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Rediscovering S.N. Behrman

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“Project Runway” veteran Chris March celebrated the publication of his book “I Heart Chris March” at Greenhouse (January 24). It was a fun party which segued into Suzanne Bartsch’s soiree that brought out those tireless drags, twinks, and club vets, sparked by Dan Fortune’s classy DJ stylings, which were lively and actually enhanced conversation.

Joey Arias and Basil Twist told me they’re doing a new show that they’re previewing in Germany.

March was thrilled to design Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe gown: “I knew her hair/ makeup team and they made the intro. She’s the nicest, most down-to-earth person, who hates to shop, so we whipped this up out of some heavy silk that was almost like a brocade, and I belted it for freshness. We had a ball playing with accessories for it.

March modes, jocular John-Boy, la divina Plimpton, Encores’ “Fanny”

ìWe all complained non-stop about being on ‘Project Runway’ –– the lack of privacy, the bad food, etc. But they told us, after this you will be famous, guaranteed. And guess what? It’s true. My blog received a million hits in one day, and right now I’m developing two reality shows.î

Richard Thomas, at the unveiling of his portrait at Tony’s DiNapoli (January 19), ebulliently told me, “This character I play in ‘Race’ I see as a king, this master of the universe, who just sits there, while everyone else goes crazy around him.” Anna Wintour evidently went backstage and gave him a note that his Hugo Boss suit wasn’t rich-looking enough; he now wears Prada.

Thomas revisited his career with me, starting with the film “Last Summer,” which had an often literally seminal effect on anyone who saw it in adolescence: “We were the first to get an X-rating. I said ‘fuck’ in it and it was all filmed on Fire Island. I’m glad you were one of the few who saw ‘Tiny Alice.’ Irene Worth, who was in the original production, told me that she wished she had seen us then, so she would have known what that play was about. I knew [her co-star] John Gielgud through Roddy McDowall, and he told me that wonderful story about being intimidated in the scene where she reveals herself nude to him, until he thought, ‘Oh, it’s only dear old Irene!’

“Roddy threw the best parties –– a dear friend –– you’d meet everyone there, from Garbo to Mae West. I loved playing Leonard Bernstein in Terence McNally’s ‘The Stendahl Syndrome.’ I want to revive it; it was so outrageous, after every performance I felt like asking the entire audience if they needed a cigarette.”

Thomas’ 13-year-old son, Montana, is bent on becoming a fashion designer, and evidently already has real talent, according to fashionista Carmela Spinelli, also present, who set up a lunch with the Thomases and “Project Runway”’s Tim Gunn.

Also seriously raving about Gunn was Tony Randall’s widow, Heather, who said she’s busy raising their two kids and had to end his theater company as, without him as a figurehead, it was too hard to continue.

“Is there a more talented woman on the planet than Martha Plimpton?” was the thought that crossed my mind during her January 16 Lincoln Center American Songbook concert. She delivered one of the most sheerly entertaining, eclectic performances I’ve ever seen, evoking Bette Midler in her early, more audacious and witty days.

Plimpton’s long been one of our best actresses and additionally proved herself a mistress of cabaret, with incredible range on songs ranging from “By Myself” to a gorgeous cover of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” And she’s truly “one of us” –– stylish, smart, and possessed of the ultimate New Yorker’s mordant humor, making her patter every bit as delightful as her songs.

She reminisced about her Harlem upbringing and nostalgically recalled a more relatable Manhattan, when you could be stabbed in the streets, the entire Lincoln Center area smelled like urine, and we were deprived of the “soulful benefits” of Whole Foods. She remembered trying out for class president with an innocently sincere speech that, disconcertingly, provoked laughter from a black classmate (who won the election) and, more discouragingly, her Chinese teacher. She got her own back when said classmate was later stabbed at an airport and, “as for Mrs. Yu, [in a hissed whisper] cancer!”

Her parents, Keith Carradine and Shelley Plimpton, met when doing the original “Hair,” and the score has always been special to her, especially one song that had such an effect upon her that, recently, hearing it while driving, she had to pull over and collect herself.

At Lincoln Center, she also sang “Colored Spade.” Such whimsy may not have been to the taste of everyone present, but I, for one, treasure the moment during her encore when, watching an elderly front row couple get up and leave, she smilingly said, “That’s okay –– they’re tired!”

Someone cast her and Sean McNall in what could be the most succulent revival of “Private Lives” pronto!

Coming up at American Songbook (lincolncenter.org): Dee Dee Bridgewater (February 17), Nellie McKay (February 18), Leslie Uggams (February 20), Rebecca Luker (March 2), and Chita Rivera (March 6).

Encores! is reviving “Fanny” (February 4-7; nycitycenter.org), composed by Harold Rome, with George Hearn, Fred Applegate, David Patrick Kelly, Priscilla Lopez, Michael McCormick, Elena Shaddow and James Snyder. Based on Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy, it has a book by Joshua Logan and S.N. Behrman, a great American playwright in dire need of consideration when, season after season, we’re subjected to endless revivals of the big three –– Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller.

Especially after seeing the well-acted but quite unnecessary new production of Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” with its two-ton imagining of a Red Hook anecdote as Greek tragedy, I feel the wit and elegance of Behrman’s writing is needed now more than ever. Although known for drawing room comedy, he was able to address weighty subjects such as female emancipation (in his wonderful “Biography”) and the artist’s eternal quest for seriousness (“No Time for Comedy”) in a graceful, entertaining manner, without bludgeoning his audience with didacticism.

His son, David Behrman, remembered him as “a wonderful father –– there were many days when he made us laugh so much that my tooth muscles hurt. I was his only child –– he married relatively late in life –– and he was very attentive to me.”

The executor of his father’s estate, David also wishes more productions of Behrman’s work would be done, but “he’s all but forgotten today. His plays are difficult to put on; they require a style of acting that’s rare these days, although the Pearl Company did a wonderful revival of ‘Biography.’

“My half-sister, Barbara Gelb, and her husband, Arthur, became friends with this radiologist in St. Louis, Harley Hammerman, who has created a website devoted to S.N.B (www.snbehrman.com). Our goal is eventually to put up the entire versions of all of his plays, as they’re out of print and I think of the web as a global public library. So, hopefully, it will have an effect.”

It’s quite a family, as Arthur Gelb was the New York Times’ managing editor and his son, Peter, now runs the Metropolitan Opera. David’s uncle on his mother’s side was violinist Jascha Heifetz: “But, when you’re a child, you take everything for granted, everything seems ordinary, like growing up at 88th and Madison. My dad would have been pleased if I had been a writer, but it didn’t work out. Having such a father is a little bit daunting, an advantage and a disadvanta­ge.”

David became a musician and composer, often working with Merce Cunningham (“a real gentleman, kind and simple, humorous and informal, without a trace of self-importance or ego”) and offered some memories of “Fanny.”

“I was 17 at the time, and there was this extravagantly overproduced ballet with a belly dancer, which had absolutely nothing to do with the script,” he said. “During that scene, the back of the theater would always fill up with Times Square policemen, who would dismount, tie up their horses, and come in to stand at the back and watch the belly dancer, and then go back to the street.

“When he had plays running, my father had a grip on the timing and would like to go see his favorite scenes, which were always the ones which had laughs. We’d go down in a cab together and walk into the back. My father had loved the three French movies they’d made of Pagnol’s trilogy, which inspired him, and one night we went to his ‘Fanny’ but didn’t have tickets, and Joshua Logan, a physically enormous man with huge energy, swept us past the usher, saying ‘This is the author,’ and, pointing to me, ‘The two of us are Joshua Logan.’

“Logan originally wanted Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin to repeat their ‘South Pacific’ success with this show, but Martin didn’t make it. Producer David Merrick invented the ‘twofer’ ticket for ‘Fanny,’ and it saved the show when ticket sales were lagging.”

S.N. was a heavy smoker, but not a drinker, unlike many of his contemporaries, and, according to his son, “was very up and down, describing himself as being on the edge of manic depression, which is true of a lot of artists. He was a great raconteur, and at parties would tell stories and hold everybody’s attention, but there was a lot of anxiety under that public persona.

“But he was very lucky –– when his playwriting went out of fashion, the New Yorker was a great ally. He was close with its editor, William Shawn, and tremendously grateful to him for publishing his pieces. He did the book ‘Duveen,’ which was quite successful, had a second career as a prose writer, and I think he accepted that and didn’t miss playwriting, as the stuff of the new breed –– Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams –– didn’t interest him.

“It’s funny to look back on it, but although my father was proud to be Jewish, we never went to synagogue, had Christmas with the tree and presents, and I didn’t have a bar mitzvah. We were culturally Jewish but not religious, and later in life he said he regretted that, would have liked to have had more Jewish ritual.

“There is, however, his play ‘The Cold Wind and the Warm,’ a dramatization of his Worcester, Massachusetts, childhood, growing up in a tenement, which is really different from his other plays set in elegant drawing rooms. I think it’s a very good play, although a plot was never his strong point and the third act gets a little bit unbelievable to me.”

Behrman also had an illustrious Hollywood career, writing the Vivien Leigh “Waterloo Bridge,” and Garbo vehicles, notably the one that supposedly “killed” her career, “Two-Faced Woman,” which in fact contains much delightful high comedy. His great stage icons were the Lunts, who, David recounted, were “something of a problem, very domineering. He was almost in a subservient position because they were the stars, and his work for them was sometimes called vehicles. There was a plan that Kurt Weill would do the music for ‘The Pirate,’ but that was nixed by the Lunts because they thought he was too wonderful a composer and would take attention from them.”

Ina Claire, whose legendary comic technique should be taught in drama schools via her extant films, had a huge success in “Biography” and once told Behrman during rehearsals when he was momentarily stuck, “Now, Sam, this part is me, so what do I do now?”

“I think he had something of a crush on her,” David said. “Her picture always stood on the piano in our house, and I have both of them in mine now.”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com and check out his new blog at http://nohway.wordpress.com/.

Updated 8:15 pm, August 29, 2018
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