Kids Be Darned!

Two actors to watch, Hoffman’s kvetch, Rudy & Gloria

Despite the theater community’s eternally stated intent to support American playwrights, it remains hopelessly Anglophile vide the number of Brit-penned works produced here each season. Any actor aiming for a serious career must therefore hone his accent and diction to suit, but it’s not something that everyone can master. Two American actors, however, recently met this challenge and triumphed—Zak Orth in “Rope,” seen December 11, and Wilbur Henry in “Orson’s Shadow,” seen December 17.

Just as he was the best thing about The Roundabout’s 2001 revival of “Major Barbara,” the deliciously preening Orth completely stole “Rope,” through his plummy projection and deft comic timing, investing his portrayal of pompous nuisance Rupert Cadell with a richness of detail that evoked the young Charles Laughton playing Oscar Wilde. Such bravura is all the more surprising, coming from an actor who is cinematically known for young slacker/jock types, as in “In and Out”—he was one of Kevin Kline’s students—“Loser,” and the delightful “Wet Hot American Summer.”

Henry stepped in as understudy at a Saturday matinee of Austin Pendleton’s “Orson’s Shadow,” in the role of no less than “Laurence Olivier,” and damn, if he didn’t cover himself with glory. I’ve admired this actor ever since his haunting appearance as the ghost-ridden steward, Scrubby, in “Outward Bound” last year, and, as Larry O., he brought impressive voice, brilliant delivery and all the requisite egomania, as well as humanity, this daunting character required. The way he contemptuously spat out one word, “Kazan!”, worked on an infinite variety of levels.

I asked this Pennsylvania-born actor how he felt about playing this and he replied, “I was petrified. I’ve played Orson Welles eight performances in this play, and Olivier for four now. The performance you saw was my third Olivier, but I hadn’t played it for nearly two months. The second the lights came up on the first scene, every drop of fluid in my mouth and throat went straight to my bladder. It took me a while to calm down.”

Olivier, as it happens, is the actor Henry confesses he steals the most from, but other inspirations include Robert Mitchum, William Powell, Laughton, and Alistair Sim. The British accent is something Henry admits to doing ever since he was a child, but, although there are plans to do the just-closed “Orson’s Shadow” elsewhere, a London production seems doubtful: “British actors are terrified of playing Olivier, and no one would accept an American being brought over to do it.”

Henry said the talk-back sessions of “Orson’s Shadow” were especially stimulating, as when Lynn Redgrave came and reminisced about a childhood visit to Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, at their legendary country estate, Notley. She said her family was met at the door by Leigh, who informed them that, although the adults were welcome, the children would have to stay outside and play. “It was the dead of winter,” she said, “and we could look through the windows and see them inside, enjoying their martinis. But, even then, we knew our place and accepted it.”

Nobody hates kids as much as Jackie Hoffman. At her convulsing Hanukah show at Joe’s Pub seen on December 19, she showed she has not mellowed one whit since the days she would bring Lypsinka on to do their traditional onstage kicking of a stroller. Recalling how children have made her life hell ever since she was one herself and the little demons made fun of her strabismus condition, calling her “Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion,” Hoffman launched into a nonstop barrage of underage-aimed bile.

“Children’s rights—what rights do children have?” she snarled. “Do they want to get married too? The only time I was not embarrassed by the women on ‘The View’ is when Barbara Walters said that public breast feeding made her uncomfortable.” Hoffman went on to describe a protest, which subsequently took place outside ABC studios by irate mothers who labeled themselves “Lactivists,” shrieking, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to look!” Hoffman countered this: “My boyfriend said, “So I should be able to jerk off on the subway, and ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t have to look!’ Call him a Jerktivist!”

Hoffman honored the Jewish holiday with a sidesplitting medley of phlegm-clearing Hanukah favorites and added, “The tragedy of Roshoshana is not that the ones you love die. It’s that the ones you don’t love don’t die.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love kids. In their place. Such a somewhere is American Girl Place, where I took my 9-year-old niece, Megan, for some holiday fun. Dolls, of course, have always been the big forbidden pleasure for little gay boys—I was no exception—and this Fifth Avenue poupée emporium is a surreal experience. For prices starting at $10, you can have your American Girl doll’s hair done by a staff of incredibly unruffled stylists. Don’t bring Barbie—she’ll face discrimination. You can buy a sparkly flapper dress to match that of your immobile baby’s. You can go up to the campily decorated restaurant, with special mini doll seats, feast on macaroni and cheese and chocolate cake, and shriek your little head off. You can even see a live show—“The American Girls Revue,” but people-watching is more entertaining here.

I’ve never seen so many big ole straight married men serenely carrying little pinafore-clad dollies. “They have boy dolls, too,” I overheard one p.c. parent say to her little son. “Don’t you want one?” He vehemently shook his head “No,” but I saw the secret yearning in his eyes.

Anthology Film Archives is showing a true rarity, “Beyond the Rocks,” January 15-19. This 1922 Rudolph Valentino/Gloria Swanson vehicle was considered lost for 80 years before it was discovered by the Netherlands Film Museum among a vast nitrate film collection bequeathed to them by a collector.

It’s a campy ride, which takes place in the Alps—Swanson, hiking in high heels, nearly slips to her doom—and the Sahara Desert. Penned by Elinor Glynn, who coined the term “It” for sex appeal and was the Danielle Steele of her day, it’s a curio mostly interesting for its star chemistry. Valentino, even with eye shadow and lipstick is utterly camera proof, the first metrosexual in movies, with his perfectly bespoke jodhpurs and spats.

Swanson comes off less well. Apart from the “Sunset Boulevard” gorgon she came to be chiefly known as, with her huge aquamarine eyes and jutting bone structure, she was one of the screen’s major beauties, but you’d not know it here. The lighting is too harsh and she is saddled with the sack-like, unflattering styles of the period—one hat looks like an ottoman. But she is every inch a star, especially when she drops a hankie, doused in her favorite Narcissus perfume, which Rudy duly retrieves to bury his nose in.

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