Last night, I attended the fourth preview of John Guare’s brilliant comedy, Six Degrees of Separation, starring Allison Janney and Jon Benjamin Hickey in the leading roles of Ouisa and Flan Kittredge. As the ninety-minute, intermission-less play unfolded, I found it hard to believe that twenty-seven years had gone by since I first saw it, shortly after it premiered at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in 1990. Its ingenious construction moves briskly until it slows for a moment to creep up on you with a moving finish.
Currently at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
But this column is not a review of this new production. First off, I’m not a critic and second, it hasn’t officially opened yet. But while sitting in my seat, many thoughts flooded through my brain — more degrees of separation than a mere six — on my life in the theatre as an audience member. I’m fast approaching the half-century mark later this year and, as I have done since I was ten years old, I enter a Broadway theatre aware of its ghosts — plays that played there prior, whether I saw them or not — as well as the hundreds of actors who trod the boards. On Saturday, the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, held its own sway as I have seen many a memorable show there.
I first entered the theatre in 1969, at the age of twelve, to see a revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page, only the fourth straight play I ever saw (sandwiched directly between my first times seeing the original Broadway productions of Hair and Man of La Mancha). I was completely unfamiliar with The Front Page, as well as its reputation as an American classic. It was then forty-one years old and so was the Barrymore, having opened in the same year, 1928. Now in its 89th year on 47th Street, and having been refurbished to the sum of $9 million in 2004, the Barrymore is one of the most sought after theatres on Broadway. In 2012 it housed the sell-out revival of Death of a Salesman starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and in 2014 the Tony award winning British play The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time.
Other shows I saw there in my youth included titles that perhaps won’t mean anything today: Voices, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Emperor Henry IV and Foxfire. But if I mention that it afforded me the chances to see Julie Harris, Richard Kiley, Ingrid Bergman, Rex Harrison, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn… you’d understand what made them so special.
Perhaps the most famous tenant at the Barrymore was Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened in 1947. This was the play that made Marlon Brando a star as Stanley Kowalski, and gave the world the first glimpse of Blanche DuBois (from Jessica Tandy). And as Mitch and Stella, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter, would go on to win Academy Awards when they repeated their performances in the 1951 film version, directed by the play’s original director, Elia Kazan. When I went backstage Saturday night after Six Degrees to visit with my friend Jon Hickey, my first question was, “So was this Brando’s or Tandy’s dressing room?” He proudly told me “Allison has Marlon’s, one flight up. This was Jessica’s.” He was beyond thrilled in that knowledge as well as in benediction of where he was in time and place.
The original Streetcar at the Barrymore (1947)
It brought me to one of my favorite theatrical stories, one I first read in the New York Times obituary of the great character actor Tom Aldredge, who died in 2011. He appeared in nearly thirty Broadway shows and was “an actor’s actor.” Here’s the Times story verbatim:
“Mr. Aldredge’s theatrical calling very nearly did not happen. In the late 1940s, then a prelaw student at the University of Dayton, he visited New York. Ambling through the theater district, he came upon two rough-hewn men in the alley behind the Ethel Barrymore Theater.
The young Mr. Aldredge had little interest in theater, but wanted to see the inside of a grand Broadway house. He asked the stagehands — for stagehands they must surely be — for a peek.
‘Buy a ticket,’ one replied, and he did, for $1.80.
From his seat, Mr. Aldredge watched as the ‘stagehands’ — Karl Malden and Marlon Brando — walked out under the lights to play A Streetcar Named Desire, and after that he was never completely the same.”