Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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UNHAPPY STAR OR: WHEN HENRY FONDA SAID "YES," INSTEAD OF "NO."

In 1957, the creative team behind a new two-character play were thrilled when they discovered a relatively unknown actress to play their female lead: the twenty-six-year-old Anne Bancroft. Then, securing Henry Fonda as the other fifty percent of the cast — an actor thirty years into a remarkable stage and screen career — left everyone feeling doubly blessed to have landed “a star.” But as the playwright himself chronicled in a book he wrote about the experience, Two for the Seesaw was anything but a happy road to Broadway, even though it ended in major success. Read about it in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

Inside books written about the theatre by its participants are most often great fun to read; and the juicier the gossip, the better the tale. Besides the sensation of feeling like a fly on the wall, there’s a great deal to learn from the warriors who survive these battles of bringing a show to New York. Today, with the stakes raised by massive budgets, it’s fascinating to see that more than sixty years ago the risks and anxieties were exactly the same. The Seesaw Log, playwright William Gibson’s memoir based on diary entries he kept chronicling Two for the Seesaw’s long road to Broadway in 1957–58, includes figures right down to the penny, making clear that even with far lower budgets, the intensity and fear of failure were just as strong with an $80,000 risk as an $8 million dollar one today. It’s taken me many years to open Gibson’s book, even with it on my shelf for some time (we all know how THAT goes). It turned out to be so much fun that I read it in one sitting.

Anne Bancroft and Henry Fonda in Two for the Seesaw (1958).

And in spite of Two for the Seesaw being a hit — and bringing Gibson much-welcomed financial security — the poor man didn’t feel like celebrating. It was that painful a journey.

Reading about Fonda’s behavior through Two for the Seesaw is a real chink in the armor of this gallant actor. While always keeping his professional mien, in truth, he hated playing the part of Jerry Ryan almost from the start. In Gibson’s telling, it feels as some masochistic element was at play in Fonda’s certainty that nearly everything he did wasn’t working — even if the audience thought the opposite. Good soldier that he was, he played it through gritted teeth until the day his six-month contract ended. According to Gibson, after opening night, he was forbidden to visit Fonda in his dressing room at the Booth Theatre.

To be fair, the problems with the role of Jerry were there even before Fonda was cast. It seemed that most who read Two for the Seesaw liked it a great deal, as the quality of the writing was quite good, especially with the character of Gittel Mosca, the foul-mouthed dancer from the Bronx who can’t catch a break. Down on her luck, she meets Jerry Ryan, a lawyer from Omaha who, after discovering his wife was cheating on him, has fled a secure job with his father-in-law’s firm. Heading to New York City to get away from his troubles doesn’t help and it’s while feeling lost and adrift he meets Gittel: a fellow misfit (of sorts) with whom he winds up falling. And through clever staging, there is rarely a moment either of the two actors are offstage. The precision timing of the set revolved to reveal different aspects of the apartment, which included quick-change costume planning — all painstakingly worked out — the result of which clicked with audiences. After it opened and proved a smash, it sold to the movies for $600,000, which was quite a bit of dough in 1958.

But an imbalance was at play from the get-go in this two-character drama. For starters, there was no question that the role of Gittel, by virtue of being the extroverted one, was more exciting and interesting to play than Jerry. Then, when you add in the Anne Bancroft factor, it wasn’t unfounded that Fonda could find himself being upstaged. In her Broadway debut, she easily won the Tony due to the award’s strict rules of billing being the standard for what constituted “leading” and “featured” performances. Bancroft’s win in the latter category for what is the ONLY female role in the play — unquestionably the co-lead — was just plain dumb. And when you take into account that even before rehearsals began, all the principals involved knew Jerry was underwritten, it made for a recipe that could have produced a fatally under-baked cake. But that’s what rehearsals are for, right? Surely, they would find the core of Jerry to make him fully three-dimensional, especially with an actor with the innate honesty and powerful presence of Henry Fonda. This was an actor who lived and breathed a character on stage in ways that other actors can only dream of.

Anne Bancroft, director Arthur Penn and Henry Fonda

in rehearsal for Two for the Seesaw (1958).

But Fonda simply hated every change that Gibson offered him each time new pages would be delivered. He found most of his lines “unplayable”