Screen legend spreads her acting wings

A half century ago, when plays went out of town for tryouts before facing New York audiences, Boston was a favorite way station for itinerant actors and producers. The stars could put up at the Ritz, walk to the theater, and relish in the work, before their turn in the glare of the Broadway lights.

Those times are largely gone, partly because of the increased expense of housing and feeding a cast and crew away from home, but also because of the uncertainty of the reception. A poor set of notices, even with a production in progress, could filter down the coast to New York and affect box-office sales.

Turning back the clock to that era, veteran producer Alexander Cohen brought to Boston the latest in his string of more than 100 shows headed for Broadway, Noel Coward's "Waiting in the Wings."

Indeed, the entire enterprise is a tribute to days gone by. Mr. Cohen had in hand a 1960s play by Coward that had never been seen in the United States, headed by a genuine 40-carat star, Lauren Bacall, along with a beloved theater diva, Rosemary Harris, and a supporting company of experienced actors just raring for an outing.

The two-week Boston run attracted large audiences, but failed to please local critics. Those attending opening night included the Boston Herald's venerable Elliot Norton, now retired, seated down front on the aisle.

For two weeks, Cohen, the actors, director Michael Langham, and Jeremy Sams, the playwright and adapter who "revisited" Coward's script, as the program described it, labored to tighten the pace of the play, insert new lines, and add an extra song for Bacall.

The play is now in New York in previews. It will open officially Dec. 16, the 100th anniversary of Coward's birth.

In Boston, Bacall did not disappoint in an offstage interview. As glamorous as ever, she was introduced at the informal gathering as if she were queen of a pride of lions, confident of her place at the head of the pack.

Her chic black outfit, sweater, blazer, and pants was topped by a mane of blonde hair flowing to her shoulders. Her remarks - for the record and off - were appropriately direct for a woman who has been a star since 1944. It was then, as a 19-year-old unknown, she lit up movie screens in "To Have and Have Not." A year later she married her costar, Humphrey Bogart, and continued a film, stage, and television career that has kept her in the public consciousness.

"Waiting in the Wings" marks her first foray back into live theater since 1982. Bacall admits to being "nervous."

"I'm always nervous," she says. "It's a horrible feeling. [But] you must make it work for you. Sometimes it's not so easy."

Bacall had good reason to feel some qualms playing opposite the gifted Harris, who has seldom been between roles on either the London or New York stage.

Elizabeth Wilson, Dana Ivey, Rosemary Murphy, Patricia Conolly, Helena Carroll, and the husband-and-wife team of Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg round out the cast of theater veterans. Mr. Hughes and Ms. Stenborg will be celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary by appearing together in a Broadway production for the first time.

In Coward's play, an assortment of older actresses are living in a retirement home in Britain. The slender plot concerns the rivalries between the characters of Bacall and Harris, along with the vanities of the others. Hughes is cast as a frequent visitor who admires one of the retired actresses. The play was written by Coward as a gift to the respected British actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, a vehicle for her return to the stage.

According to Harris, who won a Tony Award for her performance in "The Lion In Winter" and an Oscar nomination for the film "Tom & Viv," "There were no parts for older actresses in Great Britain until television came along, nor did the union provide pensions. The actresses had to retire."

Bacall won her first Tony Award for "Applause" in 1970; her second came in 1981 for "Woman of the Year."

The 1996 film, "The Mirror Has Two Faces," brought her an Oscar nomination.

"I didn't expect to win the Oscar," Bacall says. "I know the film industry. I live in New York, not [in Los Angeles]." Coming films in which Bacall will appear include "Diamonds" and "Presence of Mind."

Despite her fame as a movie star (she was recently named one of the Top 25 film legends of the century by the American Film Institute), Bacall says her heart belongs to the stage.

"I love the theater," she says. "It's live. You can get an immediate response to your work.

"The stage is an actor's medium; film is for the director."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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