Since coming to George Street Theater, artistic director David Saint has brought some wonderful theater to area audiences, but perhaps his greatest gift is bringing the theater phenomenon 91-year-young Arthur Laurents to George Street to direct and to work on his newest plays. Laurents’ theatrical success spans 64 years. Last season on Broadway, he astonished everyone directing the revival of “Gypsy” starring Patti LuPone. That musical, for which he wrote the book, had its premiere in 1959. This year, he’s done it again, directing a well-received revival of “West Side Story,” and also tinkering with his book. It’s currently playing on Broadway to capacity audiences. (Saint was the assistant director on this production of “West Side Story.”)
Right on the heels of all this, Saint is directing Laurents’ latest play, “New Year’s Eve,” which goes into previews at George Street Playhouse on Tuesday, April 14, and opens on Friday, April 17. This world premier is billed as a “sophisticated comedy” and according to actress Natasha Gregson Wagner, “it’s about so many things, but primarily it’s a family dynamic.” The family in the play are all show-biz people. The mother, played by Marlo Thomas, is an actress; the father, played by Keith Carradine, is a playwright, and the daughter, played by Wagner, is an actress on a soap opera.
There’s an interesting sidebar here. All three of these performers come from theatrical families. Thomas, of course, is “That Girl,” daughter of comedian and philanthropist Danny Thomas. Carradine’s father, John, appeared in a long list of films, many of them horror stories. His sons, the Carradine brothers — David, Robert, and Keith — had the audacity to play the infamous Younger Brothers in the 1980 film “The Long Riders.” Keith Carradine starred on Broadway in “Will Rogers Follies” (1993). Way back in 1968 to 1972, he was in the cast of the original Broadway production of “Hair,” where he and fellow actor in the show, Shelley Plimpton, merged for a time and had a daughter. The lineage carries on: actress Martha Plimpton is their daughter. This season she bowled over audiences and critics as the dance-hall cutie in the Roundabout Theatre revival of “Pal Joey” a more impressive surprise as she had been garnering praise each season since 2004 with her performances in serious dramas, including all three parts of “The Coast of Utopia.”
Natasha Gregson Wagner is the daughter of the late film actress Natalie Wood and producer/writer Richard Gregson. She was later adopted by Wood’s husband, actor Robert Wagner. As Natasha tells me in an interview backstage at George Street, “My father, Richard, and my sister, Sarah, are producing a play, ‘Trying,’ in London, starring my uncle, Michael Craig.” Her dad by adoption has had a long film and television career (“Hart to Hart”) and can currently be seen doing commercials for reverse mortgages and occasionally appearing on stage with Natasha’s step-mom Jill St. John, in the A.R. Gurney play “Love Letters.” There’s pride in Natasha’s voice as she adds, “My stepmother, Julia Gregson, is a writer. Her latest novel was on the bestseller list in England all last summer.”
When I sit down to chat with Natasha, she is curled up in a chair with her knees drawn to her chest. She is not wearing any makeup and has her hair pinned up in a free-form pony tail. The face that looked up at me was the same one of the child actress Natalie Wood in “Miracle on 34th Street” when she met Santa Claus at Macy’s. That is a film image that lives with me. Wood had an illustrious film career, making the transition to teen then to adult roles with ease. Among them, was the leading role in the movie versions of Laurents’ “West Side Story” and as the title character in the film of “Gypsy.” Natasha does not believe that her mother ever met Laurents as she says that he was not involved with the film productions; however, Laurents remembers that differently. According to Kelly Ryman, director of marketing at George Street, Laurents told her that he actually spent some time with Natalie — in addition to meeting her when she played Maria and Gypsy. He also told Ryman he was astonished when, fresh from a rehearsal of the the new “West Side Story,” he walked into the auditions for “New Year’s Eve” and saw Natasha. Natalie Wood was killed in a tragic boating accident when Natasha was 11 years old.
This theatrical lineage certainly seems appropriate preparation for the roles Wagner, Carradine, and Thomas play in “New Year’s Eve.” However, Natasha doesn’t feel that her background gives her an inside track on this family. She explains, “I don’t know any other life except to have famous parents. I can understand this character, but she deals with her parents in a very different way than I have dealt with mine and her parents are very different in the way they treat her.” As a child of movie stars, Natasha says that she was shielded from their fame. Her character, Sam, isn’t.
“Sam has a very intense relationship with her mother in the play. My mother passed away when I was 11,” says Natasha. So she feels that the relationship of the fictional characters is new territory for her. “Everybody always asks about show biz parents. Maybe everyone is curious. But it’s the thing I think about the least. It’s just what it is.”
This is Natasha’s stage debut, though she has appeared in a number of films. She didn’t start out to be an actress and attended Emerson College in Boston for two years, studying art history. “I’ve always loved art and I’m interested in history. This seemed a creative way to learn history.” But “just to see if I could,” she auditioned for films and got some roles that are best described as “edgy.” She says the roles people might remember are: “Two Girls and a Guy” with Robert Downey, Jr. (1995), David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” (1997), and “Another Day of Paradise” with James Woods and Melanie Griffith (1998). During the filming of “High Fidelity” (released in 2000) she connected with the film’s screenwriter. They were married for eight years according to Natasha. “I took time off from acting; we traveled and bought a lot of art.”
Her television work included a recurring role on “Chicago Hope” and a number of guest appearances on other programs. While taking acting classes with the noted acting coaches Harold Guskin and Larry Moss, she says she got a taste of theater and liked it. “In class, we are doing scenes on a stage in front of 100 people. It’s very gratifying,” she says. Her favorite writers are Chekhov, Albee, and Pinter. And of course, now Arthur Laurents. “That’s the great thing about class, you learn so much about playwrights and get to say these words that are so beautiful and so different from what you do on television. You strengthen your acting muscles.”
Her coach Moss told her she needed to do a play. So she flew to New York to audition for the Laurents play. “Now I feel ready,” she says. The rehearsal time for the play feels like a luxury to her even though she’s been told that this is a relatively short rehearsal period. “In TV or movies, for the most part, there is no rehearsal process. We’ve just finished the second week of rehearsal here at George Street and we have worked six days a week reading the play, talking about it and trying things.” Explaining her own process, she says, “I’m just trying to find the truth and stay in the moment with the story.” Describing her approach to the part, she says she tries to meet it as she would for any role, “with lots of concentration and focus — and an open mind and heart.”
She has been doing yoga since she was 18. “It’s a big part of my life and so much more than an exercise. It’s really about spirituality; it’s about life. Yogis say you’re as old as your spine. I hope that when I’m Arthur’s age, I have a very straight spine.” Laurents amazes her (and everyone else). “He’s unstoppable, with tons of ideas and not frail in any way.” When I ask what she thinks his secret is, she says, “He’s not done with the things he wants to say or doing the things he wants to do. He just went skiing over the holidays. I forget that he’s 91.”
Natasha seems off to a good start to achieving this goal. She and her best friend, Amanda Anka, have just finished writing the first draft of a screenplay. When “New Year’s Day” is over, she may stay in New York a bit longer, see some theater, and maybe even audition for another play. She is still an avid art collector, and loves to cook and travel.
“I must say that my life is quite full when I’m not acting. There’s that great Oscar Wilde quote: ‘Put your talent into your work, but your genius into your life.’ For right now, I’m just in the ‘now,’ focusing on this play.”
She’s enjoying being in New York and did get to see the recent production of Chekov’s “The Seagull.” Another bonus is that her godfather, the playwright Mark Crowley (“Boys in the Band”), lives in the city. “I had dinner with him last night. It’s a plus that while I’m here I get to see him often; I’m very close to him. He and both my dads know so much about my mom and my childhood that I can constantly ask them questions, so it’s easier to piece my life together.”
Both her dads and her godfather are coming to see her in the play.
“New Year’s Eve,” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through May 10. Marlo Thomas, Keith Carradine, and Natasha Gregson Wagner star in world premiere comedy by Arthur Laurents. Directed by David Saint. $28 to $66. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.