When the American Theater Critics Association meets in New York, a highlight of the conference tends to be lunch at Sardi’s restaurant with a stunning array of Broadway celebrities. This year, yet again co-organizers Sherry Eaker and Ira Bilowit drew upon a spectrum of actors, playwrights and directors who are currently active with Broadway productions. In several instances actors had to race from the restaurant to theaters in time for their 2 PM matinees.
The day before the event I was surprised to get an email from Bilowit asking if I would introduce a guest. I was both pleased and daunted and requested more detail. The norm is to ask several out-of-town critics to introduce the celebrities. This entails a conversation over lunch formatted into a “non-confrontational question.”
From the podium, Ira proved to be a bit testy both with the presenters, as well as the wait staff of Sardi’s, which was not prompt in serving the meal. Repeatedly presenters were told to be brief and just ask the question. We were reminded that bios of the guests were published in the conference brochure, and there was no need to repeat the information.
Marlee Matlin, whom I introduced, proved to be delightful and charming. Others at our table shared in the dialogue than entailed sign language assistance from a gentleman who works with her. This also proved to be the case when she addressed the audience from the podium.
Currently she is appearing for the first time on Broadway in a unique production of the musical Spring Awakening that features a cast of deaf and hearing actors. Now 50 and the mother of four, Matlin discussed the difficult decision-making process to leave her family for a run on Broadway. She told us that she has started on stage at the age of seven. She was discovered and starred in her first Oscar-winning film, “Children of a Lesser God” (1986). Some 30 years later, she is returning to the stage after a career in film and television. Asked about the difference, she commented that on stage there is “just one take.” You have to get the right the first time, which can be daunting.
Frank Rizzo, a critic from Hartford, told her that he was seeing the show on Sunday. There was a pained expression on his face when she asked if he would be able to see it at another time. She had a long-standing commitment to an important charity/ mentoring event and would be away during that performance. We learned of her involvement in a spectrum of causes.
While waiting our turn we enjoyed the introductions of the other guests. The director Bartlett Sher was gracious but brief. He had to run off to rehearsals of a revival of Fiddler on the Roof. It opens soon for previews. We were pleased to learn that Jessica Hecht, a regular at the Williamstown Theater Festival, appears in the show. Sher took the occasion to lobby the New York critics in the room to look kindly on his production.
Amazingly, the ninety-something Sheldon Harnick, writer of musicals, including Fiorello! (Tony and Pulitzer winner), Fiddler on the Roof (Tony), She Loves Me (Grammy) and other shows in collaborations as well as solo, attended the luncheon. There was a hush in the room when he was introduced by former ATCA president, the Chicago critic, Jonathan Abarbanel.
Among the six shows I covered during the week in New York was last year’s musical hit Fun Home. Tony-winning lead actor Michael Cerveris was introduced by the Philadelphia critic Howard Shapiro, who is among those organizing ATCA’s April conference in the City of Brotherly Love.
Our California friend and Berkshire Fine Arts correspondent, Jack Lyons, introduced Kathleen Chalfant. There was a feature the next day on her in the New York Post. The provocative headline read, “How Not Getting Botox Made My Career.” She plays the devious, upper-crust Margaret Butler in the hit Showtime series “The Affair.”
We were fortunate to see Judith Light in Other Desert Cities, which earned her Tony and Drama Desk Awards which she also won for The Assembled Parties. She was introduced by Anne Siegel from Milwaukee.
To the annoyance of Bilowit, the presenter of Marlo Thomas, enjoying her ersatz star turn at Sardi’s, went on and on and on. Finally at the podium, Thomas delivered a zinger about that. It got an approving response from the audience. Over the years, Thomas has earned four Emmys, the Peabody, as Golden Globe and a Grammy, as well as a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
During the Friday panels, playwright Doug Wright had been a lively participant as well as moderator. By Saturday the Tony winner seemed like an old friend. The program listed playwright Arthur Kopit, who also participated in the Friday programming, but I don’t recall seeing him during the luncheon.
When it was my turn, fearing the cattle prod of Bilowit, I kept my introduction brief and delivered the expected non-confrontational question, which Matlin answered graciously before bolting off to get in makeup for her matinee.
After lunch Anne Siegel and I walked up Broadway to see Matlin in Spring Awakening, brushing the star dust off our shoulders.