Elaine Stritch's long and colorful career is packed with so many memorable roles that it's impossible to really say what she's best known for. Her show-stopping rendition of "Ladies Who Lunch" in Sondheim's Company? Or maybe her Tony-nominated performance in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance? Her movie and television appearances in everything from Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks to 30 Rock? Or her critically-acclaimed solo cabaret show, which she's taken from Broadway to the intimate Cafe Carlyle, just downstairs from her home in the Carlyle Hotel? And this season fans of the incomparable Stritch have another winner to add to their collection: her short but poignant portrayal of Nell in Samuel Beckett's Endgame.
Stritch is joined in this exhilarating revival by John Turturro, Max Casella and Alvin Epstein. Presented at BAM under the direction of Andrei Belgrader, Beckett's scaldingly funny and timeless one act continues through May 17th.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing Endgame for a while and when I found out you were cast I was even more excited. I saw you in A Delicate Balance years ago and that was so impressive. Compared to this, A Delicate Balance was a cinch. Mr. Albee thinks about the actor a little bit. Maybe he’s not even conscious of it but he makes it easier. I have never done anything as hard as this.
What’s so challenging about it? Beckett shmeckett. There’s so much emotion and information you have to convey to an audience in what seems like seconds on stage. You know? He jumps from huge emotions all within – look what I have to convey to an audience in a tiny amount of time. My God. Maybe I’m too used to being onstage more in an evening. I mean, this is a small part. But you know the old gag; there is no such thing as a small part, and Endgame proves it.
Nagg, my husband in the play, has a little more opportunity to explain himself. And I am such a stickler – I know this sounds like violin playing but I don’t mean it to – I am a stickler for honesty. If I don’t understand what I’m talking about, I can’t be honest or dishonest, just confused. Now I’m beginning to see a vigil light at the end of the tunnel – just a vigil light, not a proper light. It’s as difficult to understand Beckett as it is to get to your dressing room at BAM. That’s my… what do you call that when you compare something to something? Metaphor. Is that the right word? Come on, you’re the intellectual!
Oh no, then we’re in trouble. Is that the right word?
I think so. The performance seemed very natural to me, at least. Well, that’s what I’m aiming for. If I’m not relaxed out there I don’t care how emotional I am or how tough things are. She’s up to her you-know-what in unhappiness and she says it’s the funniest thing in the world.
It’s so impressive because the scene you’re in goes through so many changes. It’s so funny and then – Exactly. And that’s hard emotionally to hang onto your sanity and jump from one emotion to the next, and have it be totally honest and believable that that can happen to a human being.
Have you performed Beckett before? Never. And don’t ask me the next question.
What’s the next question? Would you ever do it again? Because I’m not going to answer that! [Laughs.]
How did you come to be involved in this production of Endgame? John Turturro directed me in his movie Romance and Cigarettes.
I saw that twice; I love it. Oh, good. Because I thought that film could be fixed. I think it was too long. I think John is an extremely talented man. I love John Turturro. He’s one of the few great guys in the theater. He’s a nice man. This is not just an actor. The terrifying thing in my life is that I am just an actress. And I have to keep pushing it and getting approval, approval, approval or I don’t think I’m worth two cents. And I am starting to get over it, thank God. And I’m just sad because I don’t have many years left and I wish I had a longer space of time to think that Elaine Stritch is okay. But all these qualities you see are, I think, very good preparation for Beckett. But people don’t think of me like that. They think that I am a million laughs, and that’s it, folks. And I am a funny woman and it has a lot to do with what we’re talking about, really, because Beckett was a funny man.
Like you say in the play, a lot of humor comes out of unhappiness. Absolutely. We’re all living proof every day of our lives. When things get too tough all you have to do is laugh. You can get hysterical laughing in a traffic jam that lasts an hour – you have to or you’ll do something desperate. But Beckett’s full of that way of thinking isn’t he?
Yeah. Talk to me. Tell me about yourself. Reverse the shoes now for a minute.
Well, I go to as much theater as I can for Gothamist. There’s nothing like it. And that’s about as much as I can say. It’s a corny saying, but I have a love/hate relationship with it. If the shoe fits, wear it. But I had my problems getting my size in this Endgame, I’ll tell you that. So if I’ve succeeded in any way, shape or form I am so relieved and so eager to go on.
So did John approach you about being in it? We’ve had a good relationship. We just had a day together on Romance and Cigarettes. I had just broken my leg the morning of the shoot so I wasn’t in very good shape but he helped me through it. As I say, he’s a lovely man. And I think that’s the best thing you can say about an actor. Because that doesn’t happen very often.
Have you worked with any of the other people in this production? No. My card to Max Casella was, “You’re in the middle of what could be a brilliant career.” Meaning: behave yourself. You know? He’s a brat. Extremely talented. And I saw ‘brat’ lovingly. I think he’s extremely talented, don’t you?
Oh yeah, I’ve dug him ever since I was a kid and watched Doogie Howser, M.D. What’s that?
He started out on a TV show called Doogie Howser M.D. I’m sorry to say I missed that.
Of course, he’s since gone on to do a lot of other things that I’ve liked him in, like Ed Wood. He’s very funny. He’s a hard worker and he loves acting and he’s angry with it. He’s got all the qualities that make for a fucked-up actor.
Is there any advice you have for young actors? You can’t fake it. It’s impossible. No one’s ever been able to do it. Tell the truth. And also, never underestimate the power of an audience. The audience tells me a lot about how to play Beckett. Because that’s how good the author is, the author leaves it up to the audience. This is complicated stuff we’re talking about; I’m trying to make it simple. I’ve always been afraid before to go on; I’m not afraid anymore. I get goosebumps and butterflies and adrenaline but I don’t get that awful fear. I’m not afraid to go onstage. That’s where I’m at ease. And if that lets me down I’m in serious trouble.
What about advice for older actors? Hang in. I think it’s one of the blessings that comes with aging and getting older. I never say ‘getting old,’ because there’s a finality to that. I’m just getting older and so are you, every day. So I’m still one of the mob. Acting is a fantastic pastime. It beats knitting, you know? And it’s way out in front of Florida. With all of the problems we have at BAM and everyplace with throwing human beings together and having them play serious emotions every day and tearing their insides out to try and get the part right – it’s hard work, but it takes your mind off the fact that you’re 80. Or 81, or 82, or 83. You know what I mean? It keeps you walking with the gang; it keeps you right out in front of the parade. That’s a blessing. My profession is a blessing when you leave your 70s.
Is there another career you could see yourself having? Yes, being uncontrollably wealthy. I think that would be a wonderful career. To wake up every morning and think, “What can I do with my money today to make somebody happy, including me.” I’d love that. I don’t know that I would but that’s the first thing that comes to mind: to be IN-DE-PEN-DENT-LY wealthy. So my self-esteem shoots up and I can take anything. Somebody can so fuck you and I can say, “Thank you very much.”
What are some roles you’re most proud of? A Delicate Balance. My own show – extraordinarily pleased and proud of, that I was able to get that together with the help of one of the best helpers in the world. George Wolfe shines as a director. In my estimation the most important person in the room is the director. You know those photos you see of fathers picking up their kids and putting them on their shoulders? That’s what George Wolfe did for me. And Gerry Gutierrez, who died too soon. Hal Prince. Being in any way connected to Hal Prince in the theater was a joy. Noel Coward, certainly. And going way back, Harold Clurman, the best director in the whole wide world.
So I’m very particular now that I’m grown up. And I even slightly understand Beckett. I think maybe you have to be as old as I am to understand him. I don’t think you can fake anything onstage but if you could fake an author I think he’d be a good one to fake. [Laughs] Because everyone in the audience is having trouble too! So you can kind of join forces with them. They come back and say, “God, this is hard to understand.” And I say, “No shit, Dick Tracy.” We’re all in this together; that’s my closing line to the audience. And boy does that make sense to me.
Is there any role you were so unhappy with you didn’t want to do it? I always remember the story of the woman who understudied Lena Horne in some Broadway musical. And she was told she was going to go on that night because Lena had lost her voice. And the understudy said, “Oh, wonderful!” She said she just needed a certain kind of eye shadow she had to pick out herself. And she was going to go out to one of the drugstores on Eighth Avenue and she’d be right back. And she went to Philadelphia instead. Isn’t that a great story? And it’s true. I understand it perfectly. I love the fact that she went to Philadelphia. What a story. And that’s an example of Beckett’s unhappiness being the funniest thing in the world.
Is there any role you’d want to go back and revisit? No! If I have a good success with a part, the curtain comes down on closing night and it is gone! You could ask me the next day to say a line from the play and I couldn’t tell you. When the curtain comes down it is down and it is lockdown, asbestos and all. And don’t want to do it again. If someone asked me to do A Delicate Balance again, I would love to do it and hear the applause and know that I could play that part but I wouldn’t want to relearn it. You try to remember something that was good and you’re worried you can’t do it again. And why not do something new every day of your life? Change! Change!
Do you make changes to the cabaret show? Yes, I never do the same version twice. Rob Bowman my musical director and I wrote a show and then when they asked me back at The Carlyle I wrote a new show. It really worked. Did you see it?
I did not have the opportunity. Well, I’m doing it again in September 2009, so come and see it. I’m trying to talk Mandy Patinkin, who I think is one of the biggest talents in the world, to perform at the Café Carlyle and I think I’m succeeding. I’m telling him how I was able to do my show there. He thinks he’s too big a person, too big a voice to do it there. They think everybody’s Mabel Mercer in those places but it isn’t true. He may do his own show there. Anyway, anything else?
That’ll do it. My favorite line of this interview is, “We’re all in this thing together.” I am looking forward to looking forward to going to the theater to do Endgame. It’s okay, it’s not a distasteful thing. I want it to be more joyful. I want to want to go to BAM at 5 p.m. every night.
And you think you’re getting to that point? A little bit.
Well, it’s definitely worth the trip for the audience, I can tell you that. Oh, thank you. I hope so.