Mercedes Ruehl portraying sculptor Louise Nevelson in Edward Albee’s Occupant in 2008. Photograph by Richard Termine.
Oscar and Tony and Golden Globe winner Mercedes Ruehl is a revelation as Arnold Beckoff’s Ma in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song in a revival directed by Moises Kaufman and costarring Michael Urie as Arnold, which is currently on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Critic Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, “Mr. Urie and Ms. Ruehl take the show to a level of emotional truthfulness … Ma’s refusal to acknowledge the fact of Arnold’s homosexuality is given full validity in Ms. Ruehl’s uncompromising performance as a woman who avoids the truth by making a joke of it.
“You know exactly where she’s coming from. And it’s that embracing spirit of understanding, grounded in a bedrock of family feeling, that comes to the surface so startlingly and movingly in this Torch Song.
“Like the 2011 Broadway revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, a later play about gay men that once seemed stuck in the past, Mr. Kaufman’s stirring production propels an ostensible period piece into a vibrant present. Emotions as strong as those brought to the surface here, you realize, never go out of date.”
A vibrant presence herself, Ruehl is irreverent and rather rowdy yet the most deeply serious of artists, an unruly lady unafraid to follow the rules when following them is the more challenging choice. She shares with us here some personal revelations about her decision not to have an abortion when she was unwed and pregnant at the age of 23 and why she put her son up for adoption not only because of her deeply Catholic FBI agent father, but also the sage advice from a friend. Don’t worry. She’s funny, too, this gloriously talented actress who has reached the Down-to-Earth Mother phase of her career. She is magnificent and rather monstrous in Torch Song. But she’s lovely and deeply likable in real-life. As Ma would say, she’s a mensch.
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Director and Actor David Cromer
Opens Up About Tragedy and Art
and Using the Bathroom on Broadway
A 2010 recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant and the winner of last year's Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical for "A Band's Visit," Cromer is currently in the cast of the Broadway drama "The Waverly Gallery" by Kenneth Lonergan. A son of the midwest who got his start in Chicago's theatre scene, he was also a high school dropout who is only now coming to terms with that, as he is the suicide of his brother which sent him into therapy. Cromer's work - his art - has helped so many others heal. It is deeply moving to hear about how he is healing himself.
("I did not know what to do with that kind of grief I was feeling when my brother committed suicide," he says. "No one knows what to do with that kind of grief. I just did not know what to do with the … ahhh … unchangeable horror of someone you love losing their will to live.")
Photograph of David Cromer by Mark Seliger.
India Hicks, photographed by Norman Parkinson in 1981 for the cover of Tatler. From the collection of London’s National Portrait Gallery
A PASSAGE TO INDIA
Several years ago Miss Hicks managed to kill my story about her and her beloved Harbour Island for Vanity Fair magazine. Now read the background saga about the letter she wrote to Vanity Fair's then Editor in Chief, Graydon Carter, calling into question my character - and read, for the first time, the story itself she had killed.
“And this tattooing, had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.”
“I think tattoos are horrible. It’s like living in a Pucci dress full-time.” said Karl Lagerfeld. Oh, Karl. Cut it out. Kate Moss, who has starred in your Chanel ads in the past has said about her own two tattooed swallows perched on her lower back right above her buttocks, “Lucian Freud told me about when he was in the navy – when he was 19 or something – he used to do all of the tattoos for the sailors. And I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing.’ And he went, ‘I can do you one. What would you like? Would you like creatures of the animal kingdom?’ I mean, it’s an original Freud.” Are tattoos themselves Freudian in other ways and therefore more than skin deep? There is nothing deeper about this hot-guy gallery I have curated than their taut and tattooed skin. They’re dreamy. So maybe they’re not Freudian at all. They are Jungian, these young ‘uns.
(Click on Melville quote above for more of the story.)
JOAN OF ART
Writer and director Rod Lurie: "I wrote 'The Contender' for Joan. I was a film critic at the time and I had been extolling her for years as the best actor in the world. To me there was nothing more real or human than what she affected in 'The Ice Storm' or 'The Crucible' and 'Pleasantville,' where the scene of her removing make up may be the greatest close-up acting I have seen in a movie since the end of 'City Lights.' That is no hyperbole. She's that good. The master of nuance. She had to cry in a scene of 'The Contender.' She explained to me that she had to figure out how to cry. When I asked her what that meant she told me, 'You cry differently if your mother has died or if your best friend has died.' It's that kind of impeccable thinking that makes her a kind of perfect actor. And she can navigate these subtleties like no other actor I can think of - maybe Dustin Hoffman. She remains in my mind the greatest in the world. We haven't found that right project since, but boy would I love to work with her again."
Photo by Matt Edge
WELCOME TO SESSUMSMAGAZINE. COM: HARD, CLEAR, AND COMPASSIONATE
Welcome to the latest iteration of sessumsMagazine.com. This site itself was built with an openhearted impulse and this month the open hearts of three of my interview subjects deeply moved me and I hope they move you as well. On a recent Friday, I spent a couple of hours in the dressing room of two actresses giving two of the most heartrending performances on Broadway at the moment. First, I stopped off at the GoldenTheatre to visit with Joan Allen who is starring with Elaine May, Lucas Hedges, David Cromer, and Michael Cera in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery directed by Lila Neugebauer which The New York Times critic Ben Brantley hailed for its “hard, compassionate clarity” as it deals with its subject of a towering maternal figure played by May who succumbs scene-by-scene to her dementia. Such compassion and clarity comes through – though a bit less hardened perhaps because of her midwestern small-town roots – in my conversation with Allen who opens up about her own mother’s descent into dementia.
After my visit with Joan, I headed over to the Helen Hayes Theatre to talk with Mercedes Ruehl who is so brilliant in her reimagining of Arnold’s mother in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song directed by Moises Kaufman. Ruehl is a revelation in her scenes with Michael Urie, who himself is brilliant in the role of Arnold. She is lacquered in her Floridian way and coiffed for emotional fisticuffs; we are appalled by her yet find ourself empathetic as her own growl of grief manifests itself in its monstrous strain of maternal regard that retreats finally into love. Ruehl opens up about her own narrative of motherhood and the abortion she decided not to have – and why – when she found herself pregnant at 23 and put her son up for adoption.
David Cromer, who plays Joan Allen’s husband in The Waverly Gallery, opens up about his brother’s suicide and how it sent him into therapy and how that therapy itself has changed his life. It is a deeply emotional conversation – hard and clear and compassionate.
I hope, in fact, this whole new iteration of sessumsMagazine is. I have poured my own heart into it.
Angela Davis, Toni Morrison. March 28, 1974.
STARS IN BLACK TURTLENECKS
Renata Adler, Joan Didion. May 17, 1978.
Susan Sontag, Marguerite Duras. 1969.
IN THE COMING WEEKS ...
Next month, USC professor David Roman becomes our regular cultural columnist. His inaugural essay will be about playwright Matthew Lopez's "The Inheritance," directed by Stephen Daldry, which is winding up its West End run after having premiered at the Young Vic. Also, in the coming months: Willem Dafoe. Pat Cleveland. Laura Linney. Judith Light. Cara Buono. Ellen Barkin. Jane Fonda. Parker Posey. Style icon and photographer Lisa Eisner. Writers Armistead Maupin, Julia Reed, George Hodgman, Jesse Kornbluth, Joyce Maynard, Sheila Weller, Mark Childress, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, Jennifer Raiser, Benoit Denizet-Lewis and William Norwich. And the next chapter of of the new fictional serial, "Porterhouse."
Pat Nixon – nee Ryan – at work in the pharmacy of the Seton Hospital in New York City, circa 1932
Pat Riley when he was a student at the University of Kentucky, circa 1965-66 when as a junior he was named First Team All-SEC, All-NCAA Tournament Team, NCAA Regional Player of the Year, SEC Player of the Year and AP Third Team All-American, leading the Wildcats to the 1966 NCAA title game which they lost to Texas Western.
THEATRE ROUNDUP: CONSCIOUSNESS, DEMENTIA, AND A PROM
Taking centerstage this month: Tom Stoppard, Elaine May, Kenneth Lonergan, Michael Potts, Beth Leavel, and Lucas Hedges
“Normally I can write a first draft in three or four months, but that’s rather misleading because it can take a long, long time to get to the top of the first page.” – Tom Stoppard
PORTERHOUSE: A SERIAL
In Chapter Three of our serial, we find our two main characters, the newly christened Porter and Imani – née Zaccheus and Venetia – as thirteen-year-old New Orleanians being taken to a Leontyne Price concert at the Orpheum Theatre where they are also taken backstage to meet the diva with Imani’s grandparents Rev. Normandy Purvis and his wife Mezzanine, an old friend of Price from Laurel, Mississippi. Maurice Richelieu has taken Porter for his 13th birthday. The year is 1972 – as it was when Warhol took the accompanying Polaroid of Price.
This month in Bye, George: I Know He Didn’t Get It, I attempt to add some balance to the hagiography that was propagated by the media when George Bush died. Those of us who fought him re: his indifference toward HIV/AIDS when he wasn’t outright thwarting us, remember a different man. Kindness is not goodness. Politesse is not justice. Cruelty can be civil. That’s Lee Atwater there with him in the photo. Together, they ran a racist presidential campaign against Dukakis. There’s that, too.
The Cher Show just opened on Broadway. It took three actresses to play her, but there was only one Billy Sammeth, who was her longtime manager, one she ultimately fired. She nicknamed him “Bumpy” and theirs was indeed a bumpy relationship. He was also Joan Rivers manager. She too fired him finally. Billy died a few months ago of pancreatic cancer. Here, I remember our no-holds-barred interview when he talked about Cher and Joan. He didn’t take too many secrets to his grave, as this attests.
World traveler, TheWrap.com’s theatre critic Robert Hofler this month writes about New Zealand: Off-Season and On Point. He went for the waterfalls and stayed for the other mnemonic natural wonders that reminded him of his other travels in California’s Big Sur and England’s Bristol Channel. He rode a little railway train. And instinctively trusted New Zealanders with their lovely, incongruous laid-back zest for politeness. How welcome these days to feel welcomed.
RICHARD THE LINE-HEARTED
Writer Richard Ford would hate that title. Too cute. Not curmudgeonly enough. Puns are for sissies. In fact, when I sent him a manuscript of my first memoir, "Mississippi Sissy," he not only turned me down for a blurb but warned me against the title because it would ghettoize it and no real guy in an airport would pick the thing up on his way to his flight. He might have been right. He's right about a lot of things. "Such a pretty man," commented Eudora Welty when I mentioned Ford, our fellow Mississippian, to her once even before she made him the literary executor of her estate. Faulkner, Welty, Ford - I think of them as the exemplars of Mississippi belle-lettres. Southern belletrists. That sissy enough for you, Ford? He was my neighbor down in New Orleans for a time. One day we sat down and talked. Take a listen.
Polaroid by Werner Pawlok
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