Laila Robins, Aline Mayagoitia & A Lovely Kleban Prize Evening

Laila Robins in "The Blacklist."
Will Hart/ NBC

If you’re looking for a compellingly dark psychological thriller to cozy up with on home streaming, check out debut director/ writer Nathan Catucci’s “Impossible Monsters.” The film revolves around a psychology professor (Santino Fontana) studying sleep phenomena — including dreams, nightmares, and, most terrifyingly, paralysis. His three participants are damaged souls whose waking hours are spent in dread of their unconscious ones. He becomes romantically involved with one of them, as things get creepier for the other two, resulting in the death of one.

A handsome, highly suspenseful atmosphere, recalling such upscale horror classics like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Innocents,” is impressively sustained by Catucci, and the film is exceedingly well-acted by a host of skilled New York actors. Besides Fontana, their number includes Dennis Boutsikaris, Dónall Ó Héalai, Devika Bhise, Natalie Knepp, Geoffrey Owens, and, in the role of the enigmatic school dean who must sign off on Fontana’s project, Laila Robins.

Ever since seeing her ably face down the formidable Uta Hagen onstage in “Mrs. Klein,” I’ve been impressed by this elegantly powerful actress who excels in everything from Shakespeare to more modern masters like Williams and Albee. Her non-stop TV /film work that has included impressive stints on “Handmaid’s Tale,” “Homeland,” “Murder in the First” (where she played a lesbian who delivered the delectable line, “Without me, you would be just some Bay Area dyke teaching crafting out of your garage”), and the current season of “The Blacklist.”

As Robins and I settled in for a chat at a Fairway Market café, she told me, “I was intrigued and struck by the intelligence and strong atmosphere of Catucci’s script when it was sent to me. I was impressed by what he put on the screen, for a first-time director, and really enjoyed the brief but fun shoot. He’s assembled quite an impressive cast, and I was impressed by how relaxed, fun, and loose Santino Fontana was, in the lead role.”

Robins hails from St. Paul, Minnesota, one of four daughters born to Latvian immigrants who arrived here after five years in a German refugee camp. She went to Yale Drama School and appeared on stage as Glenn Close’s replacement in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” before heading west to seek her fortune in film.

Robins was both eloquent and funny, recounting a period when she thinks she could have sold herself more in terms of sex appeal and physical attributes to land the big roles — “I just had so little awareness of myself in those terms,” she explained. She nearly was cast in “Roxanne,” until the producers decided to go a different route and hired Daryl Hannah. Then there was the time she gathered friends at her place to watch her in “the fastest pilot that ever got canceled,” with Glenn Frey of The Eagles, called “South of Sunset.” A man came on instead of her — she had been replaced by him and no one had told her. She proudly admits to being cast in one role over Julia Roberts, in “An Innocent Man,” and there was also the ABC TV series “Gabriel’s Fire” opposite James Earl Jones, that got canceled after one season. Her thriving TV career now is especially gratifying to her now, and she’s excited about her return to “The Blacklist,” where she plays a much-talked about villainous Russian woman who makes big trouble for series lead James Spader.

More often than any other actor I can think of, I will spy Robins in the audience at the theater — sometimes alone — and this is telling, I think, about this highly intelligent player who is always curious and filling her creative well. However, she is hardly alone in life, as she has a longtime partner, actor Robert Cuccioli.

“I can tell you exactly how long we’ve been together — 20 years — because Albee’s ‘Tiny Alice,’ was the first time he ever saw me in a play.”

I had to ask her about working with Uta Hagen: “She was more than a co-actor or teacher to me, although I learned so much from her. She was a friend and I treasure all the after-show nights when we’d go out for a drink and I would just listen to her talk, so fascinated. Well, she drank, and I would have tea until she said, ‘Have a goddam wine spritzer, already!’

“Her acting was so specific, and I have never seen anyone who was so precise with her props. For instance, if she made a pot of coffee, she would do it, and then return to the dialogue but all the time aware of that coffee and her inevitable return to it. When she did Desdemona to Paul Robeson’s Othello, in the death scene she was no shrinking violet, using every muscle in her body to get away from him rather than just subject herself to a beautiful strangling.

“She was always very anti-actorish. Didn’t like it when an actress wafted across the stage: ‘Just walk like person! Be a visceral human being. Don’t be an actress on the stage!’

“She loved Laurette Taylor in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ She said, ‘You’d go to see her again and think , ‘Okay, here’s the part where she…’ And she wouldn’t do that particular thing but something else and be just as brilliant. She used to talk about actors getting too attached to what she called ‘your darlings,’ relying on things that worked in the past. The thing is not to do them and see what happens. Yet we do love our darlings…”

Two roles that Robins would love to sink her teeth into are Eugene O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

“I had done ‘Tiny Alice,’ and was happy when Irene Worth came to see it unannounced. She originated the role and I was relieved when she said, ‘I think I’m beginning to understand it,’ in the Green Room after the performance. Neither I nor my director Mark Lamos who chose me for it understood it, either. When I did ‘Lady from Dubuque,’ Albee himself said he was mellowing with age and he was lovely to me. He didn’t rewrite anything but was very open to whatever we were doing.

“I went to visit him in the hospital when he was ill. He still had to okay all his casts, and I said, ‘Oh, Edward, could you ever see me doing Martha?’

“‘Well, maybe, but you’re not exactly right.’

“‘What’s missing?’

“‘You aren’t vulgar enough.’”

Robins, though a very warm and present person, realizes she is often typecast as the chilly, somewhat forbidding, and officious type.

“I can be vulgar, for sure,” she assured me. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

Aline Mayagoitia in Gerard Alessandrini’s “Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.”Carol Rosegg

Gerard Alessandrini’s just-closed “Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation” was a welcome addition to the fall season in its perfect new home at the York Theatre. A stand-out in its wonderfully gifted cast was the beautiful and beautifully funny Aline Mayagoitia, who nailed divas diverse as Karen Olivo, Caissie Levy (“Frozen”), and Bernadette Peters, and I see stardom winking at her already.

Born in Mexico City, Mayagoitia grew up in Austin and immersed herself in theater from an early age. She studied at Ballet Austin, but also did “ a bunch of questionably inappropriate sexy musical roles in high school.” From there, she studied musical theater at the University of Michigan.

“You can’t graduate from Michigan without knowing every word to ‘You’re The Top’ or writing a 50-page paper on ‘South Pacific,” she said. “This came in handy when it came time to communicate with the likes of Gerard Alessandrini. Right out of school, I did every single regional production of ‘In the Heights’ in the country.”

Mayagoitia’s audition for “Forbidden Broadway” only called for her to do Olivo and “Let It Go.”

“So I just came with my little notebook where I wrote down my impressions: some classic divas like Bernadette and Patti because I knew my audience — wassup Gay City News! — but also some newer ones like Anais Mitchell, the composer of “Hadestown,’ playing the guitar and singing her song ‘Flowers’ in her little croaky squeaky voice, just cause it made me laugh. Then Gerard just started throwing ideas at me: ‘Can you do Gwen Verdon? Can you sing the end of ‘At The Ballet?’ Which the actor’s answer — as we meat puppets know — is always ‘Yes.’ I got the part and started rehearsals that week.”

Among Mayagoitia’s favorite impressions in the show is Rebecca Naomi Jones in “Oklahoma”: “I’ve seen her in everything, her biggest fan. I thought it would be funny if I played Laurie as if I was doing Rebecca in ‘American Idiot’ instead. And it worked with the joke Gerard wrote, so we kept it. And, of course, singing like Bernadette Peters has been my drunk party trick since freshman year! Look, I went to a school where our version of hazing was to listen to Broadway overtures and have to guess what show it was from or take another drink.”

The Olympic marathon costume changes in “Forbidden Broadway” were such that at times Mayagoitia would have to do a scene barefoot: “Better than no wig, but my savior was [cast member] Jenny Lee Stern and her excellent ear for comedic timing. She understands how this team works and could also serve as an interpreter for me when I got notes from Gerard I didn’t quite understand: ‘When in doubt just sing like Judy, kid.’ She’s a star.”

Mayagoitia still takes voice lessons “as often as I can afford them and a weekly acting class. I feel like these in combination with the ‘Forbidden Broadway’ process has been like grad school. If nothing else, it gives you some street cred. Everyone that has seen or done this show knows how much of a marathon it is. I feel so damn lucky I got to run it.”

“The Forbidden Broadway: Next Generation” cast album will drop very soon.

The 30th annual Kleban Prize for Musical Theatre ceremony took place on February 3 at ASCAP, and two $100,000 checks were given to most promising musical theater lyricist Daniel Messé (“Amélie”, “Prelude to a Kiss”) and most promising musical theater librettist, married co-librettists Rehana Lew Mirza and Mike Lew (“Bhangin’ It”). Mirza and Lew met at the estimable Ma-Yi Writers Lab and now run it.

Named after Ed Kleban, the late lyricist of “A Chorus Line,” the prizes seek to allay the distractions — like bread and butter jobs — that take artists away from their true work.

With judges Gerard Alessandrini and Victoria Clark on hand, it was the best, most vibrant Klebans ever for the sheer diversity and exciting performances of the winners’ new work. “Bhangin’ It” brings welcome diversity to the New York musical field, and the propulsive Indian bhangra rhythm and infectious words of the song “Commit,” performed by Ari Afsar and Danny Burgos, had us all bouncing along.

A hard act to follow, but Nathan Tysen and Jocelyn Mackenzie thrillingly singing Messe’s “The Gold Saves the Thieves,” from the show “You Don’t Know About Me Without You” (based on Twain’s “Huck Finn”), had to me the sound of an instant, oh-so timely classic. Its opening lyrics — to give you an idea of Messe’s pithy eloquence — are:

“These are days of kings and pawns
And pennies on the dollar
These are days of run like hell
And might as well not bother
But oh-oh, the songs are free…”

These days, I confess, whenever I experience anything really good or beautiful I start tearing up. Maybe because I see so much crap, it’s like the most soothing heaven-sent balm. I really had to hold it together during this gorgeous song. There is definite hope for the American musical and, for this, we all must thank the beyond wonderful Ed Kleban.

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