Mary Jane

I saw Carrie Coon in a play today, Mary Jane, which is in previews at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village. It's about a single mother caring for her chronically ill son, surrounded by female nurses and doctors and Buddhist hospital chaplains and mothers in similar circumstances (all of the actresses but Coon played multiple roles; there were no men onstage). The character was very much like Nora Durst—who along with Laura Roslin was the greatest TV hero that ever was—which is to say a no-bullshit, take-charge seeker of answers who finds nothing but more questions yet refuses to let go. From now on I'll know them as "Carrie Coon types," whose animating forces are tenacity and fearlessness and hope. 

Donna Murphy in Hello, Dolly!

I don't use the word "blessed" very often (or ever) because I find it silly, but there are times when it's all that fits. I've been blessed that my life in New York has been filled with so many performances by so many performers I used to—once upon a time—only dream of seeing live on stage. If I'm honest, they are probably the reason I wanted to live here in the first place, and if in the decade since they have proved not enough to get me to stay forever, that's due to a slow but steady shift in my own priorities over the last few years. They have been endlessly giving and I have been endlessly rewarded. They are everything I wanted them to be.

The line for Hello, Dolly! stretches long into Shubert Alley, and on certain nights there is some grousing along the way from out-of-towners who for some reason did not realize that purchasing or holding a ticket labeled


means they will not, in fact, be seeing Bette Midler. I'd like to tell them how lucky they are to see Donna Murphy do anything, but if you're not a person who recognizes this already, I'm not sure you could understand—unless you stay and see the show.

Donna Murphy is one of those stage legends, a two-time Tony winner and consummate theatrical pro who excels in both comedy and drama (she won for Passion and The King and I), that Hollywood has no earthly idea what to do with. You have to see her perform live, and to see her perform in Hello, Dolly!—an across-the-board stellar production of a dated but thoroughly delightful show—is a gift and a small miracle and yes, okay, a blessing, She is sharp and funny and wise and never less than true, drawing every joyous belt and wink and mug from her copious carpet bag of tricks and gleefully sending them all up to the rafters to you, in the audience, who are seeing what it actually means to be a star. 

+ I can find no YouTube evidence of her performance yet, but here she is recreating a number from Anyone Can Whistle, in which she played the devious Mayoress, Cora Hoover Hooper, at (where else) Encores! way back in 2010. Lord, was that something. I was so lucky!

+ this mean, delicious bit from Follies, at Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday celebration at Lincoln Center, also in 2010:

Dear Elizabeth @ Women’s Project Theater

There was a line late in the second act of Dear Elizabeth, where Elizabeth Bishop, played by Cherry Jones, writes in a letter to Robert Lowell, by way of expressing concern over his recent health troubles, that she is praying for him: “Praying,” she then explains, “meaning ‘the intensity of hoping.’ ”

Well. WELL. I printed that line on the inside of my eyelids, pressed it with one finger into the palm of my left hand, sketched it over and over in my head while I tried to keep up with the play. When the curtain fell (there was no curtain), I pulled my ratty wrinkled notebook out of my bag to scribble it down on paper, and I still may not have it right. It’s close, though. The intensity of hoping.

The Women’s Project Theater is in residence at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre on Broadway at 76th Street. It’s a wee, comfortable space on the fourth floor of a nondescript building whose first floor looks mostly abandoned. There were signs outside but still, I was confused. The box office inside was boarded up. Could this be right? Ever the lemming, I followed a couple of Upper West Side Types onto an elevator—Upper West Side Types being sure of their instincts and secure in their place in the world—along with David Aaron Baker, who played Robert Lowell. There’s something magical in this, something so deliciously small-world and New York-y about an actor strolling in off the street and taking the lift right up to the theater along with the audience. (When SarahB and I saw Flyovers at a similar spot on a similar street a couple of years ago, we squeezed past Richard Kind and Michele Pawk on our way out the door approximately ninety seconds after watching them take their bows.) 

This play, though: Dear Elizabeth, created by Sarah Ruhl and drawn from decades of correspondence between Bishop and Lowell—nothing but two actors sitting at desks placed side by side, a small gulf between them as they read aloud their own letters and poems to each other, meeting occasionally at retreats or conferences or vacation homes, shaking hands, hugging, dancing, as their words fly back and forth. It isn’t a sweet story, there’s alcoholism and madness, divorce and suicide, professional jealousies and personal slights. Long absences, death. But it’s the portrait of a friendship as the best possible love, the most abiding romance. At the end, an unseen stage manager offers a spoken coda while the actors stand silently together, leaning against one desk and holding hands—each poet cherishing the simple fact that the other exists in the world—as a cascade of hundreds of letters falls gently onto the stage from above. And then there was me, poor me, crying all the way home.