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.
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.