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April 6, 2000

 

 

Martha's One-Night Stand

Living legend Uta Hagen revisits her Tony-winning role from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for a benefit reading.

 

 by Rob Kendt

 

Can theatrical lightning strike twice? Uta Hagen's long and distinguished career onstage has been dedicated to the proposition that lightning may strike not just twice but several times over the run of a show.

 

"I love a long run," said Hagen in a recent interview. "Once I'm going, it's a new experience every night—new things happen and sometimes you don't even know where they come from. And everybody always says I'm better when I end than when I started."

 

The occasion for our interview was a one-night stand rather than a long run, an event that will seriously test her powers of re-creation: a benefit staged reading of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the 1962 Edward Albee hit which won Hagen a Tony for her definitive performance as Martha, a thwarted, acid-tongued professor's wife with a taste for drink and a serious Electra complex.

 

Slated for Sunday, Apr. 16, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown L.A., this Woolf is a repeat of a reportedly magical night last November at New York's Majestic Theatre, on which Hagen and a cast that included Jonathan Pryce, Mia Farrow, and Matthew Broderick performed the play with scripts in chairs-but with some props and staging-as a benefit for HB Playwrights Foundation and Theatre, an affiliate of HB Studios, the school, founded by her late husband Herbert Berghof, at which Hagen has taught since 1947. Hagen, who turned 80 last year, credits Robert Callely, managing director of HB Playwrights Foundation, with putting both evenings together. (The L.A. date benefits both HB and the youth programs of the Ahmanson's producing organization, Center Theatre Group.)

 

"I wasn't really for it in the beginning," Hagen said of the notion of revisiting a 38-year-old stage triumph. "I thought it might be a disaster. I mean, I'm awful old to suddenly pretend I'm 40 years younger, or 30 years younger." (Indeed, Hagen was 43 in the original production, 10 years younger than Martha is written.) "That it worked so well was so thrilling to me, I can't tell you."

 

Last November's Majestic reading thrilled critics, too, who reviewed this one-off on-book evening as if it were a commercial run. The New York Times' Vincent Canby called it "the year's most dazzling evening of theatre," and in the same paper Margo Jefferson raved that Hagen was "astonishing."

 

No one was less astonished than Hagen herself, who said she didn't consult her old notes from the original 1962 run (an excerpt of which is published in her seminal 1973 text Respect for Acting).

 

"It was funny how much came back," she mused. "If you do correct work, it lies there somewhere in your subconscious and comes right back when you start working on it."

 

But, as she recalled, the "correct work" she did in 1962 was almost absurdly foreshortened. It's a story that sounds all too familiar to today's time-crunched stage actors.

 

"Our rehearsal was, like, two and a half weeks," she said, still amazed. "I started working on it in the summer, but we didn't start rehearsing until mid-September; we were supposed to have a month's rehearsal. And then Arthur Hill got stuck on a movie; we waited for him, but they didn't change the dates. So we opened to sold-out audiences in previews with two and a half weeks rehearsal! It was ludicrous—it was grotesque! I mean, how that worked, I'll never know; that was just plain luck. I would never do that again, ever."

 

For the revival reading, the actors had a week to rehearse under William S. Carden, an HB colleague. They're still on book, but actors make entrances and exits, swill drinks, break a bottle, and fire the famous flag-bearing gun. Props, as anyone who's read Hagen's Respect for Acting or its follow-up A Challenge for the Actor knows, are essential to her approach.

 

"Every producer with a brain in his head should have a propman on from the beginning of rehearsal, so you know what chair you're sitting in, you've got a glass there, you've got ice in it, you've got something to drink," opined Hagen. "Learning a part and then sticking in all the whole physical life afterwards—it's ludicrous. I just can't do it, and I don't know how other actors can, or why they put up with it."

 

There were other surprises in revisiting Woolf, said Hagen—"The whole play is much more vicious than I remembered"—but the point of the play, and its relevance today, resonated as strongly as ever for her.

 

"The fake values of what's important, what success means, the manipulations in a college town—it's so familiar," said Hagen, who grew up in the college town of Madison, Wisc., as the daughter of an art history professor from Germany. "What's interesting now—I had some students who helped cue me last summer; they were young and didn't know the play at all, and they were bowled over by it, as though the play had been written now. It hasn't aged at all."

 

At the time it debuted, it was controversial for the sexual and emotional frankness of its marital (and extra-marital) squabbling. But that's not what impressed Hagen.

 

"You know, there's not one four-letter word in it, except for ‘screw,' and ‘screw you,' stuff like that," she pointed out. "But it was considered so shocking at the time, the language. The producers and people around all thought it was a very daring thing to do. I just knew that what I was reading was unbelievably special. I remember, I think I was the only one who said, "No, this is surefire,' and it was."

 

No less controversial was the famous film version, which was cast with real-life marrieds Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Martha and George. While any who saw Hagen's take on the role consider it definitive, most of the world knows Martha from Taylor's boozy, heartbreaking star turn. Hagen wasn't considered for the role.

 

"I got so used to that when I was young," she said. She did, after all, win a Tony in 1950 for her lead performance in Clifford Odets' The Country Girl—a role that went to Grace Kelly in the film version. "When I grew up in the theatre, agents and writers from the studios came to New York to look at plays, which they would buy for their stable of stars. That's just the way it was done, and it didn't bother me at all, because I'm not very good at movies."

 

Though Hagen wouldn't comment on the film version of Woolf, she did go out on a limb and call her current reading partner, Jonathan Pryce, "the best George ever. He's unbelievable, he's so good." In any case, Hagen said she's shed any possessiveness of the roles she defined for a generation of theatregoers, including leads in Saint Joan, A Month in the Country, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Good Woman of Setzuan, Othello.

 

"You know, when you teach, you get over that thing of thinking something is yours," Hagen said. "I love to see how other people tackle something. When people do scenes in my class—I remember in the beginning, they'd always say, ‘Ooh, you played this part,' and I'd say, ‘That has nothing to do with anything—how are you going to play it?' "

 

But don't start talking about Martha being Hagen's "signature" role.

 

"No, noooo, no—I don't want it to be," she said, laughing but not joking. "People always say things like that; I hate that. I've done so many wonderful plays. I love doing this one, and I'm glad people love it that much, but I don't think it's "my role.' I hope my career has a bigger breadth than that."

 

An actress of Hagen's stature can show that lifelong breadth in a single role. Harold Clurman's words about the 1962 Woolf premiere are appropriate here: "Hagen, with her robust and sensuously potent élan, her fierce will to expression and histrionic delicacy, gives as Martha her most vital performance since Blanche in Streetcar... She is an actress who should always be before us."

 

The staged reading of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," starring Uta Hagen, Jonathan Pryce, Mia Farrow, and Peter Gallagher, will be held Sunday, Apr. 16, 2 p.m. at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A. Proceeds will go to HB Playwrights Foundation & Theatre Endowment, and the Center Theatre Group's Programs for Youth. Regular tickets range $50-75. (213) 628-2772.

 

Hagen will also appear for a Q&A session at the Writer's Guild Theatre, Apr. 22, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20-50. (323) 655-8587 .And Hagen will teach four exclusive Master Classes at the Howard Fine Acting Studio in West Hollywood; seats for auditors may be available. (323) 951-0302.