F. Murray Abraham, Blythe Danner, Susan Stroman among inductees to Theatre Hall of Fame in NYC
May 5, 2015 6:56 PM
Theater Hall of Fame member playwright Terrence McNally with Hall inductee F. Murray Abraham at the post-ceremony dinner and party Monday in New York.
Theatre Hall of Fame inductee Frank Rich, left, the former New York Times theater critic, and Post-Gazette senior theater critic Christopher Rawson at the Gershwin Theatre in New York City.
Alfred Uhry, Susan Stroman and Marshall W. Mason, 2014 inductees in the Theater Hall of Fame in New York's Gershwin Theatre on May 4, 2015.
By Christopher Rawson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NEW YORK – Producer Rocco Landesman presented former New York Times critic Frank Rich with a meat cleaver. Designer John Lee Beatty complimented director Marshall W. Mason for having the ability, apparently rare among directors, “to read, understand and even use a ground plan!”
And a luminous Susan Stroman, multi-Tony’d director and choreographer, thanked everyone who’d given her a leg up along the way, because, she said, “we know no matter how much we love the theater, it can still take you into a back alley and beat the [expletive] out of you.”
Monday night’s intimate audience of about 125 theater veterans, families and friends howled at that. They were celebrating the 44th annual inductions into the Theatre Hall of Fame in the south rotunda of the Gershwin Theatre, where (along with the north rotunda) the names of more than 400 members adorn the walls in raised gold letters.
Eight veterans were inducted: actors F. Murray Abraham, Blythe Danner and Alvin Epstein; directors Mr. Mason and Ms. Stroman; playwright Alfred Uhry; producer Philip J. Smith; and a rarity, a critic, Mr. Rich. This was the Hall class of 2014, elected last fall and set to be inducted in January, when a blizzard postponed the ceremony. Notwithstanding that “the show must go on,” everyone agreed this was a pleasanter time.
The Hall of Fame electorate is made up of members of the Hall of Fame and of the American Theatre Critics Association and the whole complicated event is put together by Hall producer Terry Hodge Taylor. The emcee was Pia Lindstrom, best known as a TV anchor woman and theater critic, who introduced a theater person chosen to present each inductee, usually with selected credits and an anecdote or three. First up was Dana Ivey to induct playwright Alfred Uhry, 78 (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Last Night of Ballyhoo”). She thanked him for writing her greatest roles, noting that he is the only playwright to have won two Tonys, an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize.
Mr. Uhry thanked her “for being my muse and giving good advice.” He remembered a fan who once gushed, “this play is better than Chekhov,” along with more over-the-top praise. “A couple of times I’ve even been praised for plays I didn’t write,” he said. But rather than argue with such fulsome praise, Ms. Ivey simply advised him, “we always say, ‘thank you.’”
More modestly, Mr. Uhry noted he had the only U-surname in the Hall of Fame, and that he was probably the only playwright “to have two Broadway shows close in one night.” Concluding, he remembered “what Dana taught me: ‘Thank you.’”
Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club and herself inducted last year, presented Ms. Danner, who she says is “adored by every actor, director, stage hand, box office worker . . . she’s worked with. She is generous, gifted, beautiful, blissfully funny and committed to her craft.”
She went on to praise her string of classic roles – “Nina, Blanche, Masha, Candida” – along with her Emma in “Betrayal.” “Blythe, I know this [praise] is hard for you. Now we’ll be near each other on this wall.”
After such praise, Ms. Danner, 72, said, “I’m just going to say goodbye!” This is her 50th year since she earned her Equity card, a good time to be honored. “I’m in my 70s and getting the best roles I’ve ever had.” She confessed she was embarrassed that she felt “more alive on stage than in real life,” until she recently heard Maggie Smith said the same thing.
To induct Mr. Mason, 74, Mr. Beatty began, “I’m a designer and we only have big paper,” and opened a huge sheet filled with praise of the artistic director, director and co-founder of Circle Rep, an off-Broadway company “that changed the nature of the American theater,” pioneering collaborative theater processes that are now taken for granted.
“I’m so grateful that this honor is not bestowed posthumously,” began Mr. Mason. It’s a “reward for a lifetime of doing what I love.” He cited many mentors, influences and idols, starting with “my artistic hero, Elia Kazan,” and especially his long collaboration with playwright Lanford Wilson, “the longest such in the American theater.”
With a broad grin, Mr. Landesman said he wanted to give Mr. Rich, 65, “something more personal” than his Hall of Fame medal, and opened a large portfolio to pull out a polished meat cleaver, engraved simply, “In commemoration, 1980-1993,” the years Mr. Rich served as the so-called “butcher of Broadway” as chief theater critic of the Times.
Is there anyone here who has not been angered by a Rich review?, he asked. “But we have to admit he got most of them right.” Even though “we felt mortally wounded,” it was so long ago, it would be “petty, vindictive and small-minded” to complain, “so I’m not going to do it. . . . But really Frank: ‘Into the Woods’? ‘Big River’? ‘The Secret Garden’?”
Himself a Yale Ph.D. in theater, Mr. Landesman said there are two kinds of critics: “overnight reviewers” who respond quickly, issuing opinions “like traffic cops in Times Square – ‘go to this one, don’t go to that one’”; and “the great critics, who wrote at their leisure,” citing Shaw, Tynan, Brustein and others.
“Those were two different things until Frank Rich showed he could meld them. . . . Speaking I hope on behalf of all of us, here are three words I thought I’d never say about any critic anywhere: ‘we miss him.’”
“I’m incredibly honored,” Mr. Rich said, revealing the well-known secret that “most critics do love the theater.” He began as a kid, he said, just wanting “to tell everyone I know to go see a play.” He then went on to show the critic in graceful action, describing each of the other seven inductees with a nugget of well-chosen praise.
As everyone applauded, Ms. Lindstrom returned to the podium and said, “Frank, you left the cleaver,” holding it out for him to come get it.
Actress Cherry Jones was there to induct Mr. Epstein, 89, still acting but unable to attend because of a back problem. As a young actor with the American Repertory Theatre in the 1980s, she said, she and others “knew never to take our eyes” off him, “knowing how privileged we were to be learning from a masterful artist and an exceptional gentleman down to his beautifully trained toes.”
That life led him to study dance with Martha Graham and mime in Paris alongside Marcel Marceau. He played the Fool opposite Orson Welles’ King Lear and was Lucky in the Broadway premiere of “Waiting for Godot.” And as a 20 year old WWll Army veteran, he returned from Germany, with “a piece of . . . Adolph Hitler's toilet, which his stepmother promptly tossed.”
She continued, “from personal experience I know that watching Alvin eat a lobster seems the perfect metaphor for his relationship to his art. Alvin cracks into it with the precision of a surgeon, throws himself into the enjoyment of the meat with abandon, and then, showing respect for that which feeds him, meticulously reassembles the shell.”
Mr. Epstein sent his regrets, with a promise he would “raise a celebratory glass at around 9:30 p.m. and throw a little party of my own in the wilds of Massachusetts. Missing you all and the pastoral calm of Times Square.”
To induct Ms. Stroman, 60, Andre Bishop, producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theatre, told us everyone called her “Stro” and asked, “who is this Stro person who came tap-dancing into our lives in the 1980s?” Mentioning her six Tonys as director and choreographer (“The Producers,” “Crazy for You,” etc.), he said she has the “warm and witty touch of a great artist, with that rarest of theatrical gifts, what critic John Lahr called, ‘the ability to manufacture joy.’”
Looking at the walls of names in gold, Ms. Stroman reminisced about the times she’d worked in the Gershwin Theatre, before “Wicked” settled in for what bids fair to be an eternal run. Working on “Show Boat” and Oklahoma!,” she would come out and marvel at all the hallowed names, “like during the auction scene in ‘Oklahoma!’, which was very long,” she said with a wry smile.
She thanked the producers and artistic directors who were willing to hire a woman director, back when it was rarely done. “My mom and dad told me there were no people like show people, and they were right.”
Director Brian Kulick, a CMU grad, introduced F. Murray Abraham, 74 (born in Pittsburgh; privately, he sent best wishes to Ted Pappas) with a list of his dazzling credits, both stage and film, but praised him especially as a member of the audience. He told two stories of Abraham’s apprehending backstage intruders, in one case still getting back just in time for his entrance.
Mr. Abraham cited three mentors especially: “Terrence McNally, Joe Papp and Ellen Stewart . . . and my high school teacher from El Paso, Texas, who took me out of the gangs.”
“This is not a retirement party,” he insisted. “Can you imagine Alvin Epstein retiring? He may not be here right now, but you just offer him a job!” In conclusion, he said, “theater is a communal search for the truth.”
Last to be inducted was Mr. Smith, chairman of the Shubert Organization -- fittingly so, since producers often have the last word. “Tonight the role of Bernadette Peters will be played by Robert Wankel,” said Mr. Wankel, Shubert president, pinch-hitting for Ms. Peters as Mr. Smith’s inductor.
“I would walk through a major snowstorm for Phil Smith,” her message read, “and on Jan. 26 I was dressed up and putting on my snowshoes to do just that,” when the Hall of Fame ceremony had to be cancelled. Now she’s filming in Chicago, so she sent warm congratulations.
Speaking from a wheelchair, an otherwise robust Mr. Smith said simply, “I am a lucky man. I have a job I love and a beautiful, loving family. Who could ask for anything more?”
Post-Gazette senior theater critic Christopher Rawson serves on the Hall of Fame executive committee and supervises the election process; he is at 412-216-1944.
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