BY CHARLES PAOLINO, HOME NEWS TRIBUNE
Two experienced actresses whose parents were performers, may have some special insight into their roles in Arthur Laurents' new play, "New Year's Eve."
Marlo Thomas and Natasha Gregson Wagner — one the child of Danny Thomas, the other of Natalie Wood — play mother and daughter, both actresses, in the play that will have its world premiere this week at the George Street Playhouse.
But both actresses feel that the play, while it has a theatrical setting, reflects on experiences that affect people in every walk of life.
The play concerns a complex of relationships — personal and sexual — among six characters: Isabel, a successful stage actress whose career is winding down; Gil, her husband and a leading playwright; Sam, their daughter and a soap-opera star; Justin, Gil's accountant and, openly, his lover; and Mikey, an optometrist and Sam's boyfriend.
Thomas, who caused a sensation at George Street last season with her performance in Elaine May's play "Roger is Dead," was asked by Laurents to play Isabel; Wagner, whose extensive career up to now has been in movies and television, plays Sam.
The rest of the ensemble includes award-winning actors Keith Carradine as Gil and Peter Frechette as Justin, and Walter Belenky as Mikey.
The director is George Street artistic director David Saint.
An important element in this play is Sam's impending transition from a soap opera to the legitimate stage, an event Isabel witnesses after being told by a director that she was "too old" for a role written for her by Gil.
The effect of this moment, Thomas said, is to reveal feelings that have not been clearly articulated in a family that talks around issues more than about them.
"That's a big part of our family," said Wagner, referring to the characters. "They don't ask the questions — I don't think they're big on therapy."
"The mother is dealing with the loss of her powers," Thomas said, "and so, on the face of it, the first reading of it, you might think that she's competitive with the daughter."
In fact, Wagner said, Laurents emphasized at a rehearsal how the relationship appeared on its surface, even to the women engaged in it.
"There are times when it is contentious," Wagner said, "and Arthur wanted it to be more aggressive and — what did he call it? — as if we were in a boxing match.'
"But as you dig deeper into the play," Thomas said, "you realize that she wants to live through this daughter, and she wants this daughter, not just to hold up her banner because it will in some way flatter her or immortalize her — but because she really does love this daughter and wants her to experience the joy of talent."
This play is not all about Isabel and Sam but about layers of relationships among all the characters, one affecting the next, as they do, Thomas said, in the world at large:
"Everybody's dealing with these relationships," she said, " a mother and a daughter, a father and a daughter, a husband and a wife, a daughter coming of age and taking her place, seeing who her parents are in the world — I mean those are things that all families are doing."
Thomas and Wagner said they were impressed by the degree to which the 91-year-old Laurents — who directed the current Broadway revival of his classic "West Side Story" — has developed authentic characters in "New Year's Eve."
"He's so insightful," Thomas said, "on every single relationship, whether it's mother-daughter, or daughter-father, or husband and wife. Whoever it is, he's got an answer for all of it that's very deep. And that's not just because he's the writer, but because he is really psychologically equipped to talk about and think about and develop these kinds of people. That's why the play's so complicated."
The character of Sam is no less complicated than the rest, and Wagner — with a substantial resume of movie and television appearances since the early '90s — is tackling this part as her stage debut.
"I've never done a play," she said. "This is my first foray. I'm excited, I'm grateful to have the opportunity, and I'm very aware of the value of working with these talented people."
Wagner — who has been reading Eva Le Gallienne's 1966 biography of the innovative Italian actress Eleonora Duse — said the impetus for taking to the stage herself was her studies with famed acting coach Larry Moss at his studio in Los Angeles.
"I had been taking classes for three years, working with great playwrights, saying their words, and I realized this was something I wanted to do," Wagner said. "Larry Moss encouraged me to do a play, so he gave me the technique and the confidence to try this."