Saturday, August 23, 2008

Happy birthday Marian Seldes!

Thanks to Sarah at Adventures in the Endless Pursuit of Entertainment, I know that Marian Seldes turns 80 today. (Sarah's created a great photo montage of Seldes' career and her lengthy list of stage credits.) Of course, I can't let the day go by without paying my own tribute to this legendary and gracious actress.

Before I made my first trip to Broadway last year, I was vaguely familiar with her name. I knew that her father, Gilbert Seldes, had been a famous literary critic and Kevin Spacey had mentioned in an interview that she was one of his teachers at Juilliard. But when I decided to see Deuce, I was much more excited about Angela Lansbury, who was making her return to Broadway after an absence of 25 years.

I know a lot of people felt that Terrence McNally's Deuce was sort of thin as a play, but I have to disagree. I enjoyed it so much that I wish it had lasted twice as long as its 90-minute running time. I was enthralled the entire time listening to Seldes' and Lansbury's characters, former tennis professionals who hadn't seen each other in decades.

Granted, there isn't much action. At one point, each of them stands up. But they're mostly just sitting in chairs, in a stadium, reacting to imaginary tennis balls whizzing back and forth as they watch a match at the U.S. Open. Occasionally, the play-by-play announcers chime in and an adoring fan stops by.

But most of the play is simply the two women - former doubles partners - sitting and talking, reminiscing about their lives. And I think that's what made it memorable for me. It's so basic - two people telling a story in front of an audience. It's the world they create with their words that's important, not car chases or special effects. And it's probably one of the most difficult acting jobs because all you have is language, in all of its nuances.

I felt so privileged to be in the company of these two great actresses. I was immediately caught up in their characters. It could easily have ventured into Grumpy Old Men territory and been completely jokey, but it didn't. It was sweet and funny. I liked hearing them talk about the old days, about how things had changed for women, for female athletes, about their hopes and disappointments.

I saw the play on a chilly April evening, and of course I waited at the stage door afterward. Despite the cold, both women were incredibly gracious and accommodating to the crowd that was waiting for them. They signed Playbills and Seldes went down the line, talking to people. They are troupers in every sense of the word.

While Lansbury signed her name in bold strokes, I was especially struck by the fact that Seldes, such a strong figure on stage, has such tiny, delicate handwriting. She signed her name using a blue ballpoint pen and when someone offered her a thick, black marker, she politely declined, saying that she couldn't possibly use it.

Three months later, when I was back in New York, I went to City Center to see Gypsy, and who should come down the aisle, taking a seat almost across from me, but Marian Seldes! I was a little hesitant about approaching her. I mean, yeah, I know you're supposed to leave actors alone when they're on their own time. But what can I say? I'm starstruck! I'm a fangirl!

People kept coming up to her before the show, at intermission, some of them staying way too long in my estimation. The woman barely had a moment to herself. But finally, I saw an opening. I figured, I'll go over for a quick hello and tell her how much I loved Deuce. What could it hurt, right?

I had just listened to a wonderful interview with Seldes on the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center program. So I went over to where she was sitting, bent down, told her how much I'd enjoyed the interview and how much I loved her in Deuce. She smiled so sweetly, thanked me, and told me how much she loved being in Deuce. She started to talk about Gypsy, saying "Isn't it wonderful," and then she nuzzled my cheek. How awesome is that!

What I admire most about Seldes is that she has maintained such a deep commitment to the theatre over the decades and is so passionate and eloquent when she talks about her craft. At the same time, she's so gracious. And talk about a trouper - she was in Deathtrap during its entire Broadway run and never missed a performance in four years. That's 1,793 performances!

So, a very happy 80th birthday to Marian Seldes. Thank-you for a memorable performance on stage and being so welcoming off stage.


Anonymous said...

What a great little story. Love it! And love her. We walked past each other on the Columbus Circle subway platform once.

Esther said...

Thanks Jeff! Marian Seldes really is the epitome of grace, as well as a true professional. I'm so glad I had a chance to see her on stage and I was so touched, literally and figuratively, by her kindness. She's part of what makes New York theatre special. If you haven't already, you should definitely listen to her Downstage Center interview.

Dale said...

I was going to see Deuce but then didn't (because I'm an idiot). How thrilling for you to have such a great encounter with a great actress!

Esther said...

Well, I wish I could take all the credit but it was Steve on Broadway, my extremely knowledgeable theatre guide, who steered me toward Deuce.

I had an opening for a show on a Monday night during my first trip to Broadway, when there aren't as many options. I was thinking about seeing Coram Boy, mostly because it included a performance of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus on stage, and I thought that sounded very cool! I think Spring Awakening also had a Monday night show that week.

But Steve said Spring Awakening would be around for quite awhile and if I had a chance to see Deuce, I should definitely grab it, that I shouldn't pass up a chance to see two living legends. Of course he was right! A few months later I did have a chance to see Spring Awakening with nearly all the original cast, so it all worked out.

Alas, I missed Coram Boy, but you can't see everything. I wish I could!