A Theatrical Eclipse

This describes a reset – something in the nature of an eclipse you might say.


It was just a great bit of producing.

The Colonial Theatre, entrance on Boston Common. The show opened last night and the reviews were pretty tragic. A rumor went around that our star had at some time offended men of the fourth estate and they had been waiting to pounce to their revenge. True or not, the kind of stuff that closes shows on the spot had been written.

It was my first job in America and I had heard the stories about what happens when the reviews are less than ecstatic. The mood inside the theatre was despondent and a desultory rehearsal was proceeding onstage. Distinguished New York actors were going through the motions while the director tried to tweak new life into the proceedings, but there hardly seemed any point.

I stood at the back of the orchestra stalls observing. I watched the rehearsal. This was Waiting in the Wings, Sir Noel Coward’s last major play, the one he wrote for his senior actress friends, set in a retirement home for older theatrical ladies. The rehearsal lacked spark because everyone knew that whatever we did, it was over.

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The theatre was empty, and the house lights were up. Atmosphere is everything, isn’t it? With a full house, the action on the stage lit by sympathetic illumination, the glow spilling into the auditorium, the gilt on the proscenium glisters and glamours an evening’s entertainment. Here the workaday lighting cast the very theatre in drabness.

Then Alex Cohen arrived.

Bit of back story here. On his 21st birthday Alex Cohen came into an inheritance, he immediately set about producing a show. It was Ghost For Sale and it closed after six performances. He lost a lot of money on it. He then immediately got involved in producing Angel Street (later filmed as Gaslight), and he made his money back. It was to set a pattern of ups and downs that he pursued for the next sixty years.

Alex Cohen in the time that I knew him, was one of the Grand Old Men of Broadway, Waiting in the Wings was his 101st Broadway show and his last. He was the man who said: “If God had meant me to ride in taxis, he wouldn’t have invented limousines.”

He was a great man of theatre, but there is no way you could say he was a well man. In his eightieth year he looked somewhat like a giant Halibut on a bad day, and his walk was a lumbering progress, his breathing like the early days of steam technology.

Alex lumbered in the auditorium and down the center aisle. Reaching row G he spread himself across a couple of seats and pulled out a cell phone. He began a conversation which started quietly, but grew loud in volume when the person on the other end of the line seemed to have said something that angered him. Suddenly I heard, “Listen, ASSHOLE! I told you, the message is no discount from any source! Get your ass down to the box office and buy a ticket, and if you’re too cheap to do that you’ll miss the best show of the season!”

The actors, 10 veteran Broadway actresses and a sprinkling of movie stars, all heard it too. The rehearsal slowed, faltered and finally stopped. All the ladies of Broadway staring, mesmerized by the conversation proceeding in the middle of the orchestra stalls in the empty front of house of the ornate, historic, Colonial Theatre in Boston.

Alex continued. He was, I believe the correct American vernacular is … “ripping the publicist a new one.” It went on and on. The actresses drifted to the front of the stage, watching and listening open mouthed, Michael Langham, the director who had once been a protege of Guthrie’s also turned away from the stage to listen slack-jawed as Alex gave ever more furious energy to the cell phone he gripped in his angry hands.

I watched too from the shadows at the back of the orchestra. From that vantage point I saw an example of what Peter Brook has defined for us as “Holy Theatre” which he says is, “The invisible made visible.”

Little by little the cloud of grey despondency, the gloomy resignation that attends the prospect of returning again to the wonderful world of unemployment, the defeat that is a flopped show… little by little this atmosphere began to transform.

13Colonial-Theatre-IntIt began with the lighting. The houselights did not dim, nor the stage lights brighten, but the darkly illuminating principle of a discouraging reception was obscured, then obliterated, to re-emerge as total confidence and certainty. The gilt on the proscenium began to glow in subtle shades, and the metaphysical gas of confidence oozed around the theatre. You could feel it seeking hollows and shadows in the dressing rooms, in the understage cross-over where costumes were set for quick changes, even in the box office where I fancy the phones began to ring. It rolled too in a visible/invisible wave across the seats of the orchestra to the stage where it broke over as fine a collection of Broadway dames as were ever gathered, as simultanously the thought erupted in all minds, “Oh! Maybe we won’t close at the weekend?!”

Alex continued his tirade of insult and cajolement ripe with expletives, “What the hell do you mean suggesting a discount?!? This is the best goddam show to hit the New York in living memory!” The theatre was silent. Alex, a producer not an actor, but a showman, an original, he knew his audience that day and he had them spell bound. With a final, “Asshole!” yelled at full throttle at the publicist, Alex pounded the off button on the phone, took a breath, lumbered to his feet and processed slowly up the aisle and out of the theatre, saying not a word as he went.

There was a long beat of silence, then Michael Langham turned to the company and said with quiet assurance, “Well, shall we continue?” The ladies answered with optimistic smiles and the rehearsal began with new purpose. Four weeks later the show opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway in New York, garnered better reviews than in Boston. Award nominations followed, and a transfer to the Eugene O’Neil theatre round the corner. It was an impressive six month run. And that phone call had everything to do with it.

Waiting in the Wings was Alex Cohen’s last show. When he went they dimmed the lights on the Great White Way.


Later I pondered this incident. Admirable is the temperament that refuses to accept defeat, that exudes infectious positivity no matter what. But there was a lot of technique involved as well. It took me a long time to wonder about it, and only now writing many years later am I more than 95% sure … there was no publicist, there was no-one on the other end of the phone in the Colonial Theatre in Boston that day.


One Midnight in Paris

I met Lauren Bacall just at the turn of the millennium. She was in Waiting in the Wings on Broadway, Noel Coward’s last major play, the one he wrote for his distinguished actress friends of a certain age, the play being set in a retirement home for ladies of the stage. Seldom produced, revived in New York in 1999, this was a production to celebrate Coward’s centenary.

Our two leading ladies were Lauren Bacall, screen goddess of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Rosemary Harris, stage star on both sides of the Atlantic and now known to a global audience as Spiderman’s Aunt May.

Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris in Waiting in the Wings.
Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris in Waiting in the Wings.

The other actors in the play comprised a who’s who of New York theatrical names, including Britain’s own Simon Jones (Arthur Dent in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide), I understudied Simon and later went on for him for almost a month when family matters took him back to England. If you are curious the full cast list is here. Initially, I was included in this illustrious company playing the relatively modest (but utterly crucial) role of the 2nd St. John’s Ambulance Man under my former stage name of Collin Johnson. In fact the redoubtable Geddeth Smith (1st St. John’s Ambulance Man), and I, carried a dead body down the stairs on a stretcher and out through the common room of the home where the play is set, in the pre-credits opening sequence. It was a solemn moment which gave a foundation of gravitas to the play.

Until one matinee about 90 performances into the season, I did what Sir Noel Coward famously said you must never do, and tripped over a bit of furniture, dropping the body.

One of those things that technically you are indeed not supposed to do, and yet somehow, one of those which many actors do seem to do after all. All the distinguished ladies of Broadway had to turn upstage to hide their giggles, and for the rest of the run Liz Wilson would sometimes whisper mischievously to me as I was waiting to go on, “Drop the body again, Colin!”

Opening in Boston, the show ran for six months in New York, playing first the Walter Kerr theatre and then The Eugene O’ Neil. The run included one of the most masterful bits of producing I’ve ever seen – but that’s a story for later.

Miss Bacall, had a reputation and deservedly so for being smart, feisty and direct. She was a creature of the movies and all that can mean, and she knew it. She trailed clouds of glamour. She was also of course, one of the greatest movie stars that ever lived and one of the most beautiful human beings ever to act in front of a camera.

Later I came to think that Miss Bacall’s tough exterior also functioned in a protective way. It took a little time, but by slow degrees a manner which could be truly challenging turned, in my perception, into a graceful charm. Midway through the run she hosted the cast at a dinner at Joe Allen’s and hair was let down on all sides.

It wasn’t as if she and I became buddies with weekly phone calls, but there was a charming coda to the experience of being in a show with her.

The show ran till May, and then Trish Conolly, who had baffled me by appearing to be far too young to be included in a cast specifically about ladies of retirement age, and I, took a romantic trip to Paris.

In Paris we met up with Betty, as we now called her.

She used to go to Paris in the summer when she could. This was Bastille Day, July 14th. Oddly, on this day, instead of haute cuisine, she took us to a favorite Chinese restaurant — and very good it was too. Gong pao chicken, and we each had a Vodka and tonic.

Betty was relaxed and charm itself, and she had plans, insisting we were to see the fireworks. At about 20 minutes of midnight we left the restaurant and began a gentle stroll along a boulevard, getting slightly lost. Suddenly the boulevard filled with about a million people and I became acutely aware that I had LAUREN BACALL on my arm. It was distantly reminiscent of a tricky moment in an early technical rehearsal of Waiting in the Wings when I had to go on in a blackout to guide Miss Bacall off the stage. This delicate function, taking some ten seconds or so, became my nightly task. But lost on the boulevard as we were, this was a scene change without end. “What happens,” I thought, “if she is recognized, and the crowd demands Humphrey Bogart?”

We found our way, we sat on a bench in the Place de la Bastille to watch the fireworks. Betty, enjoying the evening, reminisced with details about her glamorous career, in a way that would make a biographer thrill. When the fireworks were over Trish and I escorted Betty through side streets to the modest hotel where she liked to stay low profile.

And then there was an incident which was all film.

The setting was just right. Like one of those Noir exteriors lit by a master of lighting. We were on a cobbled street and the lamplight was something Fellini might have come up with. There was moonlight too.

The crowds were gone, the street was empty. And then we heard footsteps as though made by the best of foley artists. A young man of maybe 17 or 18 years old approached shyly. He spoke softly to me in French, “Is that? It is … isn’t it, Lauren …?”


“Do you think she would give me an autograph?”

“I don’t know, you can ask.”

The young man offered a ragged piece of paper. Betty turned to him, gave him a smile that dazzled him and glamorized the night. It was a gracious moment, as she favored the boy — he was scarcely more than that. Her smile unleashed the full force of the silver screen. It made him weak at the knees — I know because he turned to me, as Miss Bacall signed her name.

“Mes genoux tremblent.” he said, “My knees are trembling.”