A famous acting couple finds satisfaction on stage

'Down the Garden Paths' showcases talents of long-married Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson

The sign in the lobby reads: "This play will run 90 minutes without an intermission." Breaking into a mischievous grin, Anne Jackson playfully places her hand over the last five words.

For more than half a century, Ms. Jackson and her husband, Eli Wallach, have brought innumerable characters to life on stage, screen, and television. Now the couple have committed themselves to the new play "Down the Garden Paths," written by Anne Meara, which has traveled to New Jersey, Connecticut, and Florida. It's currently showing Off-Broadway in New York at the Minetta Lane Theatre.

Widely known as the distaff side of the comedy team Stiller and Meara, Ms. Meara and her husband, Jerry Stiller, have entertained audiences as a stand-up act since the late 1950s.

"What interests me about Anne Meara as a writer is that her scenes are written where the explosions occur onstage, not off," Wallach says. Jackson adds, "Anne is a minimalist in her writing. She has a rhythm."

This is the writer's second effort. Her premiere work, "Afterplay," enjoyed a successful Off-Broadway run five years ago, as well as several regional theater productions.

In this play, a show-business couple (the Gardens), their children, and friends revisit the same scene three times. The Garden's son, Arthur (John Shea), a physicist, has just won a prestigious award for his book that explores how lives are radically altered by one event. That premise, using a drowning accident involving their children that took place early in the Gardens' marriage - fuels the action of the story, in which several very different possible outcomes are depicted.

"I'm very lucky, and very grateful that they enjoy doing it so much," Meara says of having the couple in the lead roles. "We're friends, we live two blocks apart, and it occurred to me once we were ready to produce [the play] just how perfect they would be."

The production includes another member of the Wallach family: their daughter, Amy Stiller. And Jerry Stiller also appears in video clips.

Usually, stories about people in show business revolve around the public aspects of their lives, but "Down the Garden Paths" focuses on the private side. "It captures the emotions and language of a family," Wallach says.

"What she has shown is that in the externals of the family, there is always a veneer of peace and happiness. But push a button, and the explosions occur."

Separately, Wallach and Jackson have performed in some notable productions, including Wallach's Tony Award-winning role in Tennessee Williams's "The Rose Tattoo" and Jackson's three Tony-nominated turns in "Summer and Smoke," "Oh Men, Oh Women," and "The Middle of the Night."

But this assignment is far from their first time appearing together. Now married 51 years, their other joint appearances include "Major Barbara," "Rhinoceros," "The Waltz of the Toreadors," and "Luv," all on Broadway.

They were also involved in the early days of the Method, an acting system championed by many in the 1940s and '50s. Wallach says that he now has evolved into a more independent actor, in terms of style.

"With each play, I think I learn a little more about acting. I become more economical in what I'm putting out there. I must have been impossible as a young actor," he jokes, "thinking I discovered a new religion called 'the Method.' Then I met older actors who had no interest in 'the Method.' Each one had their own way of doing things."

Despite dozens of major film credits, such as "Magnificent Seven" and "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly," for Wallach, and "The Shining" and "Lovers and Other Strangers" for Jackson, they remain committed to the theater.

"It's a realization that here, in the theater, lies the real challenge for the actor," Wallach says, "because we are involved in the creative process with the playwright."

Wallach views the current lack of serious dramas on Broadway with concern. "You could almost say there is no Broadway for straight plays," he says. "What's happened is that the musicals took over the Broadway theaters for four, five, even 10 years. The number of theaters available for plays began to shrink until now when there's almost no place for [them]."

Asked if she thought this play would have been on Broadway in years past, Jackson responds quickly, "No question."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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