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"Actors and Actresses" Premiere at The Hartman

Learned, Warden Liven New Simon Play

(c) The Hour

March 3, 1983

By Kitty MacVickar

Familiar Faces Star in New Play: Jack Warden as Nicholas Cassell and Michael Learned as Cara Heywood are featured in the world premiere of Neil Simon's "Actors and Actresses," showing now through March 13 at The Hartman Theatre, 307 Atlantic St., Stamford. She's remembered as Olivia Walton of The Walton Family on television. Warden costars with Paul Newman in the current film, "The Verdict."

Hartman Theatre audiences are being given a real surprise when they see actress Michael Learned's performance as the sophisticated Cara Heywood in the world premiere of Neil Simon's "Actors and Actresses." The comedy is playing at the Stamford Center for the Arts through March 13, and getting lots of laughs.

It's hard to erase the memory of Learned as the sweet, hardworking mountain mother, Olivia Walton, in television's long running series, "The Waltons." She won three Emmys in the part, and a fourth for her "Nurse" title role portrayal in a later series. She was a last minute substitute for Tammy Grimes in "Actors and Actresses."

The new Simon play depicts life on the road as it is for a touring acting troupe offstage during a one night stand in Gary, Ind. The first act concentrates on the actors, led by the familiar looking, veteran actor Jack Warden (Nicholas Cassell), now co-starring with Paul Newman in the movie, "The Verdict."

Mutual dependencies and the antagonism of artistic temperaments are cleverly etched with comic effects in John Falabella's two typical motel room sets: Act I's "Prince Edward Suite" in the morning for actor Cassell, and Act II's not much different room for the svelte Cara, who plots an evening seduction there. Plaid drapes and gold bedspreads are the norm.

Warden expertly plays his tough guy role of the middle–aged actor who's seen it all, yet has a tender heart. There's interesting contrast as he deals with two other actors: the elderly Harmon Andrews, beautifully played by Tom Aldredge, and young impatient Vince Barbosa, enacted with real verve by good looking Jay O. Sanders. He uses body language to advantage.

"Vinnie" tells Nick he wishes he were a star; among others advantages, it means two seats on the bus. Twelve years an actor, he begs Nick to teach him. Nick has phoned him to come to his room after an all night bus trip. He wants a checkers partner. Vinnie hopes for a drama lesson, and this is a repeat occurrence on the road.

Insulted when Nick tells him his performance was boring, Vinnie tells Nick, "Nobody in the company likes you." Nick tells him being on the road is hard, and brings out the worst. To mollify him, Nick says they'll work on Vinnie's scene. Again, Vinnie pushes motel beds aside to make room.

Nick has offered a drink, and has several himself. Vinnie wonders why it's so important to drink before they rehearse his scene. "Because the common enemy, failure, is out there," answers Nick. His instructions to Vinnie, in and out of the bathroom as Nick cues him, reveal a very confused and naïve Vinnie, who takes Nick's devilish directions seriously, much to the audience's delight.

Young and pretty brunette Polly Draper, the only woman in Act I, appears as Polly Devore, newly appointed company manger. Black pants tucked into high boots below a pink scarfed blouse, she notes Nick's bottle of scotch and tells him she doesn't like him, finding him "destructive, crude, filthy and adolescent." Vinnie questions her about Nick's tender description of Harmon's and the wardrobe lady's families, and learns he lied. He explodes.

Polly warns Nick his drinking could mean an understudy replacing him, and tells him the frail Harmon is about to be fired for stealing and other sins. Nick tells her she reminds him of Patton. The play has six more weeks to play "the pig stocks of America," he says.

Aldredge's characterization of the aging actor is a delicate and fine one as he reminisces about doing 263 plays in 51 years. But, to Nick's surprise, he never played New York. Always on the road, he wishes he'd married an actress; they "could have browsed together in libraries on the road." Aldredge created the role of Norman Thayer in the Broadway production of "On Golden Pond."

The first act is too long, but action picks up well with the second. And the glamour of an attractive and articulate Learned, slim and tall in black robe, is a bonus. As Cara, she also dons a red wig to entrance a young man she met in the theatre alley. She's invited him to her room out of the loneliness of 14 weeks on the road.

There's some suspense and more comedy as Cara orders red wine from room service, softens lights and changes into her flattering robe. Interruptions come with Harmon, the waiter and Vinnie. And much irony with the entrance of the handsome Steven Culp as Tom Pryor, who doesn't want to be seduced.

A difficult subject, homosexuality, is handled well by the playwright as the play takes on a serious note. And the audience realizes how hard it is for traveling actors to be parents. A poignant phone call made by Cara to her estranged son is touching, finely played by Learned.

A final scene is very real as, alone with Nick, Cara removes her wig and undoes her blonde pincurls. "The survivors" discuss their sons and consider a possible relationship.

Seen in a small role of room service waiter is Garrett M. Brown, graduate of Darien schools and Amherst College. The tall and handsome young man projected genuine enthusiasm and likeability as the would-be actor asking advice of Cara.

Playwright Simon has had at least one new production a year on Broadway since his 1961 "Come Blow Your Horn." Most have become standards of American comedy theatre, such as "Plaza Suite," "The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park," "Sweet Charity," "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," "The Star Spangled Girl" and "California Suite."

These are high standards to match. His talents and seasoned touch are evident in "Actors and Actresses," the cast is good, but the comedy isn't in a class with his other plays. We laugh, we sympathize, yes. But part of Act II's background story of why Tom Pryor came in person to see Cara is rather contrived, and cutting Act I would help. Also, is the bathroom humor really necessary?

Otherwise, director Glenn Jordan has given us a well-paced play utilizing the talents of his able actors. David Murin's costumes were appropriate. For reservations, call the box office at 323-2131.

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