Holidays — and the Aggies — Again

IN THE NOH: Time again for our annual Aggies, the Agnes Moorehead Awards for the ten best live performances of 2010.

The awards are given in honor of that actress who enlivened everything, even dross like the movies “The Revolt of Mamie Stover,” in which she played a platinum blonde, possibly lesbian, Honolulu bordello madam who makes a bundle off Jane Russell’s copious assets, or “Jeanne Eagels,” in which she is called upon to teach Kim Novak (!) acting lessons, in an attempt to make that most somnambulistic sexpot into a semblance of the real-life titular character, possibly the most electrifying actress ever to grace a New York stage.

In no particular order, the Aggies go to:

Best of 2010, Edna O’Brien’s “Haunted,” and Lubitsch’s last laughs

“Dodsworth”: Metropolitan Playhouse’s spectacular production of the Sinclair Lewis/ Sidney Howard classic actually equalled the sublime 1936 William Wyler film version. Due to various estate legalities, the show wasn’t advertised or formally reviewed, but those lucky enough to catch it thrilled to its impeccable ensemble acting and Yvonne Opffer Conybeare’s superb direction, which created entire rich worlds upon the tiny Metropolitan stage.

“Brief Encounter”: In both its St. Ann’s Warehouse and Broadway incarnations, Emma Rice’s floridly imaginative rethinking of Noel Coward’s warhorse gave you a wondrously complete Coward immersion of romance, wit, performance, and song. (And fie on Stephen Sondheim’s snarky Coward putdowns in his book, “Finishing the Hat,” where he said, among other things, that Coward was too self-consciously clever and he’s never laughed at one of his lyrics. Ain’t that the pot calling the kettle black! And when did the Dark Master ever produce a real guffaw anyway?) The after-show spontaneous sing-song performances by the adorable, melodious cast were an added generously warm-hearted treat.

Martha Plimpton at Lincoln Center: This protean talent gave the wittiest cabaret show of the year, filled with daring, real hipness, and awesome musical versatility.

Leslie Uggams at Lincoln Center/ Cafe Carlyle: Her voice was uncannily fresh and more powerful than ever, as lavishly backed up by her band. Soignee to die for, appearance-wise, she demonstrated a true old pro’s utter confidence in delivering unalloyed audience joy.

“Fyvush Finkel Live!”: Seemingly, the entire, rich history of New York’s Yiddish theater trouped onto the stage at Baruch College, where the 88-year-old comedic master held forth, his side-splitting facial expressions and timing miraculously intact. A full band, headed by Finkel’s sons, lent musical richness, while astonishingly versatile vet actors Merwin Goldsmith and too-little-seen June Gable both convulsed you and broke your heart.

Joni Paladin at Julius: There’s no more gorgeous voice around than this astonishingly versatile singer, who pulled people in off the street with the wafting sound of her spine-chillingly angelic tones. I’ve heard this musical genius do everything from jazz to samba to a brilliant, impromptu “Billie Jean” that was the most exciting cover I’ve ever heard.

Four Fringe Festival productions were a bracing riposte to the condescending attitude this annual summer theater orgy traditionally invites from the ignorant and the lazy:

“Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story”: Bob Sloan’s theatrically clever, deeply moving portrait of this immortal was the loveliest tribute imaginable. A wonderful cast was headed by Marina Squerciati — who not only nailed Holliday’s tremulously distinctive voice, but also her formidable intelligence and melting vulnerability — in the year’s most impressive acting performance.

“How My Mother Died of Cancer and Other Bedtime Stories”: Unbelievably young playwright Chris Kelly, with a terrifically in-synch cast, uncannily managed to make this seemingly most morbid of subjects both laugh-out-loud hilarious and — without a hint of bathos — really inspiring. His passage about nighttime tales remains the most hauntingly beautiful stage writing of the year.

“The Twentieth Century Way”: Tom Jacobson’s expose of gay police entrapment in 1914 California was a dizzyingly astute Pirandellian two-hander, with Robert Mammana and Will Bradley giving performances filled with perfectly timed courage and complexity. It was also, with its fraught, suggestive atmosphere and bold nudity, 2010’s undoubtedly sexiest play.

“12 Incompetent Men (and Women”): If ever the perfect guilty-pleasure Fringe show existed, then Ian McWethy’s jury duty parody certainly fit the bill, and I’d see it a third time, gladly. For once, snarky young irony worked gorgeously, with this assortment of wacked-out archetypes perfectly played by a dozen crack farceurs.

The best holiday present you can give yourself is a ticket to Edna O’Brien’s thrilling, magnificently acted play, “Haunted,” at 59E59th Theaters (59 E. 59 St., Tue., Wed., Sun., 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m., through Jan. 2; $45-$65 at britsoffbroadway.com or 212-279-4200).

“For those who love words, darling, for those who love words,” was Noel Coward’s famous comment at the opening night of Enid Bagnold’s “The Chalk Garden,” and I felt the same way at O’Brien’s premiere, attended by Alan Rickman, Kim Cattrall, and Margaret Colin.

As with most O’Brien works, it’s about love and its inevitable messiness, expressed in language so ineffably rich you find certain lines buzzing in your head days afterwards. Brenda Blethyn, in her strongest role since the film “Secrets and Lies,” and Niall Buggy play Mrs. and Mr. Berry, a long-married couple whose relationship survives on an intense fantasy life and essential dollops of self-deception. Into their lives comes Hazel (luminous Beth Cook), an innocent young girl who sparks a fire in Mr. Berry, dangerously upsetting his already precarious marital apple cart.

I recently met with the actors and the remarkable O’Brien, bristling with fury at Charles Isherwood’s typically clueless New York Times review.

“He’s a cultural thug!” she exclaimed. “To call this play ‘slight!’ It may be not his choice of material, but ‘slight’ is a slight. I could kill him! Someone read the first three lines of his review to me, and I told them to stop. I took such relish in going to the maid in my hotel with the Times and asking her, ‘Could you burn this?’ But you know what’s so marvelous about serious actors like these? They went up there the next night and did it better than ever!”

I told O’Brien that, often, one would do well to see what Isherwood pans and avoid what he likes (“Passing Strange,” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “American Idiot”), and she said, “A lot of my friends have told me that. But with this play, I think I get ideas in my sleep. I’m very interested in people who live on the edge of the buzz and glamour of London. I chose the name Blackheath for the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Berry because it was the nearest I could get to ‘Wuthering Heights.’

“I usually set my novels and stories in Ireland, but I felt I knew these people and that this was a play, and not a novel or short story, in which the light and spirit and conflict of these people would happen on the stage. I wrote a television play years ago with the same names for the characters, and, like a child with a dog, you cling to a name.

“I’ve been with these actors for three years now. I saw Brenda Blethyn in ‘’Night Mother,’ and she gave me a ride home in her car. I said, ‘I might have something for you. Would you read it?’ She was courteous beyond words and said she would, although she’d never read a word of me, of course. Niall and I have been friends for longer than we care to admit, and this beautiful woodland creature, Beth, I knew her mother and grandmother. So, between a New York taxi, Buggy being a blood brother in many ways to me, and Beth being from my past, I got three actors any writer in the world would die to get, because they’re flawless!”

Buggy observed, “It’s so beautifully written. Every day we come in to perform, and sometimes you’re feeling up or down, but when you have words like this that support and take you along for the journey… We’ve had a great time doing this play and our relationships on and offstage have only developed.”

I quoted my favorite line, which was when Blethyn cries, “I could be lissome again!,” and the actress laughed, “In this world of texting and emailing and OMG’ing, this script with such beautiful language is such a pleasure. Everyone’s ordering things online and instead of conversation, there’s texting, so much less tactility with people than there used to be.”

O’Brien added, “Lissome is an uncommon word, yet everyone knows it and they always laugh there. There’s an emotional charge in words, even if they haven’t heard them before. Each word has to be like a bullet, what they mean. Mrs. Berry’s character is slightly more unpredictable — one minute she’s laughing, then has to become fierce, and for an actress like Brenda to turn on a mere line, they’re all poets in this play.

“Unlike most modern plays, my language isn’t minimal or stripped. Look at Samuel Beckett, the best model to read. His ‘Happy Days’ has some slight resemblance to my play with the mania of the language and characters. But if ‘Happy Days’ were put on here tomorrow by some anonymous author, certain people might not get it, as they’re used to this slightly arid modern language. But the richness has to be controlled and leavened with humor, which is as essential to it as the tragedy.”

Buggy added, “I have never been in a play where people have listened in such an emotional way to what is going on, because this touches people’s lives very strongly and not a lot of plays do that at the moment. It’s about love and loss, which is a fierce thing.”

Blethyn commented on the audience’s commitment to the play as well, saying, “And the standing ovations we’ve been getting every night! Remember that man last night, who kept crying, ‘Thank you! Thank you!’?”

Beth Cooke, who is related to the famous Irish Cusack acting family, said, “Although the language is so dense and there’s so much to remember, it’s like music and surprisingly easy. When we came back to doing it here in New York, we were basically off book after only a week’s rehearsal. My character is a bit of an enigma, but when Mr. Berry’s love for her and deception is revealed to her, she has nothing. She has no parents or real friends, she just trusted him. I think if he had tried to make his move and she’d just said no and left, she would have survived better. But she doesn’t and…”

And O’Brien jumped in to say, “The bell tolls for her! My friend Philip Roth came, and he said during the interval that he had no idea how this play was going to end.

Writing that ending took a few good many months and a few tears. Everything is crucial — the beginning and the middle, but the ending is in a way the most crucial because you want to give your audience gold of some sort, even if it’s painful, something that feels for a moment like the smell of the not yet ripe tomato that fills people emotionally.

“I feel that if we lose our emotion in our society as we are beginning to, it will make life lonelier, harder and bleaker. Emotion is everything — I don’t mean bathos or sentimentality, but the emotional urgency by which people live.

“Someone asked me, ‘Why couldn’t Mr. and Mrs. Berry have ended happily?’ I told him drama should not reflect everyday life, but it should reflect the extraordinary, that heightening of emotion, going as far to the edge of life and pain. I don’t like neat little plays — there are a lot of them, and they’re very heralded and very boring.”

I told O’Brien that I saw her play ‘Virginia’, about Woolf, at the Public Theater years ago and sat behind Jacqueline Onassis. She said, “Jackie was a friend of mine, and apparently used to do an imitation of me. I could do a fairly good imitation of her, too. Maggie Smith had done the play in London, and Kate Nelligan, who was wonderful, did it here. I was in rehearsals when someone said, ‘There’s a call for you from Jackie Onassis.’ I thought it was probably a hoax, but I took it and heard, ‘Edna? This is Jackie! I would absolutely love to see you. Do you have any time at all for me?’ I said, ‘I’m free most evenings, starting tomorrow.’

“She came to the play and loved it. Norman Mailer was also there opening night and said, ‘I don’t like this play, too interior!’ I said, ‘Oh, come on, Norman! YOU write a play!’ But Jackie was a very worldly and clever woman who understood power, believe you me. And it is true that she did love literature. She was not a lightweight, although she sometimes gave that impression with that breathless aura. Her last letter to me — always written by hand on her deep, not quite midnight, blue paper — to me was so touching, almost like a line in a play. She was very sick but knew I was coming to New York, and she wrote, ‘I’ll be waiting for you. The spring is coming,’ and, of course, it wasn’t, for her.”

Turning to her London stage star, O’Brien said, “What is Maggie Smith like? I see her, but I don’t see her often. Maggie is a perfectionist and a very nervous person, and sometimes those nerves… I was in rehearsal for ‘Virginia’ with her for three months in a room with no windows. She’s such a fine actress, but quite a daunting person. I would say that if she was sitting here. But then there’s Brenda here, who is a star and an actress with whom I have a most affectionate relationship, without fear or competitiveness. We don’t always get that as a writer, or with directors. They love dead authors and would usually much prefer that.”

On December 24-30, Film Forum is joyously reviving Ernst Lubitsch’s final film “Cluny Brown” (1946), which, simply put, defines charm (209 W. Houston St., filmforum.org). Has any movie, besides this romantic comedy set against an irresistibly amusing Brit background of varying class notions, ever contained as many endearingly hilarious performances?

Not only are there Charles Boyer, as the suavest of moochers, and Jennifer Jones, deliriously radiant as a maid whose urge to fix plumbing is like a compulsive sexual itch, but there are also Richard Haydn as Jones’ insufferably prissy suitor, Una O’Connor as his eternally hacking Mum, Ernest Cossart and Sara Allgood as two particularly congenial, ultra-obsequious servants, Reginald Owen and Margaret Bannerman as an archetypal idiot country squire and garden-obsessed lady of the manor, Reginald Gardiner as the silliest cocktail party-throwing London ass imaginable, and Billy Bevan as Jones’ stoically class-conscious uncle. And that’s not even counting Peter Lawford, Helen Walker, C. Aubrey Smith, Rex Evans, and Florence Bates, each of whom could also have had an entire funny film made around them.

Go and meet them all, especially the Hon. Betty Cream, who “doesn’t go everywhere.”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com and check out his new blog at http://nohway.wordpress.com/.

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