“Chemistry” is a much-used and much overused word in the theater. But if you want to see some real chemistry percolating between two actors, two people, two human beings, thseir names are Cherry Jones and Jeff Weiss and the play is “Flesh and Blood,” nine times a week through August 24 at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street.
All the other actors are damned good too, but Weiss and Jones — playing a brassy old transvestite and his dear new friend, a reserved suburban divorced matron whose perfect family has grown up imperfect, including a daughter who is dying of AIDS — are something else.
Here is how Mary Stassos, the woman portrayed by Cherry Jones, sums up her condition in life shortly after a first encounter (by telephone) with the “fairy godmother” who’s taking care of that daughter and the daughter’s cafe-au-lait newborn:
This is what’s happening. I live by myself in a five-bedroom house. My oldest daughter hardly speaks to me. My son loves other men. My youngest child gave birth to an illegitimate half-black baby whose father is God knows where. And I am trying to dress for a lunch with my grandchild’s “godmother” who is my only point of contact to my daughter, and I have no idea what to wear because I’ve never had lunch with a man who wears dresses.
It is true that the play — itself exquisite from first to last — runs to 3 hours and 20-plus minutes, and that this theatergoer, anyway, usually does not much like sitting through three-and-a-half-hour performances . . .
“Who does?” barks Jeff Weiss semi-seriously. “Just try doing it! Five performances from Friday through Sunday. Oh baby. Death warmed over.”
But make no mistake, Weiss is proud and grateful to have been plucked out of the air by director Doug Hughes to take on the role of Cassandra in this adaptation by Peter Gaitens of the novel by Michael Cunningham.
“Doug Hughes called and asked me to do it — the only person who ever did that with me,” says the actor who has been at his trade all the years since arriving in New York as a freaked-out kid of 14 in 1954. “He hired me without an audition, and he talked to me.
“Well, Doug is from a theatrical family. Not many directors are. People from, shall we say, pharmaceutical families tend to be autocratic.”
Weiss is at the moment of this conversation propped in a chair upstairs in the NYTW executive officers, a couple of hours before the next show. We’re waiting for Cherry Jones to secure her bike and climb up to join us. In the interval, Weiss talks of having done “Henry V” in the park a couple of years ago — in the roles of Pistol and the Archbishop of Canterbury — and how he hated it. Hates doing Shakespeare altogether.
“But Cherry and I first met in a Shakespeare — a tour of the Scottish play [‘Macbeth’], in which Cherry was Lady Macduff while understudying Glenda Jackson as Lady Macbeth. I played the Porter, and Old Seward, and a murderer, and a witch, and a few other things. We went all over the place for a whole year before coming to New York, and when we got to New York, to that theater that’s now the Tabernacle of the Lord, we bombed in a week.”
At which instant Cherry Jones arrives, all hot and windblown and beautiful. She extends her hands, palms out, to deter contact. “I have a cold,” she says. “Don’t touch. Everyone I know has a cold. My lover has a cold.”
Ms. Jones remembers that 1988 tour of the Scottish play all too well, a memory highlighted by an incident at the Pittsburgh airport.
“We’d flown from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, doing one version by day and another by night, because our director had been replaced, and on the plane Jeff had had a few drinks. At the baggage claim he dropped down on the conveyer belt and went round and round and round, in and out of sight, till we yanked him off.
“In the play the new director, Robin Phillips, had designed a fireside scene of soldiers, witches, camp followers, everybody, as background for Glenda Jackson, and at one moment Jeff grabbed my hand and began spitting his teeth into it. Offstage, I opened the hand — and in it were 32 of the most beautiful antique buttons.”
Weiss listens, smiles his big broad warm old smile, then says: “I’ve loved Cherry as much as a gay man can love a gay woman. The test of my love of Cherry is how long I can now stay in the theater. Ricardo has Parkinson’s. It’s hard for me to keep working.”
Ricardo is painter, director, playwright Carlos Ricardo Martinez. “He got me into theater,” says Weiss. “We’ve been together 44 years.”
“Well, if we’re boasting,” says Ms. Jones, “Mary O’Connor and I — she’s an architect, and those are all o’s — have been together 17 years.”
At the risk of being dopey, says the third person in the room, can we relate any of this to the relationship of the people you two play in the play?
“Yes,” says Cherry Jones. “Charles Busch called me the other day. He said: ‘You know, Cherry, everybody thinks that Charles Ludlam was the great influence on me. It wasn’t. It was Jeff Weiss.’
“Jeff,” she says, throwing a loving glance at him, “you’re getting to be maternal.”
The third person in the room felt it behooved him to say: “The extraordinary thing is how very moving the interplay between your two characters gets as each scene accumulates on the last one.”
“Yes!” says Weiss. “And they’re so brief. So short. Each scene a last-ditch possibility.”
“So spare,” says Cherry Jones.
“What’s unsaid in this play fills in moments in these two people’s lives that aren’t even there. It fills in the dots,” says Weiss.
“These two people,” says his opposite number, “are marginalized on the periphery of society. For Mary, who so desperately needs it, to have life opened up for her by Cassandra — how can she refuse it?”
Ms. Jones can’t remember being in a work of more enviable complexity. “I know there are some people who don’t appreciate this play, think it’s pretentious or whatever. To fully appreciate it takes more than one seeing. Trouble is, you can’t really say to your friend who has sat there for three hours and 20 minutes: ‘Well, you have to see it again.’ “
Pause, while she thinks something over.
“For the first time in my life, I want to write the New York Times critic and say: ‘Please come again.’ “ Double pause. “But I won’t.”
Does Mary in “Flesh and Blood” remind her of anyone in real life?
“Yes,” says the actress.
“Of a family member. A Christian fundamentalist. Her children have to speak to her, but when they do, they mock her.”
Maybe you should invite her to see the play.
“Just the blow jobs alone would give her cardiac arrest.”
Cherry Jones, the daughter of florist Jack Jones and English and American-lit teacher Joan Jones, was born in Paris, Tennessee. “I was born in 1956. So I am one year younger than Mary in the play. So I remember that world as a child. I was brought up United Methodist; at the time we were giving money to the Angela Davis defense fund, I’m proud to say.”
She’d arrived in New York in 1978, “having followed the traditional route, graduation from Carnegie-Mellon. Scooped ice cream on 78th Street, and then in 1980 I did a season at BAM under David Jones.”
Right name, Jones, wrong chemistry.
“I didn’t get asked back. But then Andrei Belgrader, that wonderful crazy Romanian, took me up to ART [American Repertory Theatre] at Cambridge, where I did Rosalind [in ‘As You Like It’] and worked and stayed and lived and grew up for 10 years until I came back to New York.”
And became heralded as one of the theater’s finest actresses of the years since.
Jeff Weiss, the son of Benjamin Louxe Weiss and Helen Eagle (pronounced Egg-lay) Weiss, was born 63 years ago in Reading, Pennsylvania.
“My father was a Hassidic Jew whose family came from Alsace-Lorraine. My mother was renegade Amish. They met on a communal farm.”
Benjamin Weiss was in the cement business.
“His major accomplishment was selling the cement that went into the Verrazano Bridge. That, and installing cement benches for senior citizens on top of all the hills of Allentown, Pennsylvania.”
The 14-year-old Jeff who arrived by bus in New York had run away from a mental hospital where he’d had shock treatment and everything else.
“I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t do anything. One of the shrinks sprung me. I landed in New York before there was any Port Authority Bus Terminal, I can tell you. Got off the bus, and within 10 minutes I was snapped up by a pimp. Before you know it, I was living at the Dixie Hotel” — a notorious chicken coop on 42nd Street — “and hanging out at Professor Hubert’s Flea Circus, next door to the New Amsterdam.”
All of which, and more, Weiss poured into the performance piece at La Mama, many years ago, which put him on the map: “That’s How the Rent Gets Paid.”
However the rent gets paid, Jeff Weiss has lived “forever” — he and Ricardo — at 10th Street and First Avenue. No TV. No computer. No stereo. No air-conditioning. One small radio for emergencies. No telephone until this year.
Cherry Jones and Mary O’Connor live in the West Village. They have a telephone.
Has Jeff Weiss ever done drag?
“No, that doesn’t interest me.”
It seems only fair at this point to cite the nine other topnotch actors in “Flesh and Blood,” beginning with playwright Peter Gaitens himself, who gives his all in the thankless part of Billy, the homosexual son whose whining and hatred of his big blustering Greek-American father — actor John Sierros — almost makes us sorry for the old guy, even though pop is also the ruthless businessman who, after all these years, has ditched faithful, patient Mary for a better and stupider lay.
The two daughters are superbly rendered by Martha Plimpton as Zoe, the harum-scarum beatnik with AIDS, and by Jessica Hecht as Susan, a prim proper sex furnace with a Daddy problem. Their several lovers, husbands, sons are played by Chris McGarry, Peter Frechette, Sean Dugan, and Airrion Doss. In four supporting roles, including that of the hearty, crass Other Woman, is Patricia Buckley.
“In a parallel universe,” Bertram Butz says to Mary Stassos — Cassandra was born Bertram Butz in Table Grove, Illinois — “in a parallel universe, I’m the housewife and you’re the drag queen.”
Beautiful line. “You know what?” says Cherry Jones. “It got cut. And then Peter Gaiten’s boyfriend Julian insisted it go back in, and it did.”
There’s an even better line, toward the end of the play and the unraveling of many lives. Mary Stassos speaks: “This isn’t the end. It never is. It’s the middle. It’s the beginning. It all depends on when you came in and when you have to go.”
FLESH AND BLOOD | New York Theatre Workshop | 79 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. Through Aug. 24 | $60 at 212-239-6200