Dishing It Out

Bob hangs, Huffman rocks, Mizoguchi muses

“So, like, does anyone know what this play is about?” inquired one investment broker of his buddies, all sipping wine from a box, waiting to see “Mother Courage” in Central Park on August 24. By the night’s end, there seemingly wasn’t a shrub, rock, or tree left standing in the park—Meryl Streep had chewed all the scenery! I’ve seen many a bravura performance in my time, including those by the busiest actresses, but Streep’s incessant pointing, shrugging, chin ruffling, hand-waving, nose-wiping, and hip-swaying on every word of her every line outdid them all. Even during Jennifer Lewis’ big number, she sat, plucking a chicken! It reminded me of what costume designer Albert Wolsky told me Carl Reiner said, when he saw Ruth Gordon, napping on the set of “Where’s Poppa?”

“Even asleep, she does too much.”

Robert Wilson and Philip Glass at work on “Einstein on the Beach,” Glass’ first opera score, in “Absolute Wilson – The Biography,” directed by Katharina Otto. A scene from Robert Wilson’s “Poetry” (2000), based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe with music by Lou Reed, from the film “Absolute Wilson – The Biography.”

Robert Wilson’s theater represents a total contrast to Streep’s busy Brecht, and I met him at an intimate Plaza Athenée soiree (August 17) thrown for the documentary about him, “Absolute Wilson.” It’s an enthralling film that charts his beginnings in Waco and arrival in New York as a shy, gay young man, to his present schedule, overseeing productions all over the globe. Director Katharina Otto told me she was largely unfamiliar with Wilson’s work before following him around with a camera for two years, which probably accounts for the fresh clarity and honesty of this portrait.

One rarely gets a chance to hang with the celebrated guests at such fetes, but I did talk with Wilson, a total artist/mensch.

Wilson was frankly shocked by the booing that occurred at the Metropolitan Opera the night his “Lohengrin” premiered. “They love me in Europe, but my country is another matter. The Germans love the idea of our American west. When I hear Wagner’s music, all I can see are those wide open spaces, not all that clutter on stage.” He is now in Paris, directing Isabelle Huppert in “Quartet,” by Heiner Müller, whom he called “the most important playwright of the last half of the 20th century. I think I have been in Europe too long and really find the American theater unbearable for the mostpart.”

Cady Huffman came off as far more of a rocker chick than a Broadway baby at her August 21 Ars Nova gig. Her renditions of songs like Springsteen’s “Fire,” recalled Ellen Greene back in the day at Reno Sweeney when she shrieked fevered renditions of “Knights in White Satin,” dedicating them to the waiters. Huffman got the show tune belting out of the way early, with nothing less than “Tomorrow,” from “Annie,” which she had some trouble with. “Never sing with an oyster in your throat,” she laughed, but it made me admire Andrea McCardle all the more who can still do it at the drop of a hat, and that song’s tessitura is as treacherous as anything in “Turandot.”

Huffman poked fun at her own tomboy personality. “I told this choreographer I should have been born a boy and he said, “Yeah, a really butch one!” Tommy Tune told me I was the butchest person he’d ever met, and he should know!”

She described her appearance on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “Jeff Garlin came to meet me my first day, saying, ‘You’re the only person who was ever cast for this that didn’t have to audition.’ Well, I was playing myself! Larry David is really just like he is on the show, only nicer.”

She talked about the genesis of her big number, “Flaunt It,” in “The Producers.” “It was originally going to be this little throwaway, but little by little we added the dancing and then the belt. At the backers’ audition, Anne Bancroft sat right in front of me, and there were all these suits, looking so powerful and evil, but when I finished, they were purple in the face from laughing, and Gerry Schoenfeld [Shubert Organization] said to Mel Brooks, ‘Any theater you want!’ It was an incredible year; so exciting I never got more than three hours of sleep a night. I had dinner with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane and they needed bodyguards to keep people away.”

Huffman continued. “After two years, I was exhausted, and left the show. I was at home one day when my brother called to tell me that he read in the paper that they were going to do the film with Nicole Kidman,” and then she slid into a moving rendition of “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” that blithe survivor’s anthem which Ben Vereen performed at Fred Ebb’s memorial and said was Bob Fosse’s favorite song. She encored with “Flaunt It,” and looking on approvingly was Donna McKechnie, whose autobiography has just been published.

Cinephiles will be lining up for Film Forum’s Mizoguchi series, through September 21, which starts with “Ugetsu” (1953), Mizoguchi’s most celebrated film, and regarded by critics as a seminal masterwork of Japanese cinema. It also won the Oscar for Best Costumes. Like compatriots Naruse and Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi was a great woman’s director, and many of his films feature his muse, Kinuyo Tanaka. Mizoguchi wanted to marry her, but she rejected him when he tried to prevent her from becoming Japan’s first female director with her 1953 “Love Letter.” Tanaka shatters your soul in “Sansho the Bailiff,” a harrowing account of slavery in 11th century Japan, and remained active until her death at 66 in 1977, after winning the Berlin Festival Best Actress prize for “Sandakan 8.”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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