Category: Archive

Irish Rep’s ‘Dear Liar’ showcases the many talents of Marian Seldes

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

Consciously or not, the Irish Repertory Theatre may have established something in the way of a precedent in casting Marian Seldes, the first major performer with no discernible Irish connections to have worked at the little theater on West 22nd Street, as Donal Donnelly’s co-star in their production of Jerome Kilty’s "Dear Liar."

Irish or not, the presence of the veteran actress, who received a Tony nomination last season for her work in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Jean Anouilh’s "Ring Round the Moon," appears to have contributed to the enormous success that "Dear Liar," itself a remounting of a work, that debuted in 1960, became, with sold-out houses almost from the beginning of its highly praised eight-week run.

With two-character play now in its final week, Seldes found time after an evening performance to ponder the year that’s rounding out the century, a year that’s brought her almost unending work, without showing signs of letting up.

Not every actor can tell you, as one successful run approaches its conclusion, what, when and where the next job will be. Seldes is something of an exception. While she was enjoying that Tony-nominated triumph in "Ring Round the Moon," playing the wheelchair-bound dowager Mme. Desmermortes, the offer from the Irish Rep arrived, with "Dear Liar" rehearsals scheduled to begin almost the moment the Anouilh revival called it a run at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre.

In "Dear Liar," the actress is playing a performer, the legendary British stage star Mrs. Patrick Campbell, while Donnelly plays, not for the first time, George Bernard Shaw, re-creating the decades long correspondence in which the pair engaged, much to the annoyance of the playwright’s wife, Charlotte.

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If Shaw’s wife feared that her husband’s epistolary fondness for the aging stage star might threaten her marriage, she probably needn’t have worried at least not in any carnal sense, since Bernard Shaw’s own description of the relationship was probably fairly close to the mark. He and the star were, he wrote, "lustless lions at play."

Seldes’s next local appearance will almost certainly be toward the end of the year, when the gifted collection of mainly young writers, directors and actors that calls itself the Drama Department revived George Kelly’s classic American comedy "The Torchbearers," with Dylan Baker directing.

Seldes’s role will be that of Mrs. Pampinelli, the uproariously self-inflated "drama coach" and "speech expert" who becomes involved in an amateur theatrical production in a small Philadelphia suburban community.

"The Torchbearers" was written in the late 1920s by a man who, in addition to being a successful Broadway playwright, was the uncle of the actress Grace Kelly. It was also one of the few occasions on which Seldes’s late husband, the writer and director Garson Kanin, made a suggestion involving her career.

"He knew the play and the role," she recalled, "and he thought it would be right for me. As usual, I think he was right."

In a sense, the two roles that beckoned Seldes’s witty and moving depiction of Mrs. Patrick Campbell might have attracted the colorful, part-Italian star of the British stage in the early couple of decades of the present century.

The actress whom Shaw found so compelling had conspicuous courage, the most startling example of which might be that she undertook the role of Eliza, the teenaged Cockney flowerseller in "Pygmalion," when she was 49. Even then, it wasn’t the age of the character that gave the actress pause so much as it was a fear that she might not be able to get her lower-class accent right.

In half a century in the theater, Seldes has done virtually everything, including her role as the terrified wife in Ira Wallach’s "Deathtrap," a role that departs from the action at the intermission by becoming a murder victim. The time she spent in her dressing room following her "death" and before her "resurrection," just in time for her curtain call, afforded the strongly disciplined actress, over the course of the thriller’s five-year run, time to write one book and the better part of another.

Other assignments were shorter-lived, including "Annie 2," an ambitious musical sequel that closed out of town not once, but twice, first in Washington and later, in a much rewritten version, at the Goodspeed Opera House’s Norma Terris Theater in East Haddam, Conn.

A sadder experience took place when Seldes played Rifka, Shylock’s sister, in "The Merchant," Arnold Wesker’s rewrite of Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice." The production, in which Seldes played a character not in the original, foundered when Zero Mostel fell ill and died in Philadelphia during the tryout there.

From stage to screen

In this busy year, the actress has managed a string of movies, including Paul Shrader’s "Affliction," and Jan DeBont’s "The Haunting," in which she played the wife of Bruce Dern, with whom she ran a decidedly questionable old mansion in which Liam Neeson conducted rather peculiar experiments into the nature of human sleeplessness.

In addition to those two films, which have more or less come and gone by now, there are a couple of others awaiting release. In one, "Town and Country," Seldes plays the wife of Charlton Heston in support of Warren Beatty and Andie MacDowell. When the actress went on location to play the role, she thought she’d be MacDowell’s mother and Beatty’s mother-in-law. In fact, in the original script, she was, but subsequent rewrites have altered the situation somewhat, to the point where the truth probably won’t be revealed until the movie hits the nation’s screens sometime in the late fall or early winter.

Also in the hopper is "Duets," starring Gwyneth Paltrow and directed by the star’s father, Bruce, a successful Hollywood producer, mainly in television.

Films come and go, but one aspect of her participation in "The Haunting" seems likely to endure in Marian Seldes’s mind.

"It really shocked and moved me that during ‘The Haunting,’ Bruce Dern knew everything about my career," Seldes said. "Usually, when I’m on a set in Hollywood, I’m an utter nonentity, just someone playing a part. And then when Bruce Dern appears, I feel like what I’ve spent my whole life trying to be: a real actress."

If the actress mainly felt anonymous in the movie world, and if there’s been a change for the better in recent days and months, she thinks she knows when the alteration began, and what changed it.

"I think you have to be in a movie that a lot of people see," she said, "and, in my case, that was ‘Home Alone 3.’"

What she’s saying, really, is that movie people think in terms of film, and the stage remains largely a foreign country to them. Her theory is very probably right on the button, because things did seem to change in her favor when she appeared in the last of the "Home Alone" series, the chain of child-oriented movies that made a ranking star, however briefly, of Macaulay Culkin.

A year ago, Seldes made her first appearance in a Woody Allen movie, "Celebrity." "I played a literary agent who chatted with the character played by Kenneth Branagh at a cocktail party," she said.

"Dear Liar" isn’t the first two-character play the actress has ever done. A couple of decades ago, there was a comedy called "Before You Go," in which she shared the stage of the Henry Miller Theater with Eugene Troobnik. She still recalls that theater, which has, over the years, been everything from a disco to a porn-film venue, with fondness. "It was a very wonderful place to work," she said of the 43rd Street location, most recently reborn as the Kit Kat Club, the first home of the current revival of the musical "Cabaret," now transferred to Studio 54.

Seldes also likes the small, bifurcated space that has been the nest into which the Irish Repertory has settled, for the most part comfortably. "It’s the perfect space for ‘Dear Liar,’ " she said. With David Raphel’s subtly divided unit set providing both Shaw’s study and Mrs. Campbell’s sitting room, actors Seldes and Donnelly, guided by director Charlotte Moore, had to decide when, in the course of reading and writing the letters that make up 90 percent of the text, to "see" one another.

"We decided," Seldes said, reflecting on the choice, "that when they were both at home in London, breathing the same air, so to speak, they could look at each other without actually invading one another’s "space." As much as possible, we wanted to treat the material not like an evening of letters, but like a real play, which, of course, it is."

Although the run of "Dear Liar" ends with this Sunday’s matinee, Marian Seldes hopes that day’s matinee won’t mean the conclusion of her relationship with the material. "It’s relatively simple to produce, in terms of overhead and so forth," she said. "Maybe we can bring it back sometime."

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