Category: Archive

Broadway, Here I Come!

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

As Grainne Fitzmaurice, the last of the nine characters to appear in Brian Friel’s eloquent and deeply moving new play, "Give Me Your Answer, Do!", actress Helen Carey sweeps onto the stage of the Gramercy Theatre in a blaze of blazing color and vibrantly palpable life, wearing bright, expensive-looking clothes, carrying an extravagant bouquet of flowers, and topping it all off with an enormous black hat.

Grainne is the wife of a successful popular novelist who has recently come into some unexpected money, and she is not exactly averse to showing it off a bit. After all, she and her husband, Garret, have been invited to the Donegal home of another, less successful, writer, and, having driven a couple of hours, the couple is in the mood for a party.

The glowing articulate Carey, one of the most seasoned actresses in the American theater, but still not an especially familiar name to New York audiences, has a role that suits her admirably, as she is well aware. She delivers a vivid performance that lifts the entire production with a bounce that wards off the somber tone that sometimes seems to be hovering threateningly over the proceedings, which concern a cluster of interrelated Irish men and women who are, to one degree or another, depressed.

Carey’s striking effect on the play’s action might be compared to what happens when a crucifix is thrust in the face of a vampire.

The actress’s credits in the Roundabout Theatre Company program include participation in plays ranging from works by Lorca and Shakespeare to Thornton Wilder and Anton Chekhov, with stops along the way for Jean Anouihl, Joe Orton, and Oscar Wilde, not to mention George Bernard Shaw. And the list isn’t complete, being limited by restrictions imposed by the Playbill publishers.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

It wasn’t until three seasons ago, with Roundabout’s production of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s "London Assurance," that the actress made what could be called her official New York debut, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award.

After a recent matinee performance, Helen Carey sat in her dressing room at the Gramercy Theatre and, curled up in a comfortable easy chair, explained certain unusual aspects of her career, and her feelings about the great role with which Brian Friel, in the course of his 70th year, provided her.

"I say that the Roundabout’s production of ‘London Assurance’ was the first time I worked in New York," she said, "but that’s not strictly true. A long, long time ago, in the late 1960s, I was with the Guthrie Theatre, and they brought ‘The House of Atreus’ to New York on tour and then to California, along with Brecht’s ‘Arturo Ui.’ I was one of the legion of company members who appeared in ‘The House of Atreus,’ wearing masks."

So the first time New York audiences actually saw Helen Carey’s shining and animated face was when she played that Boucicault heroine on the main stage at Roundabout’s old base on Broadway at 45th Street, the home the organization has only recently left.

A life abroad

Carey has a valid reason for having stayed clear of the ups and downs of the New York theater, and it has nothing whatever to do with fear.

"I’m married to a diplomat," she said, "and we have two children. They’re now in their 20s, but when they were smaller, we tried hard to give them a stable life. My husband is retired now, but when he was in the Foreign Service, we lived in Washington, but we often found ourselves posted overseas, which meant putting the children in school in a variety of places."

One of those places was Yugoslavia, and Carey greeted a visitor in what sounded like perfectly comfortable Serbian. Switching back into English, she quickly clarified her situation.

"For about 15 years," she said, "it was two years overseas, and then two years back home, and then two years away again. That meant putting the children in Foreign Service Schools and so forth. When you’ve got a house and a mortgage and schools in one city, it’s prohibitive even to think of coming to New York unless you’re on Broadway at a Broadway salary."

Carey did find places to work easily enough without confronting Manhattan. "There was the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and there was the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario," she said, "in addition to which I found good work in Washington. I found really wonderful stuff, and superb directors in those places, limited runs in great roles, which made it possible to work around the needs of my family."

Desmond Healey, the great stage and costume designer, and until he retired recently a mainstay at the Guthrie, considers Carey "the best actress in America," and director Joe Dowling, when he took over the celebrated Minneapolis theater, hired the actress to star in his first production, Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard," with Healey designing.

Carey’s resume is so rich with the theater’s great classic roles that people tend to think she must be British, and have spent her professional life in one of the great London companies.

She is, in fact, an Irish American from Boston, one of four children of a lawyer, Paul Carey, who doubled as a drummer in bands that played for Fuzzy Knight and Jerry Colonna. "There was always music in our house," she said.

Carey knows she put her career on the back burner for a time because of the work in which her husband, Peter Raudenbush, was involved, but she in no way regrets it, other than sometimes wishing New York had happened for her a bit earlier.

"Before we met," she said, "I’d worked a lot at the Guthrie and at Stratford, and when we decided to marry, we put family first and foremost."

When the Raudenbush children grew into their middle teens, their mother began to feel she could take jobs that would take her away from Washington for various periods of time, which explains the ongoing work at the Guthrie and at Stratford.

"I have to say that when I finally came to New York, it was because of Joe Dowling," she said. "We’d done a number of plays in Washington, and when he signed to do ‘London Assurance,’ he asked for me. I know they wanted a weightier name for the part, but Joe said, ‘No, I want Helen,’ and he stuck to his guns. I’m eternally grateful to him for being so strong-minded about it."

Tony nomination

The last thing Carey expected from the Boucicault play, in which she played opposite Brian Bedford, was a Tony nomination.

"I was completely amazed, totally broadsided," she said. "I was in Washington when I got the call from the producer saying ‘Congratulations!’ I was in Washington that day because I’d gotten two nominations for the Helen Hayes Award."

The Hayes Award is given in Washington, the birthplace of the late star. Carey was nominated in the Hayes supporting category for a production of "Volpone," and in the Best Actress category for playing Margaret in Shakespeare’s "Henry VI." It was, shall we say, not a bad day for the actress.

Carey weighs aspects of her life off against each other and finds she has, to quote a lyric by Irving Berlin "a healthy balance on the credit side."

"I think things worked out the way they needed to work out," she said. "Having New York earlier would have been great, but it didn’t happen that way. What we did do was see a lot of the world that I wouldn’t have seen. We were in Brussels, in Guinea in West Africa, and we were in Paris. We were in Yugoslavia for three years when Tito was still alive. I know for a fact that I’m a better actress for having lived in different cultures and different languages."

Carey doesn’t pretend to be an expert linguist, but she has a good ear, and wherever the family lived, she made an effort to learn.

"I went to the university there for language training when we were in Yugoslavia, for example, and I think I have a fairly good passive understanding of Serbian as a result," she said. "I can understand a lot more of it than I can speak."

When she was in high school, at Newton Country Day School, and living at home in Boston’s Brighton section, she thought she wanted to be a dancer. "Eventually I realized," she said, "that, as a dancer, you have a life as a dancer, but that’s all you have. I was too social."

It was at Marquette University in Milwaukee that her future focus on the theater took form." I studied with John Walsh, who was a brilliant Jesuit and a wonderful department head," she said. "I did Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan’ for him, and I loved it."

Put simply, that’s really all it took. As a senior, she auditioned for a number of regional theaters, including the Guthrie, where she was taken on, at age 21, as a full member of the company. What followed was all that Shaw, all that Shakespeare, and all that Chekhov.

And now, Brian Friel’s "Give Me Your Answer, Do!", in which she plays a colorfully embittered wife whose verbally dexterous unhappiness has been compared to that of Martha, the lacerating heroine of Edward Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

"She’s overwhelming, she’s overpowering, she and her husband are carried away by the newness of the money he’s made as a writer and by selling his papers to a university. They’re impossible, but it’s still a marriage," she said.

And then she added: "Those aren’t my words, they’re Brian Friel’s. I asked him when he was here for the opening, and that’s what he said. They’ll apologize and go right back in for the kill, but they’ll never leave each other. For what it’s worth, it’s still a marriage."

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese