I remember looking out and seeing all the other theatres letting out, when we had over an hour left in the play.

That opening night would have taken place at Sardis, the old standard for opening night parties, where the ghosts of living and past performers past looked down from the walls covered with caricatures like the hallways at Hogwarts.

Many people have described the opening nights at Sardis before me, and better, but I had the privilege of attending Jimmie’s last opening on Broadway, for David Hirson’s “La Bête.” At that time, in 1991, the party was festive with an underlying nervous energy until someone arrived with the review of the play, and depending on the review, either an atmosphere of celebration or the miasma of disappointment would sweep over the party, causing an early closure to the party. All the photos in the montage below were taken before the review arrived, which sent us all scurrying to cabs. Need I say more? I was, in fact, so incensed, that I sent a poem to Frank Rich, at that time, the NY Times Theatre critic, entitled “Death by Cheese,” which was written in verse, like La Bête was. There was, in the play, a reference to that poem, but no poem itself. As Jimmie’s opening night present to the company, I composed the poem, which was hysterical, if I do say so myself. You’ll have to trust me on that because I did not keep a copy of it, and didn’t record it on a computer so it’s lost in the mists of time. I subsequently sent it to Frank Rich in protest for his tepid review of the play. Maybe he has a copy of it. Not even the glowing Sunday View by David Richards could save La Bête, which closed after only 25 performances.

Cut to 30 years later and the second iteration of Endgame for Jimmie. We all eagerly anticipate tonight’s opening. Regardless of what the critics deliver in praise or damnation, what the artists at the Kirk Douglas Theatre have achieved in this production is nothing short of extraordinary. It is, I am sure, the most august cast of actors working together in the country, if not the world. Their dedication to Mr. Beckett’s drama, and to their individual practices as actors, designers, stage managers and directors has been inspirational to this embedded soul on the outskirts of the process. And regardless of the reviews, I have confidence that the remaining performances (thru May 22) will be full.

Tonight’s opening night party may not be at Sardi’s, but I have no doubt that it will be equally as celebratory and raucous as that post O’Neill Greenwich Village gathering in 1956, or the 1991 Broadway opening of La Bête.