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Pity for Nixon, Ludlam as Hedda, and More

Productions take on real-life and larger-than-life personalities.

Nixon on Film

Robert Altman’s film Secret Honor, based on the one-man play with a somewhat more elaborate title by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone, opened in August on the West Coast to enthusiastic reviews—and to puzzled reactions from some dyed-in-the-wool liberals who walked out feeling sympathy for the man they’d heretofore loved to hate, Richard Nixon.

Freed and Stone’s play (titled Secret Honor and subtitled The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon: A Political Myth) premiered at Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre in 1983, won the Louis B. Mayer Playwrights’ Award, was selected for TCG’s anthology New Plays USA 2, and arrived in New York in short order under producer Altman’s aegis. Following his recent inclination to reshape theatrical projects into feature films (Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; Streamers), Altman turned the one-man drama into a one-man film.

The man in question is actor Philip Baker Hall, whose tour-de-force portrayal of Nixon coming apart at the seams gripped theatre audiences in both L.A. and New York. It is Hall’s performance, reiterated for the film, that can manipulate even the staunchest of Nixon-haters into feeling sympathy and compassion for the man as he degenerates into self-pity, paranoia and impotent rage.

Playwright Freed, who was once on Nixon’s “enemies list,” believes that such viewers are misunderstanding their own reactions. “What they are feeling is not sympathy, it is not liking, it is not undermining their values,” he claims. “What they are feeling is pity in the sense of terror or pity—those reactions must be produced by any serious drama whether about Macbeth, Adolf Hitler, Richard III or Richard Nixon.”

Freed is a prolific writer, and controversial political figures and events are his forte. His play Inquest, about the Rosenberg-Sobell case, played on Broadway in 1970; his novel Executive Action (which he and Dalton Trumbo adapted for film in 1973) dealt with a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy; Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre recently produced Freed’s Circe & Bravo, about a fictitious First Lady and the Secret Service agent guarding her, along with his The White Crow: Eichmann in Jerusalem, about the Nazi official’s trial in Israel. Alfred and Victoria, which he describes as “an unusual love story about A. Bloomingdale, late friend of President Reagan’s, and Bloomingdale’s mistress, V. Morgan,” is on tap at LAAT for next year.

A Hedda His Time

Ludlam as Hedda.

Who’s that taking aim as the beleaguered Hedda Gabler in Ibsen’s classic? None other than Charles Ludlam, founder and artistic director of New York’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. For the Ridiculous, Ludlam has created and starred in a wide range of madcap satires, often donning female attire. But his recent appearance as Hedda at the American Ibsen Theatre in Pittsburgh marked his debut in the work of another author. Mel Shapiro directed the play in the classic tradition, and described his interest in having a man play the central character: “Everybody has done Hedda Gabler—the idea for me is to explore other insights into the play. Having Charles Ludlam do it is a clearer way to bring out some of its subtext, to bring buried truths to light.” Of the controversy that this kind of departure inevitably causes, Shapiro replied, “People have to understand that when they walk into the theatre, it’s anything goes time!” Yes, Judge Brack; people do do such things.

Briefly Noted

The triumphs and tribulations of Janet Cooke—the former reporter for The Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize for a story that was later disclosed to be fiction—were the inspiration for a new play by Alonso Alegeria, the Peruvian playwright who also penned Crossing Niagara. Daniela Frank is the name of the play and its Cooke-inspired central character. The role has attracted none other than jet-setter Bianca Jagger, who touched down at Massachusetts’ Williamstown Theatre Festival for a workshop production in August. “It’s a big challenge for me,” Jagger conceded, as she worked with co-star John Shea under Jack Hofsiss‘ direction. There are hopes for a New York production.

The saga of Yuri Lyubimov, the outspoken former director of Moscow’s Taganka Theatre, continued to unfold over the summer, as U.S.S.R. officials stripped him of his Soviet citizenship. A statement signed by Konstantin Chernenko, the country’s highest official, accused Lyubimov of “systematic hostile activities damaging to the prestige of the Soviet Union.” Meanwhile, the Culture Ministry of France has offered the director a post as head of an experimental theatre center in Bobigny, on the outskirts of Paris, and he is in great demand throughout the West. Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., has hopes of hosting Lyubimov’s American directing debut as early as December 1985, according to producing director Zelda Fichandler.

Playwright Arthur Miller, singer Lena Horne, comedy actor Danny Kaye, composer Gian Carlo Menotti and violinist Isaac Stern will receive the seventh annual Kennedy Center honors for distinguished achievement in the performing arts, in ceremonies Dec. 2, hosted by President and Mrs. ReaganMira Trailovic, who has worked over the past 18 years to introduce American theatre and theatre artists to Europe and the world, received the International Theatre Institute/American Theatre Association Award for 1984.

ITI/US director Martha W. Coigney praised Trailovic’s efforts at the Belgrade International Theatre Festival (which she founded in 1966) and other venues, where such artists as Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, Charles Ludlam and Peter Brook have showcased their work.

Lillian Hellman, who died in June at the age of 79, willed a major portion of her $3.5 million in assets to the creation of the Lillian Hellman fund for “the advancement and promotion of the arts and sciences.” Another fund, named for her longtime companion Dashiell Hammett, will make grants supporting “political, social and economic equality, civil rights and civil liberties.”

Richard Dreyfuss plays opposite Phyllis Frelich in Mark Medoff’s The Hands of Its Enemy, which is currently premiering at the Mark Taper Forum. Frelich appears as a playwright with a childhood secret, and Dreyfuss is a director who helps her confront her painful past. Gordon Davidson directs…Meanwhile, next door, George Rose and Alan Bates have arrived at the Ahmanson Theatre from rehearsals in London of John Osborne‘s A Patriot for Me, which opens the theatre’s 18th season Oct. 5.

Benedict Nightingale, drama critic for the Sunday New York Times for the past year, is returning to his native England, and the paper’s Sunday theatre slot will be filled by staffers writing in rotation. Walter Kerr will continue to contribute on an occasional basis…Managing directors of two Southern theatres have departed—David Block of the Coconut Grove Playhouse of Miami and Andrew Witt of the Alliance Theatre. Both theatres are seeking successors…Hartford Stage Company managing director William Stewart has been elected by the Theatre Communications Group board of directors to serve on the American Arts Alliance board. Stewart will complete the term of the late Alan Schneider, who was a member of the Alliance board at the time of his death.

Thornton Wilder—his life, work and philosophy—was the subiect of a Wilder Weekend staged by Cleveland’s Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival during August and hosted by the theatre’s producing director Vincent Dowling. Performances of Our Town and Wilder’s last full-length work for the stage, Alcestis and Apollo or The Alcestiad, alternated with seminars and panels. One session featured director Jose Quintero, actress Martha Scott (who created the role of Our Town‘s Emily on Broadway) and designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch.

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