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THEATER

Working From the Heart

Chris Sarandon and Joanna Gleason, co-stars in 'Thorn and Bloom,' enjoy collaboration in marriage and as actors.

July 12, 1998|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

The realization didn't fully set in until one of the other actresses took Joanna Gleason by the shoulders, gave her a strong shaking and said, "You two belong together; you're so in love. We're all just waiting. Come on, now."

It was true: Chris Sarandon, a handsome temptation for Gleason's Nora Charles character in the 1991 musical "Nick & Nora," had become hard to resist in real life as well. The problem-plagued production lasted just a week on Broadway, but Gleason, a Tony Award winner for "Into the Woods," and Sarandon, an Academy Award nominee for "Dog Day Afternoon," settled in for a long run, marrying in 1995.

As they work together again--on "Thorn and Bloom," a pair of short plays opening this weekend at the Court Theatre in Los Angeles--they look back with deepened appreciation for what happened when they fell in love.

"Neither of us was looking for a fling," Sarandon says. "We just enjoyed each other's company, and we were having a great time together--and it just happened."

He pauses and grins. "There's a song there, somewhere."

Their relationship became the calm in the middle of a storm of finger-pointing and unpleasantness, as the musical variation on the "Thin Man" mysteries thundered toward disaster.

"It was just a play," Gleason remembers, "and it suddenly became less exciting to be at the theater--full of expectations and praying to the theater gods--than it was to go home after the show and be with this man, and talk about life, and talk about the future. I started to grow up when I met Chris. And my work has gotten better. Your great work doesn't come from a tortured life; your great work comes from an expanded mind and heart."

"Thank you," Sarandon says quietly.

The couple sit side by side onstage at the Arcade, the Culver City workshop space where they have been readying "Thorn and Bloom." Time and again, their body language does the talking for them. Sarandon drapes an arm onto the back of his wife's chair at one point, and she rests her arm on top of his, running her hand up his T-shirt sleeve. When their eyes lock, his go dark with meaning, hers go all glittery.

"Thorn and Bloom" has been marked by none of the behind-the-scenes bickering of the big-budget "Nick & Nora." Indeed, the couple's discussion of it is so chipper that it sounds as though it were written by a press agent.

"I don't think there's a shekel involved here," Gleason says. But never mind that. "We have a lot of fun."

The project grew out of the couple's friendship with playwright Michael Patrick King. Creator of last year's short-lived CBS sitcom "Temporarily Yours," he met Gleason when he set about luring her into its cast. He's now a writer and co-executive producer of the HBO series "Sex and the City."

King wrote "Bloom" for Gleason ("I'm no dummy, I really cashed in on her amazing talent," he quips), and he felt Sarandon would be perfect for a key role in "Thorn." "They're phenomenal artists, and they make me look great," adds King, who also directed the show.

Though the comic plays are self-contained, they are related in theme and are meant to be performed together.

"Thorn" is the story of a Hollywood screenwriter who is attempting to reconcile his homosexuality with his Christian belief. In hopes of clarifying Jesus' attitude toward gays and lesbians, he decides to go straight to the source--inviting Christ to lunch at an entertainment industry hangout. Sarandon portrays Christ to Donald Berman's screenwriter.

In "Bloom," a solo piece, Gleason portrays a spirit-being who briefs souls before they embark for life on Earth. Among the lessons, Gleason says, are "the ups and downs of having a body" and "tips to help them get back in touch with the joyful essence that they are, when they're burdened with the realities of life on Earth."

Both shows tap into spirit, which--as Sarandon carefully points out--"is different from spirituality."

The stories examine the purity with which we are born into the world, as "spirits with a great deal to radiate, if we're allowed to," Gleason says. "And then, it's a systematic process of tamping it down, squelching it, conforming it."

Gleason, 48, is the daughter of Monty Hall, of game show fame, and Marilyn Hall, an Emmy-winning television producer. She attended Beverly Hills High School, then studied theater at UCLA and Occidental. Sarandon, 55, is the son of Chris and Mary Sarandon, who ran a restaurant--the Eatwell Cafe--in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia. His first wife, actress Susan Sarandon, still carries his name.

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