A play reading is an opportunity to be in at the beginning, to discover something yet to be the “talk of the town” or even a future hit play. On Wednesday, September 24, four people whose lives are intertwined will work together to present something very fresh — the reading of a brand new play, “Class,” by Charles Evered, at the Arts Council of Princeton, where Evered is currently the artist-in-residence. The event intersects the professional lives of Princeton- and LA-based playwright Evered; actress, dancer, singer Bebe Neuwirth, a Princeton native, who will direct the reading; a British actor/director now directing “Herringbone” at McCarter, Roger Rees, who will read the male role in the two-character play; and Kristen Connelly, a young actress with film and television experience, who will read the female role.
Evered balances a bi-coastal career between his home base in Princeton and the west coast, where he writes and directs for television and film. Evered and his wife, Wendy, have just purchased a town house in Princeton and all “spare time is spent painting and fixing it up.” They have two children: Margaret, 9, and John, 7.
Evered continues to write for the USA Network series “Monk,” as well as write, adapt, and direct for film. On the first anniversary of 9/11, a number of artists were asked to write work for a commemorative performance in Manhattan. Evered’s piece was a 10-minute play, “Adopt a Sailor,” performed three times with three different casts. In one: Bebe Neuwirth. The tie was made and Evered cast her again in a further development, a full-length version of this play workshopped in 2007, and yet again in a film version shot last year that has an upcoming East coast preview at the Williamstown Film Festival on Friday, October 24. There will also be a benefit screening of the film in Princeton at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts on Monday, November 10.
Bebe Neuwirth attended the Chapin School and graduated from Princeton High School in 1976. Her father, Lee, is a mathemetician; her mother, Sydney Anne, is an artist. Neuwirth is a two-time Tony Award winner. She began her artistic career as a dancer, has added singer, dramatic actress, teacher and coach, and now director. According to Evered, who is generous with his praise, “she could have a whole additional career as a director of legitimate theater.” The world knows her best as Dr. Lilith Sternin of the popular TV show “Cheers.” Neuwirth was on the series from 1986 through 1993, during which time she twice received the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. After high school she studied dance at Juilliard and made her professional debut as Sheila in the Broadway production of “A Chorus Line” in 1980. The Tonys are for her Broadway performances in “Sweet Charity” (supporting actress award, 1986) and in “Chicago” (best actress award, 1997), for which she also won four other major awards.
Actor/director Roger Rees took New York by storm in the title role of “Nicholas Nickelby,” the marathon production from England’s Royal Shakespeare Company that was the hot ticket of the 1981-’82 season and for which Rees received the Tony Award as best actor.
In a telephone interview Neuwirth says Rees played “one of the landmark Hamlets,” in the 1984 Royal Shakespeare production. His film and television credits are numerous, but the connection to Neuwirth came in 1989 through 1993 when he appeared on “Cheers” as the English tycoon Robin Colcord who romanced Kirstie Alley’s character. More recent TV roles have included playing the English ambassador to the United States on “The West Wing” and a heart surgeon on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
But it was his bonding with Neuwirth on the set of “Cheers” that has lasted longer than any of the series. Neuwirth says, “We became very good friends and this has stayed over the years.” While researching this story, I came across a pleasant discovery — a photo of them in the classic pose of Katherina and Petruchio in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” from a performance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1999. Rees has been in Princeton over the last few weeks directing BD Wong in the current McCarter production of “Herringbone.”
In Neuwirth’s “incarnation” as a concert artist she appears sometimes with an orchestra and other times just with a piano, and has concerts booked all through next spring. Several years ago she collected a number of songs by Kurt Weill that she especially liked. “I wanted to do something with them other than a concert.” Rees came up with the concept for “Here Lies Jenny,” in which a former saloon singer down on her luck arrives in a dump of a bar — a dark and sinister place, a far cry from the bar of “Cheers” — and meets assorted denizens. Through the music, she journeys in memory through her life. In 2004 “Here Lies Jenny” was a solid success at the tiny Zipper Theatre in Manhattan, directed, naturally, by Rees.
The new addition to this crew who will present the reading of “Class” is Kristen Connolly. Playwright Evered tells me that he called his friend Sarah Fargo, a talent agent, and asked “who is the hottest young actress that you handle?” So, Connolly, who graduated from Yale School of Drama and has appeared on “Guiding Light,” “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” and in the film “Mona Lisa Smile,” joins the company.
The story of “Class,” writes Evered via E-mail, is “more than just about showbiz or the acting world. It’s a play about two sort of ‘broken’ people who have big problems — sort of secret problems.” One is a young actress; the other, an acting teacher. “They somehow become deep and caring friends.”
Neuwirth’s appearance back in Princeton is significant. “This is the first time I’ve returned to work in Princeton since I got my union card.” Her parents still live here and she enjoys visiting them and also “revisiting the beauty of the town and the campus.” However, she is a bit dismayed by changes, “My heart sort of breaks. It’s no longer surrounded by fields. It used to be a lot more ‘out in the country’ than now.”
At Princeton High School, Neuwirth performed in a number of productions and gives the teachers there credit for establishing a solid background of professionalism rare at the high school level, but abetted by a number of people involved professionally in the theatre. In addition, “There were some really talented people in my class.” One she notes is Adam Roth. In her senior year, she and Roth played the mayor and his wife, Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, in “The Music Man.” Neuwirth enjoys letting that character’s name roll off her tongue.
Another classmate she remembers is Dick Warren. “He was fantastic as McMurphy in our production of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’” (the role indelibly etched on screen by Jack Nicholson.) She laughs as she recalls this rather odd choice for a student production and assures me, “But it was very well done, directed by our English teacher in a very small space.” Neuwirth played Nurse Ratched. Originally, this role was to have been played by Princeton-based professional actress Georgine Hall. But Hall deferred to Neuwirth when she heard the young woman’s audition. Hall became a very important person in Neuwirth’s life. “There are people who are more than a great teacher, not a mentor because you don’t spend all your time with them, but time spent with them is so precious.” Later the two of them appeared together in a PJ&B production of “Hello Dolly” that was mounted at the McCarter Theater.
Neuwirth started ballet classes at Princeton Ballet School at age five. “I never had any doubt that that was what I wanted to be.” However, when she saw the Broadway production of “Pippin,” she discovered a different kind of dancing, Broadway dancing. “I didn’t know Broadway was an option until I saw ‘Pippin.’ That was the show that changed my life.” She remembers saying, “That’s for me.” She still continues ballet classes, noting that they are essential for a “Fosse dancer.” It’s not surprising that she defines herself this way. After her appearance in “A Chorus Line” she appeared in 1982 in the Fosse musical “Dancin.’”
She has worked with the best in the business. When she looked for a choreographer for “Here Lies Jenny,” she hired the Fosse dancer/ actress Ann Ranking, who starred with her in “Chicago.” It’s all about connections.
Another expansion of Neuwirth’s career has led to coaching and teaching master classes. Last March, when she was doing a weekend concert performance with the Pittsburg Symphony, she was asked to do a master class at Carnegie Mellon University. “I really enjoyed that very much.” She says she worked with dancers on a “piece of Fosse choreography, or singers singing a song, or an actor doing a monologue. I’d coach. It is inspiring to watch a talented kid perform and know how to help this person. After I work with them, I have them perform again. When I see the improvement, it feels great.” She has been engaged to teach another master class at Harvard this fall. “I want to continue because I really enjoy it.”
Neuwirth says, “I’m kind of like an old vaudevillian — like you have to do everything: sing, dance, act, play the ukulele. Not that I can do everything, but I like to try to do everything. Artists need to express. My first impulse was to express through dance, then singing, then acting, doing cartoon voices, comedy revues. It’s all just expressing.”
“Class,” Wednesday, September 24, 2:30 p.m., Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Dramatic reading of a new play written by Charles Evered, artist in residence at the Arts Council. Roger Rees portrays a jaded acting teacher and Kristen Connelly plays his student. Princeton native and Tony Award-winning actress Bebe Neuwirth directs. Seating is limited. Registration required. $5. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.