"I've had four proposals since I've been here," "Nicholas Nickleby" cast member Jane Carr said brightly. "People in the audience yell out, 'Will you marry me?'--and I say yes to 'em all." She laughed. "I suppose in California, 8 1/2 hours is a relationship."
There's no doubt this is a popular cast. Privately and publicly, the actors have been feted all over town--in embassies and country clubs and, recently, on Melrose Avenue, where neighborhood merchants welcomed the 32-person troupe with such honors as the "Nicholas Nickleby Frugen Shake," the "I've-Been-Nicked Cone" and a brand new Fanny Squeers doll.
While Los Angeles has been enjoying the gifts of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the company also has been enjoying Los Angeles: from a Fourth of July picnic concert at the Hollywood Bowl ("In England," said company member Allan David, "you'd have to go with coats and blankets") to a Dodgers-Cardinals baseball game. ("We ate Dodger Dogs and nachos with processed cheese and Cracker Jacks," sighed Carr blissfully.)
"And three of us did Disneyland one Monday," added cast member Jane Whittenshaw. "We went out singing songs like little kids in the back of the car, and came back exhausted. We regressed the whole day, came home with a collective mental age of 6." For Carr, the Electric Parade was the highlight of the day, for Whittenshaw it was the Matterhorn, for David it was . . . the Peter Pan Ride.
"I opted out of Space Mountain at the last minute," he admitted. "The mental ride I went through was far worse than you can imagine. You wait (in line) for a half-hour, then you go down and hear those screams. They were not happy screams. There's a warning sign that says, 'No pregnant women, people with heart problems, children under age 3'--so I became pregnant, and under 3. As I left, I was booed by the people in line."
Such negative social responses have been rare (although Carr did encounter a barefoot "loopy lady" who slipped from the audience into her Ahmanson dressing room and verbally accosted her). But it's been more than set off by a happy parade of celebrity attendees, including Ann Miller, Dorothy McGuire, Ricardo Montalban (who blew kisses at Carr "and I smiled a lot, went all girlie"), Julie Harris, Jack Nicholson, Richard Gere (twice), Julie Andrews, Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore. Carr and Whittenshaw also saw Sylvester Stallone and his bodyguards on Rodeo Drive, "but we were cool and kept walking."
Glamorous restaurants have also been popular on their must-see list: Carr rates favorites as the Ivy, Le Dome (where she spotted Prince), Joe Allen's (one of the few restaurants that caters to their late-night appetites) and Intermezzo.
What they do find charming are the creature comforts of having their groceries bagged for them at the neighborhood supermarket (" unheard of in England," stressed Whittenshaw). Yet at the same store, cast member Frances Cuka noted, there are also some unhappy social reminders: "One day there was a man at the back begging, and a pathetic old lady who didn't say anything, just put her hands out."
Poverty is no stranger at home, Cuka hastened to add, "but I think it was the contrast that shocked us, because we'd been having some wonderful parties, seeing the upper side of it. So, suddenly, to be confronted by that woman. . . . "
Added Carr, "In England, you know where the beggars might be, where the drunks and down-and-outs might be. But here it changes from abject poverty to supreme wealth in two blocks."
With Mondays and Tuesdays free, the cast has had plenty of time to roam the city. Some have ventured even farther: up to San Francisco and down to Mexico. But many, like company member Hubert Rees, are happiest staying in town--and on the beaches: "I like getting pebble-dashed (tossed by waves onto the gritty sand) in Santa Monica," he said cheerfully.
Catching waves and rays isn't all some of the single actors would like to remember California by.
"I think we were initially picked as people whose hearts wouldn't get severely broken if we went away," said Carr of her romantic situation. "Now I'm looking for tall, handsome Americans with lots of money." Seconded Whittenshaw, "I'm taking home my Mickey Mouse ears and a California man."
That might not be for quite a while: After its Aug. 9 closing, "Nicholas" will play New York at least through mid-November.
The length of the run--and of each night's performance, the actors claim--is softened by overflowing audience support. ("They come up in the beginning," Carr said, smiling, "and say, 'What are you playing? Show me your name in the program. We'll be looking for you.' ")
"People have been extremely generous, terribly hospitable, and it's helped us to do the eight hours," Rees nodded, "because that enthusiasm ricochets from the audience to us--and it gives us energy."
Added Carr: "The standing ovations (which greet the end of every show) are definitely not something one gets used to. I start (the curtain call) with my back to the crowd, but by the time I turn around, there are all these people standing. It always gives me such a thrill. . . . And there's a new American word we've learned: It goes (she attempted a genteel holler) ' Wooo! ' We don't do that in England at all."