PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Impressionism — The Arty and the Smarty

PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Impressionism — The Arty and the Smarty

By Harry Haun
25 Mar 2009

My first-night impression of Impressionism on March 24 — from the “unique” vantage point of Row AA on the far right of the Schoenfeld Theatre, almost eye-level to the stage — was that I would dearly love an opportunity to follow the good advice which playwright Michael Jacobs kept handing his characters: You have to step back from a painting (and, metaphorically, the travail of life) in order to see the whole picture.

From where I sat, there seemed to be some dazzling projections (from Elaine J. McCarthy) and lighting effects (by the great Natasha Katz) splashed across the scrim during the eight scene changes, but I couldn’t swear to it. (Less close is better for this experience, if you want to get an eyeful of the projected world-famous paintings.) However, I can attest to being star-struck by a center-stage Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen.

Irons represents the realistic view of life, a war-worn photojournalist pretty shot himself, back home to heal from all he has seen and recorded. Allen advocates the impressionistic view of life, a self-contained art-gallery proprietress holding on to her paintings at all costs (in psychobabble parlance, her art is her “baggage”).

The opposites attract and spend the rest of the play — between sales — falling in love and trying to convert each other to their different views of life. The classiest kind of parry and thrust is called for here — and gets it from two attractive, intelligent, stylish stars who haven’t been on the Broadway boards for a good two decades.

Sardi’s, which is also having something of a comeback this season, was the scene of a “celebratory cocktail reception” that followed the performance. (Sardi’s Party No. 4 is set for Exit the King on March 26.) Ordinarily, it’s a quick scoot to Sardi’s through Shubert Alley from 45th Street, but this time first-nighters found it a slow go because of the crowd clamoring for Angela Lansbury outside the Shubert after Blithe Spirit‘s early curtain — and La Lansbury graciously tends her fans (M-G-M training, y’know).

Impressionism began previews as a two-act and soon came down to one, causing a lot of Riedel-needling in the press. “Well, they’re never easy,” sighed the director, Jack O’Brien, when consoled. “The thing is, I made the big mistake to begin with by saying, ‘I think it should be in two acts’ — and, of course, it can’t be. The minute I put an intermission in, I realized, ‘Omigod! All the energy is going forward, and you can’t stop to think because you don’t have all the clues. You have to just keep going. It’s a play where you keep figuring things out as you go along.’ When I realized I confused people, I put it back together. I didn’t cut anything. I took out an intermission.

“I think this is a play for grown-ups. I think this is a play for those of us who have collected a lot of baggage and wonder whether we can ever, ever let it go and find something else, find something new. I think it is a play that is subtly witty and wise. It’s got a lot of wisdom in it. It’s funny and, at the same time, serious about picking yourself up and trying to find somebody else when you’re not a teenager. That’s a hard thing to do. You gotta get rid of the past before you can start all over again. And that’s what it’s about. It’s giving people a lot of courage and a really lovely evening.”

O’Brien can take a bow for cheerleading Allen and Irons back to the stage after all those salad days in cinema. He couldn’t get better spokespeople for the bloody-but-unbowed. “Oh, they’re glorious,” he exclaimed, “and, of course, they are polar opposites: He’s all fire, and she’s all cool. Together, they make such great chemistry.”

Allen recognized the sparks but couldn’t say how they got there. “You never know,” she shrugged helplessly. “I do enjoy playing with Jeremy very much. I love that I’m a Midwest girl and he’s a British guy. But I do think that there is just something culturally specific about us. Sometimes, it’s one of those things that just works.”

She was happy she made the big leap back to Broadway. “It was actually easier than I remembered,” she admitted, “and I am pleased with the way the play came off. Actually, I think it even went beyond that. Sometimes, you have something in your mind, and I even think this went beyond ‘pleased.’ I did it because I loved the play and I loved the director. I like the character, too. She’s someone I deeply recognize — one of the many strong, accomplished women in New York City still on their own.”

Irons, who won a Tony his only previous time on Broadway (in Tom Stoppards The Real Thing in 1984), seemed instantly at home again. “Oh, it’s wonderful to be back,” he declared. “New York audiences are very appreciative. They tell you whether they like you or not, and they seem to be liking this, which is good.”

Andre De Shields, a song-and-dance man (The Full Monty, Ain’t Misbehavin’) who has developed some serious acting chops (Prymate, Cato), here takes on two disparate characters — an African native named for the sweet potatoes he totes, and a Manhattan baker who plays a kind of head-clearing Polonius to his favorite client.

He won the evening’s only exit-applause as the latter. When someone asked him if he heard it off-stage, De Shields demurred, “I’m trying to focus on the characters.” Although the characters occupy different worlds and cultures, De Shields sees them as one: “From my perspective, they are the same spirit. Chiambuane in Tanzania serves as a spiritual enabler for Thomas, the character played by Jeremy Irons, and then Mr. Linder serves as a spiritual enabler for Katharine, the character played by Joan Allen, in New York. So imagine a time previous to now and a time in the future. His spirit will spiritually enable whoever is in trouble, to liberate their hearts. So I think of it as an ageless specter — that’s the way the character came to me — so I help Thomas in Africa, so I help Katharine in New York, so I help Harry in Sardi’s.”

He was quite dry-eyed about the current, shortened state of Impressionism: “The only thing we lost was an intermission. When you remove 15 minutes, things change. You have to call the designers back in and set up the equipment again because in art, as in life, you change one thing and it affects everything else. When we were intending to open on March 12 — I mean, we were ready to open — what we discovered, with the two acts, is that we were giving the audience an opportunity to second-guess what was going to happen in Act II when indeed we tied it all up in a nice little bow. So, why even give them a chance to have the wrong impression?” Aaron Lazar, another musical-theatre specialist (blasts at the barricade, a specialty), changes his tune here to no tune to play an altar-bound young romantic.

Why? you may rightly ask. “The play, the cast, and then Jack O’Brien. It was great fun. It was — the most — fun. It’s one of the best ensembles I’ve ever worked with.”

The two other customers of the gallery are in a considerably higher tax bracket and are played by Michael T. Weiss, in his Broadway bow, and by Marsha Mason.

Weiss already likes the sound of “Broadway actor,” he admitted. “I kinda love that. It has been a long time. I started out in theatre here and then got sucked into the Los Angeles film-and-television world. I’m so happy to be doing this now. It’s my favorite thing to do. I just needed a role in New York that I really adored.”

The role in question is a ridiculously rich art collector, and Weiss plays the part in a rather lighthearted vein. “He’s a very wealthy guy, but he has a good time with his money. Why not? Right? If I were worth $100 million, I’d be in a good mood.”

Mason’s character becomes a grandmother during the course of the play, prompting her to up her ante for a painting Allen personally identifies with. “She goes through a nice little arc,” said Mason, who’s a frequent date and actress of O’Brien’s. “This is our sixth project together. We go all the way back to the mid-’70s in San Francisco at A.C.T., and then in L.A. we did Mary Stuart and The Heiress, and then Jack directed The Good Doctor for PBS, and then I did Twelfth Night at the Old Globe in San Diego.”

First-night family gatherings included Lily Rabe and her mother, Jill Clayburgh, and her brother, Michael Rabe — as well as Liz Callaway and her husband, director Dan Foster, and her sister, pianist-composer-chanteuse Ann Hampton Callaway. The latter, of course, was ever-ready to improvise a song about the show. Also: “I’m going to do a benefit for the Jewish Alliance for a New World on my sister’s birthday, April 13 — she won’t be there, but we’ll be going getting drunk afterward — and I’ll be at Carnegie Hall for the centennial Johnny Mercer tribute. I forget the date of that.”

Other friends of the court: Sadie Friedman (Allen’s gorgeous daughter who’s thinking of taking up the family trade), Kenneth Welsh (who lost both Christine Baranski and Glenn Close to Irons in the original Mike Nichols production of The Real Thing) and Bob Balaban (who in December directed Irons and Allen in their first team-effort, a Lifetime film called, and about, “Georgia O’Keefe,” airing this fall).

Also: Karen Ziemba (back from rave reviews in San Diego for playing it straight: Stockard Channing’s role in Six Degrees of Separation), Blythe Danner (about to follow up “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers” with “Little Fockers”), radio’s Joan Hamberg (whose screenwriter-son, John, created the Fockers), Elaine Stritch, chef Rocco DiSpirito, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, Isiah Whitlock Jr. (who’s going to reprise Beau Willimon’s Farragut North on the West Coast with the original Atlantic Theatre Company cast, sans John Gallagher Jr., who’s working on a musical with Green Day), Donna Murphy and Shawn Elliott, lawyer Mark Sendroff, John Lithgow, singer Christine Andreas, comedienne Nancy Opel (taking a night off her hilarious explosions in The Toxic Avenger that pounces on New World Stages April 6), Penny Fuller (still Dividing the Estate at Hartford Stage, between May and early July), Anne Kaufman Schneider and director Joseph Hardy.