"Death Defying Acts" comprises the one-act plays An Interview by David Mamet, Hotline by Elaine May, and Central Park West by Woody Allen. One cast performed all three works last year at New York's Variety Arts Theatre. Michael Blakemore came from London to direct them.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 25TH, 1994
The excellent Michelangelo Hotel hasn't changed much since my first visit, four years ago, or so it seemed at first glance. I'm back in the same pleasant quarters from which I rehearsed the tour of Lettice and Lovage. The closer I looked at the room, the more I began to notice such small things as a scratch on a piece of furniture or a loose bathroom fitting. And I daresay the closer the room looked at me it similarly noticed recent dilapidations - less hair, increased paunch, etc. Noises Off and City of Angels, my momentary grasp on Broadway fame, seemed as remote in time as medieval mystery plays.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 27TH
Yesterday morning went to Woody Allen's editing-room cum theatrette on Park Avenue for preliminary discussions about his play. In life his colouring more delicate than appears on the screen, with pale eyelashes blinking away behind the spectacles; manner extremely courteous but frugal in its expense of energy. A minimalist handshake on arrival and departure. His professional application demands admiration. When I was here in April, he was cutting a film. Next Monday, he starts shooting another. In between time, he's made a third film for TV. And all written by him.
From Woody I went on to Elaine May. Her talk is full of witty indirection and relentless comic shaping, not all of which I always get, probably because I sense that it's a smokescreen from behind which I am being sharply assessed.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 1ST
Yesterday afternoon Woody and Elaine had joined the producers and me to see what talent we had unearthed in the previous four days of auditions. They still talk grandly of names - Gene Hackman, Gene Wilder - which depresses me, because it will mean weeks of wooing followed inevitably by a turndown. Good people showed up to read, but Woody ruled them out if they displayed the least sign of theatrical presentation. He seems to want a sort of open-ended movie-acting, but this is hard to sustain over eight performances a week. The uncomfortable thing about the afternoon was that though I was nominally in charge - talking to the actors, telling them when to start and when to stop - there was no doubt where the true focus of the room was. Yet from Woody came not so much as a nod or a smile. The tension in the room was palpable as, one by one, the nervous actors entered to face their judges. Woody, stone-faced, doodled on his list of names, writing tiny, cryptic notes or drawing faces. During one of the less successful auditions I saw him write, in block capitals, "HELP!"
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 2ND
Late yesterday morning I visited Elaine May at her apartment on Central Park West to go through the same exercise as I had the day before with Woody; namely, to go through her play, word by word, ask dumb questions, and have her explain her intentions to me. She played the lead herself in an earlier production in Chicago, and we began the session with a somewhat meandering conversation discussing that performance, the actors we'd seen the day before, and so on. She's interesting to talk to, with the word perhaps in inverted commas. Her replies tend to be so elliptical and indirect that I often wondered which of us was misunderstanding the other.
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 9TH
Had a very satisfactory telephone conversation with David Mamet. He readily agreed that the title of his play, A Lawyer in Hell, rather gives the game away. He's calling it An Interview, instead. I haven't yet mentioned that we now have a title for the evening, "Death Defying Acts" - a little clumsy but OK. In the business they're calling it "WED", after the first- name initials of the authors. Like all directors, I'm wondering if there shouldn't be an "M" in there somewhere, even if in lower case.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 11TH
Last night at Woody's editing-suite we had what we hoped would be final calls. At last, as a group - authors, producers, director - there is a certain ease between us, and communication has now become direct and to the point. This I like. I now have pretty much the cast I want: Linda Lavin, a name but essentially a theatre creature and very important to Elaine's play; Gerry Becker, for whom I had to fight; and Paul Guilfoyle.
Two months later, the plays go into rehearsal. Debra Monk has now joined the cast.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 12TH, 1995
This morning we started on Woody's play, and I spent the day on the long first scene, between the women. The author rang me yesterday morning still concerned, from the first reading on Monday, about Linda's propensity to weep throughout and Debra's to bolt through her text. I conveyed these anxieties, somewhat paraphrased, to the actresses this morning and compared the play to a Restoration comedy, not in style but in attitude: it has a similar scepticism about human motives, and the same cheerful acceptance of that which is attacked - a self-regarding, privileged class. The Restoration comedies - part of the same society they exposed - were not remotely in the business of changing anything, simply of showing it.
Which is also true of Woody's play. This slant on the material - taking it away from the humanistic empathy that most American drama is about - transformed both performances. Linda's tears dried up at once, and Debra became enigmatically judgemental, which slowed her down considerably. I think both of them may now be going in the right direction.
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 18TH
Rehearsals continue to be encouraging. This morning I worked with Linda on the Elaine May, in which with any luck she should have a triumph. She has a mind of her own but always listens attentively to what I have to say. This creates a friendly tension that is bracing and productive. It's lovely to work with an actor who would be quite all right without you but whom you know you can help to be better. In the afternoon we did the Mamet with the good-natured Gerry Becker and the incredibly garrulous, obstructive, and engaging Paul Guilfoyle. As soon as I open my mouth, Paul launches into a smokescreen of words unconnected with anything I've just said. I listen politely, and when at last he finishes I repeat my point. He goes off again for another five minutes. I repeat my point. He then implements the note quite brilliantly. You can put up with anything if an actor is talented.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 21ST
Yesterday afternoon, Elaine May and one of our producers, Julian Schlossberg, came to visit us. It was by arrangement, but nothing can really prepare a cast (or a director, for that matter) for the first time they present their work to the author. Linda was particularly vulnerable, knowing that Elaine not only had written the material but had played Dorothy in the first production. As some sort of protection Linda had applied an extra-thick layer of make-up. We began to run the play, and I looked sympathetically at her agonised orange face as the entire part went straight out of her head. The stage manager did most of her talking for the first 20 minutes. I, too, was somewhat distracted by knowing that Elaine also directs. At one point I became irritated when she took the opportunity of responding to a question I'd asked by addressing the cast at large on how a scene should be played. I hope she's going to observe the rule of filtering her opinions through the director, and not speaking privately to the actors.
I still have difficulty sometimes understanding exactly the point Elaine is trying to make. She has a trick of responding to a question with an answer to something else. An extreme example might be:
ME: "I'm a little worried about Dorothy's first speech."
ELAINE: "I entirely agree. The end of the play needs a lot of work."
Elaine's figure-of-eight conversation continued into the evening, when we joined the Schlossbergs for dinner at their apartment. She rather insistently held the floor but seemed well disposed to me, so I presumed that she wasn't displeased with the way rehearsals were progressing. The talk was intensely and exclusively about Show Business - analysing brilliant moments of performance, discussing the dilemmas facing the talented but besieged Hollywood superstar, or appraising aspects of script structure. It was a conversation almost as enclosed and self-referential as a medieval debate about the number of feathers in an angel's wing. I don't think the larger world imposed itself for one moment on our theme of achieving dramatic excellence. I sometimes wonder if American Show Business - particularly movies and musicals - isn't, with the greatest technological ingenuity, flawless pacing, dazzling displays of star personality, vanishing rapidly up its own arse. Then easing itself out again as money.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 27TH
On Wednesday, Woody paid us his first visit and pronounced himself delighted.
MONDAY, JANUARY 30TH
Yesterday I had a long and lovely telephone call from Tanya and the kids. She is as frantic as I am, designing the play about Auden on a non-existent budget, so the only time we can find to talk is on a Sunday. She told me some depressing financial news. Our overdraft is over its limit, and the bank manager has been phoning. I spent so much of last year working on the post- production and promotion of my film, Country Life, that I neglected my basic livelihood, the theatre. So quite a lot is riding on these one-acters, especially since my next job, the new Michael Frayn play, doesn't start till June, and then for practically no money. The thought of having to work at my age takes a lot of the pleasure out of it. If I could simply choose to work I think I would go on happily till 80.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 1ST
This job - three plays by three authors who are also directors - has always held the possibility of nightmare, but I thought I had managed to keep the bad dreams at arm's length.
This afternoon, I'd invited a small audience to watch our final run-through before we go out of town. They sat in scattered clusters around the auditorium. The Mamet got us off to a good start, though Gerry needed a number of prompts. Elaine's play began promisingly, and Linda went on to give her most brilliant performance so far in the long telephone monologue. However, her skill must have intimidated Gerry, because all the energy and drive went out of his performance from the moment she hung up until the end of the play. Confidence returned with Central Park West, with Debra and Linda both, I thought, on reasonable form. Suddenly Woody, who had been watching from the back, slipped into the seat beside me. He said nothing but stayed with me until the end of the play. We then had a short discussion about when would be a good time for him to give me his thoughts. Later? On the phone tomorrow? Now? We decided now. He began, "This has been a real step backward. It's so bad I don't know where to begin. Debra is racing through it. They're all racing through it. Nobody seems to know what they're saying. Laugh after laugh is being missed."
On and on he went with quiet insistence, the two of us huddled in the stalls, while people went up and down the aisles tactfully staying out of earshot. I was bewildered. Many things had gone wrong: Paul Guilfoyle, wonderful in the Mamet, is still a mile away from his other, lesser parts, and the last 10 minutes with everyone onstage needs careful work. But the first half of the play - the dialogue between Debra and Linda, which Woody had liked so much a week ago and now apparently hated - was pretty much as it had been. How can we have been so right then and so wrong now? He's coming to Stamford on Saturday (we open there on Tuesday) and wants a meeting with the cast. My concern is not with any damage this may do to my authority but with the discouragement he may inflict on the actors just before they open.
Elaine, seeing Woody wanting his say, now wants hers. What's unnerved both writers is seeing their plays performed to a small and admittedly unresponsive audience, and they're looking for someone to blame. The truth is, we weren't quite ready to show our work, but we will be. But will anyone listen to me? This is America, where everyone knows how to fix it, and wants to fix it now. On his movies when Woody's displeased he fires, then reshoots. And I dare say extreme opinions help him get his way. But in the theatre, where we have to depend on each other for the whole journey, reckless criticism can be extremely destructive.
My job may turn out to be mainly protecting these plays from their creators.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 2ND
This morning Woody rang me at the hotel to discuss some cuts. Overnight he's calmed down a bit, and is now thinking, quite properly, about the text. Notwithstanding yesterday, I found him stimulating to deal with; he's direct and lucid when he speaks and listens attentively when you do. These cuts will be helpful and I hope there will be more to come.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 7TH
Here's an account of the run-up to our first public performance in Stamford:
SATURDAY: Woody insists on visiting us at the start of the day's work to give us his notes, and, with some misgivings, allow him to speak to the cast directly. The first half hour of his notes is given to one actor, Debra Monk. She's not slow enough, not malicious enough, not funny enough - the list of her shortcomings is endless. Debra, a pro, listens in silence and makes a show of taking notes. But I see a pink rash creeping up her neck, and know that inwardly she's getting more and more upset. Afterward, I whisk her into her dressing-room to assure her that Woody is essentially on her side. She's convinced that she's going to be fired. I explain that because he promoted her so strongly for the role in the first place he's overly concerned that she succeed. In spite of her courage, the tears well up.
At the tech [technical rehearsal] of Central Park West, which occupied the rest of the day, I managed to do some detailed work on the last third. But there is still much to be done. American actors are great when they are centrestage but tend to lose interest or go in perverse directions when they are just one part of an ensemble.
SUNDAY: We run the entire show twice, first in the afternoon, then in the evening. This is the day Jane Greenwood shows us her costumes and we incorporate them into the performance. Woody is there for the first showing of his play, and pronounces himself better pleased. He hands me a tiny piece of paper, with only seven notes on it, and darts out of the building to make a new film before breakfast, or something. I, however, am uneasy. Debra, gallant but nervous, has shouted all her lines at snail's pace, and because she is unsure of herself, seems to have doubled in size. Linda is all over the place trying to adjust to an unfamiliar tempo.
In the evening Elaine turns up and so do all three producers. The factions are now in the open: Jean Doumanian and Letty Aronson, Woody's sister, are in Woody's camp, Julian in Elaine's. I'm in the middle, receiving whispered asides, first in one ear, then in the other. Letty: "Why is Linda playing Elaine's play as if it's Medea?" Elaine: "Why is Debra playing Woody's play as if she's a Midwestern ranch-owner shouting orders at the hands?" Jean says nothing but looks blankly disappointed, as if she'd thrown a party and only the dull guests have shown up.
Elaine has cuts and additions that she wants to give herself, so late at night we retire to the Ramada lobby, as huge as a stadium, with a sunken area in the middle descending to the hotel's disco.
The noise is deafening. For over an hour we discuss maybe four lines of dialogue. At the end of a long day I find the showspeak excruciating. The meeting ends indeterminately, with the actors under the impression that there will be more discussion before we do the cuts, Elaine that they will be implemented. I have long since stopped paying attention.
MONDAY: Again, two run-throughs. Woody sees the afternoon show, which strikes me as a distinct improvement on the one the night before. I despair as I see Woody a couple of rows ahead scribbling away as if he were at work on the last chapter of a thousand-page novel. At the end he bounds over to me saying he wants to give the cast some notes. We gather in the Green Room, where the cast is waiting with that odd stillness - interrupted by the turn of a head or the movement of a leg - which you see in penned cattle as they wait for something, probably nasty, to happen. I watch the actors' expressionless faces as the verdict is read out: "A step backward. Debra is now too angry. Linda is posturing. The rest of the cast are like actors, not people." I am also attacked: some of the blocking and business is too cute and theatrical. When he then goes for the costumes in front of the cast, I realise the situation is getting out of control.
That evening when the lights come up on Hotline I find Elaine looming over me, eyes blazing like a kestrel descending on a mouse. Why, she demands to know, have her cuts not been implemented? I reply angrily: because she hasn't yet supplied clear copies of what she wants for the stage management to distribute to me and the cast. I propose that we meet in the Green Room, so she can specify her exact requirements to the two actors. Everyone in the auditorium is aware of the rising temperature, and for the first time I see a look of interest on Jean Doumanian's face. Later she says to me with a grin, "Michael, you're a good sport".
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 9TH
On Tuesday morning, with our first performance ahead, I drank a large cup of coffee and phoned Woody. He wasn't in, so I left a message to ring back, which he did within the hour. I gave him a brief report on the Monday- evening run-through, then said I had a favour to ask of him: in future would he mind funnelling all his notes about the show through me. I explained that I wasn't interested in imposing my own interpretation on his work, only, with luck, augmenting through production what he'd already written. This could not be achieved with a demoralised company. He listened attentively, said he understood the problems, and agreed to my request with the greatest good nature.
I set off to the theatre in an excellent frame of mind, gave notes, and restructured the schedule we had planned for the afternoon - no run-through, just work on selected bits that were worrying either to the cast or me. The performance that night was far better than any of us could have hoped. As always, it was exhilarating to rediscover through an audience the entertainment and surprises in material that for those working on it had become almost wearisomely familiar. Woody delighted, and now thinking hard about the writing itself - what cuts to make, what changes. Elaine wasn't there. She's decided to stay away for a day or two until her rewrites have run themselves in. Had a drink afterwards with a happy company in the Ramada stadium, and slept that night without a pill for the first time in weeks.
On Wednesday morning Woody, whose energy has the clarity of distilled water, wakes me up with a telephone call to say he's made some cuts that "will improve the evening by 25 per cent!" That afternoon his cuts duly arrive, accompanied by a graceful note to the cast saying that they in no way reflect on performance, only on inadequacies in the writing. At the second performance, that night, the afternoon's work pays off, but Elaine's play falls apart. Fortunately, she's not there to see it. At Julian's suggestion she is now giving me her notes typewritten. She hesitated because she thought I might be offended. On the contrary, I'm delighted; on paper she's as succinct as Woody is in conversation. I'm beginning to understand her better. Her judgement is so sharp that she feels the need to cloak what she wants in rigmaroles of diplomacy. Because she backs away from speaking her mind, and instead "deals" with people, her odd flashes of candour give the disconcerting impression that other, far worse things remain unsaid. But we're beginning to get along.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 13TH
It's two o'clock in the afternoon of our first day off in 10 days. I'm still in pyjamas. I must now compress three days into one entry.
THURSDAY: The shuttle to take me from the hotel to the theatre is not available, so I decide to walk. It's a bright winter morning with the sun bouncing off the piled snow. I get a sandwich from an Italian delicatessen and am reminded for the first time in almost two weeks how pleasant the wider world can be.
That afternoon we put in Woody's cuts, about which the cast is surprisingly enthusiastic. Once actors have learnt lines, they're usually reluctant to forego so much as a comma. The performance that night goes with a swing.
SATURDAY: David Mamet's The Cryptogram, in his own production, receives a rave in the Times, and around 10 in the morning I ring to congratulate him and bring him up to date with his one-acter. He's asleep, but I speak to his wife, Rebecca. In the background are assertive noises from a baby. We chat about his good review. "Not good enough," she says. I'm puzzled for a moment, then she goes on, "You can't say too many good things about it. It's a wonderful bit of work." I make a mental note to tell Tanya of this splendid demonstration of spousal support.
A couple of hours later the phone rings: "Dave Mamet here." I congratulate him and we spend a few minutes discussing The Cryptogram. "And how's that other turkey going?" he asks. I praise Paul Guilfoyle and allude to a few unscripted production ideas, which I say can be taken out if he's unhappy with them. But he's splendidly easygoing: "I need a few days to catch up on my life." With a beautiful wife and a new baby, how wise.
I set off to the theatre in a state of some anticipation. Woody and Elaine will both be attending the evening performance, which, it being a Saturday night, will be our first full house. Woody, relaxed and expectant, arrives around eight o'clock with his party: Soon-Yi, an attractive young woman who knows her own mind and is very different from the waif-like creature one thought one was seeing in photographs and on television; Jean; Letty and her husband, Sidney; and Helena Bonham Carter, whom I know from London. I ask her what she's doing in the States. "I'm in Woody's new film," she says, and Woody adds, "She plays my wife," rather the way a small boy who knows what he wants might announce the proud ownership of a new train set.
The second house, like most Saturday nights, is a disappointment. The audience seems more concerned with digesting their dinners than with attending to the plays. There's laughter, but no edge. Afterward, I go backstage to be met by a nervous company manager, who tells me that Woody's waiting in the Green Room and wants to give the company notes. My heart falls. The actors are exhausted. The last thing they need is more bad news. I join him in the Green Room, close the door, and, without either of us having to allude to it, it's agreed that he'll give his notes to me to pass on. First of all, I have to listen to an almost identical litany of doom-laden complaints, beginning with the familiar "this performance was a great step backward". As he goes on and on, I watch his face - its expression of apparently sincere distress - and reflect on the neurosis at the heart of talent. Woody responds to the show in precise manic-depressive cycles, which have as much to do with the audiences as they do with the various performances. Tonight Soon-Yi and Helena were watching. I interrupt him to ask for his specific notes. "I've got hundreds and hundreds!" he says. "Let's go through them one by one," I say. The moment we start dealing with specifics, things improve; his notes are on the button and many duplicate my own. We then discuss a new ending he's written, in which the lawyer is not killed by gunfire but receives an undignified wound in the backside, and about which I've already made a few suggestions. His mood has improved, and for a second I catch just a glimpse of tiny teeth in the shadow of a smile.
We have now been alone in the Green Room for about 20 minutes, with the entire backstage waiting upon the outcome. Elaine has seized her chance and visited the trapped and dispirited actors with her notes. As I emerge from my session with Woody, she and Julian whisk me into an empty dressing- room so she can explain how she's fixed it. I just want to get out of the building. It's far too late to pass on anyone's notes, so I call the company for one o'clock the following day. In the corridor I re-encounter Helena Bonham Carter. "And how are you getting on with Mr Allen?" she asks enigmatically.
Later, I lie in bed with my hands behind my head thinking about the absent angel that hovers over this production: David Mamet. I decide that of the three plays his is the only one that I really respect. Could this change if he also turns up in Stamford and starts giving me a hard time? Like lightning.
SUNDAY: In the morning, I pondered Woody's on-off responses and perceived a pattern. The first rehearsal he saw he had loved, the second he hated; the third he liked, the fourth he loathed. Similarly, he loved our first night but loathed last night's performance. Odd numbers were good; even were bad. I would offer this as a superstitious consolation to the cast.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 19TH
Another turbulent week to catch up on.
MONDAY: First thing mid-morning there's a telephone call from Letty with a special request from Woody to begin the week's rehearsals by putting in his new ending. I'd been planning to do the Mamet, which got our first performance off to such a good start, but which has since been slowly running out of steam. What with rewrites and cuts on the other plays I've had to neglect it - unfair to Mamet and to the two actors concerned. I explain this to Letty. She counters by saying that Woody feels the new ending will make all the difference not only to his play but to the entire evening; audiences will leave in an upbeat frame of mind, which will send a glow backward over the two other plays. (What?!) This, she insists, will help us with the critic from Variety, who, I'm now informed, has insisted on seeing the play out of town and will be in tomorrow night. So much for the advantages of trying out in Stamford.
TUESDAY: Jean now rings begging me to put in Woody's new ending. When Julian also calls with the same request, I capitulate and alter the rehearsal schedule. The evening performance is appalling, the worst so far. Woody's new ending plays smoothly, but by then it's too late. Afterward, he's waiting for me in the Green Room. It's an odd number so I have my fingers crossed, but without much conviction. Slightly better than last time, he says, but still a million things wrong. Debra is now in as the favourite, Linda is emphatically out. He describes her performance as camp, theatrical, and "cutesy". "We can always replace her," he says, and I feel a chill run through me. This is madness. We have less than two weeks before we open. I suddenly wonder if this will ever happen.
I stagger out of the Green Room to see Elaine and Julian beckoning me into another open door farther down the corridor. There I meet Elaine's support group - Mike Nichols and Marlo Thomas - whose visit to the show is nicely timed to the worst performance. We discuss the problems in tones that are blessedly less extreme than Woody's and Mike makes some courteous suggestions. Elaine, who I know is now very worried about her play, disguises her anxieties with some gallantry.
Back at the hotel I think I'm fairly calm about all this until I turn the light off. Then I'm a Goya etching with bats flying out of my head.
WEDNESDAY: Woody rings mid-morning. I can tell he's pushing to get his hands on the actors again. He's convinced a word from him will show them how it should be done. At rehearsals, first thing up is the Mamet, and we have a hugely productive and enjoyable hour and a half. The show that night is sensationally better. Neither the producers nor the authors are there to see it.
THURSDAY: That evening Elaine attends the performance with more supporters - Herb Gardner and Peter Fiebleman. The two playwrights will undoubtedly pass on their ideas for improvements to Elaine, who will then pass them on to me. She's already had a message from Mike Nichols. "Mike thinks the play could be a real crowd-pleaser, but thinks we should turn Dorothy's monologue into a proper telephone conversation with Ken saying things into his phone on the other side of the stage. I could easily write that." And add 20 minutes to the length of the play. And expect Gerry Becker to master in a few days material he's had trouble getting the hang of in six weeks. And have Linda walk off the show because it's no longer the play she first accepted. More madness. It occurs to me that this meddling energy - everyone putting in his 10 cents' worth and struggling for dominance - is at the heart of the American Genius. It produces results because it creates such pressure, even fear, that people come up with ideas simply to survive. It's the dialectic gone crazy; a hundred theses and antitheses struggling, like spermatozoa, to make it as the synthesis. It's undoubtedly effective when the agreed purpose of the exercise is something simple like maximising profits; less useful when you are trying to see the woods for the trees. And quite catastrophic when you are looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.
FRIDAY: Woody sees the performance and afterward we meet in the Green Room. "First the good news," he says, "Linda is 99 per cent better. The rest of it - I'm sorry to be a party pooper - is just terrible." We go through his notes, which he then bundles up and presents to me like sailing orders. I find this offensive and return to the Ramada really quite angry, for the first time.
SATURDAY: I wake, fed up with my authors and even more fed up with their plays. Always excepting the angelic Mamet. Julian rings and I speak my mind. He explains that Woody's excitability is probably related to the pressures he's under. He's trying to edit one film and write another. His father is 94 and ailing. There's been Mia Farrow to deal with. Bullets Over Broadway, despite rave reviews, isn't doing business. And Woody has agreed to act again, something he doesn't enjoy except in his own films. He's doing The Sunshine Boys with Peter Falk for TV. Visiting his cutting-room and seeing all those people at work, you take it for granted that it keeps going of its own accord.
I unfold Woody's notes and study them with a new curiosity. They are frantically written, about four to the page, most with editorial comment - "Just awful," "Still shit," "PATHTIC," which I interpret to mean pathetic. I decide I shall hang on to them in trust for my daughters, so that when they grow up and suddenly need cash they can flog them for an immense sum to the film faculty of some gullible American university.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 21ST
I'm back at the Michelangelo, with a designer chocolate on the bedside table. Variety has given the show a rotten review.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 24TH
On Wednesday, I conceded Woody another, and final, opportunity to speak to the cast directly. My instinct told me that this latest intervention would have an effect contrary to the one he hoped and that when this was demonstrated to him he would finally give me some peace.
We met at the Variety Arts, which, as is usual during a New York technical was more like a junk yard than a theatre, with ladders, lighting equipment, and rubbish cluttering up the auditorium. The dressing-room accommodation was far too cramped for a meeting, so we gathered in the only space available, behind a curtain at the rear of the balcony. The sounds of hammering and yelled instructions were out of sight, if not out of mind.
He began, courteously, with the women, taking them gently from point to point. However, as he got into the swing of it and as, one by one, the rest of the cast were introduced into the discussion, he found more and more to object to. Eventually he was simply reading them the play line by line, and at a frantic pace. I sat there feeling a variety of things - initially some hurt pride, then irritation that he should assume I'd been struggling for weeks with most of these problems. Then, as always, this gave way to a certain fascination with the man himself. He'd scheduled these hours in what was doubtless a busy day and was giving himself over to the task with an almost fanatical zeal. I don't think I've ever met anyone so puritanically committed to his work, so consumed by it. It's as if his small frame were in the process of diminishing further in the heat of his activity, like a sculpture made of ice. It is wondrous to behold, but I'm not sure it is enviable.
That evening's performance, before a small invited audience, was not one of our best. Like all such audiences, ours wondered just what was wrong with a show they were seeing for nothing. In Central Park West the frazzled members of the company rattled through the play, their obedience to Woody's most emphatic demand for speed at odds with their struggle to remember the hundred other things he wanted. It wasn't much of a performance, but at least it had the sort of pace I'd been urging on them throughout Stamford. Afterward I sought out Woody, who was waiting for me but hiding from the audience, at the top of a flight of stairs. "Well?" I inquired. "That was terrible! Just terrible! The worst so far. And they were a terrific audience!" (They were?) "I've never seen it so bad! It's so bad I'd rather take it off than have it seen like this. You've got to tell them - really tell them! - how ghastly it is. You've got to be really tough with them!" Debra was no longer the culprit, nor Linda. The entire company was guilty. I looked at Woody and wondered quite which of us was going mad.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 27TH
On Friday morning Woody rang. He asked if he could come to the rehearsal that afternoon, "just to sit at the back". I knew what was bothering him. He thinks I'm too soft on the actors and wanted to be there to make sure I spilled blood. Later Jean rang. She wanted to be there, too. What were they doing, auditioning me? I pointed out that the inadequacies of the night before were directly attributable to Woody's note session. Was I to believe they were holding me responsible? My mood had worsened with Jean's call, and blackly I began to plan my afternoon in some detail - what I would say to the company, what we would rehearse. If I wasn't allowed to conduct the rehearsal the way I wanted to, then I would withdraw from the show.
I had another call to make, to David Mamet. Since he hadn't seen the show I felt obliged to spell out the production ideas that aren't actually scripted. As before, I left a message, and he rang back promptly: "Dave Mamet here." I told him what I'd done and he said, "That's a wonderful idea. I like it. Great." I was already feeling better. I then asked him if he could possibly visit us in New York, not just to see his own play in preview but to provide a fresh overview of the entire evening. I believed we had a good show on our hands, but the constant interventions of his colleagues were jeopardising our chances.
"I've a better idea than me coming to New York," he said. "Why don't you just shoot Woody and Elaine? You should sit them down and say, 'What are you guys, sissies? Haven't you had a failure before?' I'm only kidding."
This cheered me up enormously. I think David stays away from other people's productions of his work because, as author, he knows he cannot be other than disappointed. However, he has enough respect for the process of theatre to know that his interpreters have, as it were, the right to be wrong. What endures? The play on the page. The most perfect production, no less than the most flawed, is doomed to extinction.
I went to rehearsals in an icy rage, which more than compensated for lack of sleep. I felt very concentrated, and in the first two hours achieved all I wanted to with Hotline.
Woody turned up with Jean some five minutes before I was scheduled to rehearse his play. While the set was being changed he took me aside and reiterated the necessity for the Hard Line. But I had no intention of taking instructions on how to address the actors. The company gathered onstage, watchful and bruised. Linda was looking particularly dangerous. I began by telling them that Woody had his own view of last night's performance. However, I could be useful to them only by conveying my own. I felt that we had a show, and that all of them, at one performance or another, had done justice to their parts, but that last night, in pursuing pace, they had thrown reality out of the window. Their characters were not particularly likeable people, but their dilemmas were real enough. They should be played from their own point of view; that is to say, seriously - the belief we all have that for the most part we are right and it is others who are wrong. It occurred to me later that a reading from this journal would have neatly made the point.
We then rehearsed certain moments that work some nights, not others. My adrenalin was up, and Woody must have sensed it, because he kept very quiet. When we came to the scene with the German Luger, I suggested that one of the problems might be too much text. Suddenly Woody was at his professional best, as ruthless with himself as he can be with others, cutting without argument and accepting suggestions. I couldn't help noticing that when he talked to, say, Linda, he forgot all about the Hard Line, and did what all good directors do - try and win the trust and, hopefully, the affection of the actor involved. "That was a really good rehearsal!" he said when we'd finished, and he was right.
That night, our first New York preview, was far and away the best performance the cast had ever given, and afterward I caught my second sighting of Woody's teeth. "The best so far! That was really quite good!" he said, deploying the only New York understatement I know, the phrase "quite good" meaning excellent.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 1ST
On our day off, Monday, I woke up feeling decidedly off colour. I thought I was developing the pharyngitis that now seems the inevitable accompaniment to the last week of a rehearsal period. On Tuesday I felt worse but dragged myself off to rehearsals to work on the Mamet and refine the transition from that play to Elaine's. This took us till 4.30, by which time I had Woody breathing down my neck with a fresh sheaf of revisions. Actually he was breathing down my neck only metaphorically. Knowing that I was ill he stayed at least six rows behind me, and would only approach me with one hand holding his overcoat across his nose and mouth like a 19th- century anarchist. Have I met my match in hypochondria?
SATURDAY, MARCH 4TH
The performance on Thursday, the last before our series of press nights, is good if not exceptional, which is just as it should be. I meet Elaine in the corridor backstage after Hotline. She seems content with what she's just seen, and in any case knows that it's too late to make changes. Elaine is quiet and looks very vulnerable, and I find myself liking her more than I ever have. I like her realism about her play, sandwiched as it is between the uncompromising Mamet and the concentrated comic resource of the Allen. She knows it's really a sort of attenuated sketch but perhaps forgets that it tells its story with great ingenuity and is the only play in the evening that sets out to engage the audience's sympathy. More than the others it's dependent on performance, but with Linda now on form it's emphatically getting it.
In spite of my declaring the show frozen after Tuesday's performance, Woody is still sending individual cast members envelopes full of changes. All are funny. A few are desperate. ("You slept with my writing partner?" "Once in his new Mercedes. He wanted to test the shock absorbers.") These are not changes you should expect a cast to make the night before they face the critics. Linda refuses to open her envelope.
SUNDAY, MARCH 5TH
At six o'clock on Friday, the first of our press nights, the company assembles in the auditorium for a brief warm-up. I'm expecting a closing of the ranks as the moment of truth approaches, but find the company out of temper and squabbling amongst themselves. I decide the short pep talk I'd prepared would probably be counter-productive, so scrap it. At the half hour I do the rounds of the dressing-rooms. Almost as important as talent, the thing that defines a stage star and creates a star's luck is the capacity to rise to the challenge of a press night. The history of a career is no more than a record of a succession of these particular nights.
That night's performance is excellent, with a good audience that gets better as the evening proceeds. At the curtain call, Julian and I exchange happy but qualified smiles; if only Vincent Canby, of the New York Times, had been in front, but he's chosen to come the following night.
On Saturday, I return to the theatre just in time to go round the dressing- rooms before the evening performance. Everyone seems to know the Times will be in front. Gerry and Paul have already left for the stage, so I follow them down to wish them well. I find them in the shadowy set, Gerry sitting on his chair, Paul pacing back and forth to one side, each alone with his thoughts. The memory of this moment of waiting comes back to me with a rush, and I feel an immense sympathy for them, and for the necessary innocence of all performers, who must believe that a random sample of their own species have gathered out there in their hundreds with good will in their hearts. More prudent men than actors know that a hanging also attracts a crowd.
TUESDAY, MARCH 7TH
At mid-afternoon on Monday, Julian rings; he's heard from the press-department people, who've heard on the grapevine the gist of some of the notices, and they're very mixed. Julian's tone is sombre but not downcast.
"Does this mean we come off next Saturday?" I ask.
"No, I've spoken to Jean. We intend to fight." But I find myself thinking hard how I can raise some money to tide me over until the Frayn play, in June. If that doesn't work, I'll have to start selling things.
I make the rounds of the dressing-rooms with a willed cheerfulness. In the foyer I wonder if word of the bad press has already spread to our audience and I tuck myself away out of sight in the back row. The show begins. We have an audience packed with celebrities, and their response reflects it - rather cold and watchful with patches of "encouraging" laughter.
At intermission, I escape to the backstage corridor to avoid friends and famous faces. Julian joins me. He's resilient in adversity, and I admire him for it. We're standing side by side, both staring at the wall. "Look, we did our best," he says. "You and I couldn't have worked harder. And there's still a chance."
"What, if the Times gives us a rave?" I say.
"There's always a chance," says Julian.
I go back to my seat for Woody's play. The audience has become more unbuttoned, and Debra and Linda get it off to a terrific start. One by one they're joined by other members of the cast, and no one drops the ball. The reception at the end is enthusiastic.
Afterward, my English agent, Bernard Hunter, and I go by taxi to the party. He thinks it's gone well, but all I want to do is go home to bed. I'm sweating uncomfortably and dread the prospect of all the names I'm not going to be able to remember, of the confidence I'm not going to be able to project. However, I'm soon surrounded by people insisting that they enjoyed it. I allow myself one glass of red wine, pick up a plate the size of a small saucer, pile a few square inches of food on it (this is Off-Broadway, after all), and join Cy Coleman at his table. Jerry Schoenfeld approaches like a cardinal dispensing blessings, and shakes me by the hand. He makes a whispered suggestion about lunch next time I'm in New York, then drifts off. Someone else - how can I have forgotten who? - comes up to me and says, "The New York Times, it's a rave! An absolute rave!" A few moments later, Jerry's there again, pumping my hand like an action replay. "I came back to be the first to tell you, the New York Times is a rave."
I'm beginning to feel like a hilltop from which the clouds are lifting after a month of rain. Can that actually be sunlight making me blink? Across the room, Julian is edging through the crowd toward me, wearing on his face the suppressed smile of a bank robber who has the money in his briefcase and is already on the plane to Tahiti.
! Reprinted by permission; Michael Blakemore. First published in the 'New Yorker'.Reuse content