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THEATER

A real drama queen

For Elaine Stritch, the passion of a life in theater is worth its pain. As for playing herself -- well, she's a natural.

April 06, 2003|Charles McNulty | Special to The Times

New York — Elaine Stritch sails into the cafe at New York's Hotel Carlyle as if it were her private dining room. Actually, it is her dining room. The actress lives in the hotel year-round and treats the staff with the same intimate impatience she lavishes on all who enter her daily orbit. Rasping a request for a cappuccino, she submits to having her picture taken, but not before instructing the photographer on just how to shoot her. And why isn't anyone keeping an eye on the fur coat she's thrown casually on one of the banquettes? Exasperation, even more than Blackglama, seems to become this theatrical legend most.

Her Tony Award-winning one-woman show, "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Tuesday, proves just how dramatic a turbulent diva's life can be.

"It's a pretty good part," she says with deadpan comic timing. "Not a bad life either, come to think of it."

While never attaining grand Hollywood heights, Stritch has blazed an enviable trail in the theatrical cosmos, putting her permanent stamp on songs by Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim, and making Edward Albee's withering wit sound custom-made for her craggy voice.

The success of her solo memoir on Broadway and in London (where it was filmed by D.A. Pennebaker for an upcoming HBO documentary) may stand, however, as the high-water mark of her career. If nothing else, it brought her the Tony she's been coveting for more than five decades and exactly five nominations (the first was in 1956 for a supporting role in "Bus Stop").

"Don't listen to anyone who tells you how great it is to be nominated," she says. "It's winning that's the honor." (Stritch apparently considered last year's Tony win to be such an honor that she threw an expletive-filled fit backstage when CBS cut short her acceptance speech, an outburst that later prompted her to offer a public apology.)

An indefatigable perfectionist who, at 78, has unquestionably earned the right to belt Sondheim's "I'm Still Here," Stritch is the first to acknowledge that her reputation for being "difficult" is something of an understatement. But then, for her, getting it right onstage has always been the No. 1 priority -- even if she readily admits her prickly attitude may have cost her a television deal (she sabotaged her audition for what became Bea Arthur's part on "The Golden Girls") and a leading part in a June Havoc play at Lincoln Center.

"I once told a director that it's not that I won't do it his way," Stritch recalls. "I just can't do it the wrong way for me. What's the point in acting a part every night if you don't believe you're doing it the way it should be done? You have to be comfortable in your own skin up there."

No easy task for a woman who suffered from such debilitating stage fright that she relied on a stiff drink before the start of a show (with a booster shot during intermission) to help assuage her anxiety. Meanwhile, life outside the theater was apparently filled with as many vodka stingers as the "Ladies Who Lunch" Sondheim lyric she helped make famous. For this Broadway baby, the bottle was an indispensable prop.

"At Liberty" recounts with acerbic honesty those hard-drinking years before a diabetic hypoglycemic attack propelled her into sobriety. "It almost all happened without me," she admits in her finale, though with none of the maudlin self-pity that typically colors these kinds of "recovery" tales. Even without the booze, Stritch remains as hard-boiled as ever, utterly allergic to sentimentality, and simply too natural an entertainer not to enjoy her own outrageous account of drinking Judy Garland under the table.

The show, which strings together theatrical anecdotes and musical numbers, is the outcome of a collaboration Stritch undertook with John Lahr, the New Yorker's chief drama critic and writer of psychologically trenchant celebrity profiles. The curious billing -- "Constructed by John Lahr, Reconstructed by Elaine Stritch" -- suggests the feisty nature of the working relationship, which both parties fondly compare to a rocky marriage.

"It was an 11-month job," Lahr recalls, "in which five hours of improvising would, on a good day, result in about a half-page of dialogue. Sure, there were moments when I knew what a galley slave felt like, when it seemed like I had lashes on my back. Sometimes I would intentionally try to [make her angry] because that's when she'd say the most hilarious things. It could get grueling, but the actual writing of the script was a mind meld."

Stritch offers a slightly different version: "Most of the storytelling is my writing. It's the way I tell a story, and that's why it works." While she has nothing but praise for her coauthor, she trusts in her innate ability to hold an audience rapt.

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