Thursday, August 12, 2010


Another long absence from my poor, lonely blog. Clearly, expecting the muse to strike without really putting in any effort isn’t working, so here I am, sitting in front of the big iMac screen, determined to persevere, hoping the muse tunes in at some point.

Since my life doesn’t seem like a good subject for a blog post these days (I’m in a work slump, feeling unmotivated; and I’m in love, but not ready to write about that), I’m going to digress down some different paths, writing about people, places, and things that I love. And because I’ve been thinking about her lately, and because she’s the cat's meow in my book, and because I could learn a few things about perseverance and focus from her, I’m starting with Marian Seldes.

If you’re not a theater nut, you may not have heard of Marian, and for that, I am truly sorry. She’s a grande dame of the New York stages, with her first role in 1947, for god’s sake, in Judith Anderson’s Medea, directed by — get this — John Gielgud. An appropriate starting point for us, I think, as Marian reminds me of those great hammy Brits like Gielgud and Guinness and McKellan. No one but no one can declaim like Marian, no one can roll words around in her mouth like she can, no one can arch an eyebrow with devastatingly hilarious effect like she does.

As the ever-brilliant Charles Isherwood puts it, “In my view if you have not seen Marian Seldes on a New York stage, you are not a true New Yorker.” Her stage triumphs include her association with Edward Albee; she originated roles in three of his best-known works, Three Tall Women, The Play About the Baby, and A Delicate Balance, which brought her a Tony Award. She came in at the last minute to replace Dorothy Loudon (who left on doctor’s orders) as Carlotta Vance in a revival of Dinner at Eight in 2002 at Lincoln Center Theater and got her fifth Tony nomination for her trouble. And, perhaps most famously, she’s in Guinness’s book of world records as “most durable actress” for playing all 1,809 performances of Deathtrap (1978-1982) on Broadway: that’s eight shows a week, every week, for over four years.

I’ve seen her in quite a few things over the years, perhaps most memorably in the unsettling Play About the Baby, which, for all its creepiness, had some of the funniest moments you can imagine, like Marian (as Woman) suddenly making up sign language to accompany Brian Murray (as Man). It’s a scene that is so clearly Marian, you know Albee wrote the part with her in mind:

(Woman begins signing — clearly absurd signing-like gestures.)
MAN. What are you doing?
WOMAN. Signing.
MAN. You know how? You know how to sign?
WOMAN. (Signing.) It would seem so.
MAN. When did you learn? And why? Why did you learn?
WOMAN. (Shrugs; signs.) It came upon me.
MAN. When?
WOMAN. Just now; I just realized I could do it.
MAN. Sign away.
WOMAN. (Signing; smiling.) Thank you.

Not just any actress could pull off Albee’s particular style with the deftly delivered venom and sly complicity that Marian employs. In his review of the play, Charles Isherwood (then at Variety), said this of “the magnificent Seldes”:

“I am a trifle theatrical,” she says in her opening monologue. “And no apologies there.” None needed! Seldes’ ample talents — her mischievous comic instincts, her supple sense of language, her elegant bearing, the hint of sublimated sensitivity in her imperiousness and, yes, that outsized theatricality — all are deployed to extraordinary effect here.

Her deliciously dry wit is evident off-stage as well as on. For instance, in a misguided attempt to evoke some warm nostalgia for the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square shortly before its demolition, the Times asked a few theater types for their fond memories. Marian’s reply: “I have no memories. I only remember walking by it and thinking, ‘I hope all those people are going to the theater.’”

Happily, Marian received a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Tony ceremony, giving the Times Magazine an opportunity to run a profile of her, by Alex Witchel. Alex typically (and with somewhat scathing results) resists the charms of her subjects, but she was obviously under Marian’s elegant thumb from the get-go. And why not? When you’re writing a piece about someone who’s giving you quotes like this one, about her one appearance on Sex and the City, as Mr. Big’s mother — “I’m sorry I wasn’t asked back. I think I could have helped him” — you’ve got to feel some serious gratitude that she’s making your job so easy.

Alex gets further help in her piece from the various theater luminaries who praise Marian and her inimitable style: André Bishop, Nathan Lane, Laura Linney, and Paul Rudnick, who describes Seldes as “universally gracious,” and goes on to say, “She seems genuinely enchanted in the Harry Potter sense, otherworldly in a way that can’t be duplicated. You feel graced by her presence and conversation, like you’ve suddenly been knighted.”

I’m lucky enough to have felt that grace, several years back. It was at Sardi’s, appropriately enough, at a awards ceremony that I knew Marian would be attending, so I quickly accepted my invitation. I wrangled an introduction, and had a two-part interaction, the first part of which went something like this:

I. Miss Seldes, I am such a fan of yours. I can’t even say.
SHE. (Gently resting her hands on my shoulders and leaning in close; speaking in a low, secret-filled voice.) My dear, you are so sweet to say so. You really are so kind.
I. (At a loss.) I love your dress.
SHE. (Leaning in even closer; speaking even more softly; looking about a bit as if to make sure no one could hear.) My dear, you know, I didn’t know what to wear, so I took this right off the costume rack, since I knew it would fit, and it really is such a pretty color, isn’t it?

Really, it’s not the words that matter in an interaction with Marian. It’s her compelling presence, her ability to train her gaze onto you unwaveringly (Alex Witchel wrote, “Now sitting in front of her, even here, I realized that she never moved her eyes from my face. In two hours, not once.”), her ease with the dramatic gesture (at Sardi’s she gave a deep curtsey, hand on her heart, head bowed, upon being introduced to someone she admired), her beautifully trained, exquisitely modulated voice, and, let’s admit it, those eyebrows. You can’t escape them. (Marian’s performance with Nathan Lane in Terrence McNally’s Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams in 2005 must have been quite the Battle of the Brows.)

And now for part two of my Marian experience, which shows that, perhaps because she has never become a celebrity on the scale that many of us believe she deserves, Marian has remained lovably accessible. One of the other guests at the party, amused at my awe of Marian, wrangled it out of me that I had a copy of her memoir —

— and wanted to know why I hadn’t asked her to sign it. “This is why,” I said, and showed him that Marian had already once inscribed it, to someone unknown to me, and it just seemed awkward to show her how this copy of her book, complete with a lovely inscription, had ended up in a second-hand shop.

“Oh, who cares,” Jacques said, and zoomed across the room, calling out, “Marian! Marian!”

“No. Please,” I whispered, but too late, here came Jacques, towing along Marian, who had a slightly puzzled look on her face.

“I understand you have a copy of my book that you would like me to sign,” she said.

“Well, Miss Seldes, yes, but I have to show you… well, see… Miss Seldes, it looks like you already did sign this book, but for someone else.”

“Oh, my dear,” she said, “let me see.” She took the book and peered at the inscription (no one can peer like Marian), then said, “Do you have a pen?”

With that perfect timing that makes her so irresistible on stage, she carefully circled the original inscription and wrote “DELE” (the copy editor’s term for “delete”).

She then flipped ahead a few pages, and wrote this for me:

I mean, really.

Marian’s last New York stage appearance (to date), as far as I know, was in La Fille du Régiment at the Met, which I missed, to my eternal regret, since she appeared thusly:

Her last Broadway appearance (again, to date) was in Terrence McNally’s Deuce in 2007, with another old pro, Angela Lansbury. They played tennis stars from the good old days, making an appearance for fans years after their retirement at the U.S. Open, reminiscing and commiserating and showing a few cracks in the surface that, given the context (how many more times would we get to see these two vets?), were pretty heart-breaking.

Marian looked quite frail at the Tony Awards, and one must face the fact that we may not see her on stage again. But her astonishing career (both on Broadway and off), her obvious sense of herself as a craftsperson, and her clearly evident joy at being part of the theater world — all this serves as inspiration to me, a reminder of the payoff of hard work, of persevering. It sounds corny, but Marian has taught me a lot.

Which I’m sure would please her, since she clearly values her experiences teaching acting to students such as Kevin Kline, Robin Williams, Laura Linney, and Patti LuPone. In the Times Magazine piece, Marian sums up her contributions in her typically articulate, thoughtful manner:

“Well, I love a task, I really do,” she said modestly. “I got scared toward the openings of each play, of course. But I’m not afraid on a stage. I’m afraid in life.” Not today, though, on the eve of a lifetime achievement award. What feels like a great achievement now? “Maybe the teaching,” she said. “I hope so. Because that’s helping somebody. It was the hardest thing too, because it takes an energy. If you look away from a student’s eyes at the wrong moment, you can hurt them.”

Marian is currently on screen in The Extra Man, which doesn’t sound like a particularly great film (anyone seen it?), but which I must see, if only because she plays a character named Vivian who looks like this:

Clearly, there will be swanning about, which is all I need to know.

{From top: as Carlotta Vance in Dinner at Eight; in Ondine; with John Wood and a very young Victor Garber in Deathtrap; in The Play About the Baby; at the 2010 Tony Awards; in La Fille du Régiment; in The Extra Man.}


  1. Well, if I could curtsy to you, here, Siobhan, I would. Deeply. What a triumphant return for all of us.I've missed you.

  2. The times between your posts are getting as long as the hiatuses of Mad Men, but just as worth the wait. Welcome back, Siobhan, this was terrific! And how cool is that book signing? What a memory for you. Funny, as that business started to unfold I had a feeling she was going to do that... an update to the new book owner... but I figured maybe a line through the old like most people would do, not drawing a square around it and then "dele". How perfectly correct! And how perfectly good it is to see you back.
    Great post.

  3. LOVE the story of the book.

  4. The autograph anecdote is a gem!

  5. Instead Charles Isherwood, one of the most powerful writers on theatre in the business, devoted his column to reinforcing the idea that Broadway-- whose spectacles he regularly derides-- is the only game in town. I wish this were an isolated incident that I could protest, but it is not. It is merely the latest in a long series of writings by Isherwood that show his contempt for theatre in New York City. The time has come for the New York Times to either fire Charles Isherwood or reassign him off the theatre beat.
    Play Bingobola tangkas online