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A theatrical class act

THEATER

It's tempting to call acting veteran Marian Seldes a diva, but that would be a mistake. Offstage she is anything but.

March 28, 2004|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Actress Marian Seldes, 75, comes to her role in "The Royal Family" at the Ahmanson Theatre with a lot of baggage. Good baggage -- but baggage all the same.

The veteran actress realizes that her long list of sterling theatrical credits -- as well as her imposing height and famous angularity -- have the capacity to intimidate. "When I meet someone, I try to break that down right away," she says. "And just when you think you are an actress and you are somebody, you'll talk to somebody who doesn't have a clue who you are. So you think: 'Who do I think I am?' It's very humbling, and very important."

Seldes has been collecting baggage ever since her Broadway debut at age 19 in "Medea" with Judith Anderson, directed by John Gielgud. She started dragging "prestigious award" baggage around with her in 1967, when she won a Tony for her role in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," beginning a relationship with the celebrated playwright that has lasted almost 40 years. She has racked up multiple Tony nominations and Obie, National Critics and Drama Desk awards.

She has taught at the famed Juilliard School. She's been labeled "a grande dame," a "stage divinity," an "accomplished scene-stealer." She's written articles and book reviews, attended prestigious theater festivals, written an autobiography: "The Bright Lights: A Theatre Life."

Although less known in Hollywood than in the theater, she has reached mass audiences as the aunt of Candice Bergen's Murphy Brown and recently portrayed the Wellesley College president in "Mona Lisa Smile."

In 1992, the New York Post's Clive Barnes suggested her for the heavy-baggage title of "the American theatrical diva for our time."

In one sense, Seldes -- seen at the Music Center in 1996 as a peevishly eccentric 92-year-old in Albee's "Three Tall Women" -- is the real-life version of Fanny Cavendish, the theatrical matriarch she portrays in George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 comedy "The Royal Family," opening April 7 at the Ahmanson.

The play is loosely based on that larger-than-life theatrical clan, the Barrymores. This is Seldes' third go-round with this play; in 1952, she played the younger Julie Cavendish, to be portrayed at the Ahmanson by Kate Mulgrew. She previously portrayed Fanny in 1996 at the Williamstown Festival.

In another sense, Seldes is anything but. Although her 56-year resume may scream "diva," her offstage persona says otherwise. Contrary to expectations, the soft-spoken, meticulously gracious Seldes is hardly larger than life -- though at 5 feet, 9 inches, perhaps a little taller.

Before a recent interview, Seldes declines a publicist's offer of a glass, opting instead to swig a soft drink from a bottle. She does, however, allow him to unscrew the cap. "How do people who live utterly alone survive? There are so many things that won't open," she complains mildly. "I've got a few dresses in New York, and I can somehow get them on, but I can't get them off."

A conversation with Seldes is rich with illustrious theater names: Albee, Barrymore, John Houseman, Horton Foote, Tony Kushner, Judith Anderson, Julie Harris and Katharine Cornell -- not because she's a name dropper, that's just who she knows. She observes that the date of this interview -- March 12 -- is Albee's 76th birthday. And one of the most celebrated names on the list is her second husband, playwright-director-screenwriter Garson Kanin, who died in 1998, leaving her to struggle with loneliness, bottle caps and dresses that zip up the back.

Seldes offers that, although sometimes a play demands it, she never uses four-letter words offstage; she's as proper as her posture, ramrod straight from years of ballet training. "The Royal Family," she asserts, is not a sendup of her chosen field but rather "a love letter" to it.

"It's a spoof, the comedy parts of it," she muses. "But it doesn't make them fools, you don't think: 'Oh, actors.'

"And they are bound together by the theater; they don't all adore each other, but they adore the theater," she adds -- just as she does. "If I had a religious belief, I would want it to be as strong as my belief in the theater."

Ah, the Barrymores. "My angel, I don't think there's a book about them, or a film they have appeared in or a memoir that I haven't read," she says; throughout the conversation "angel" is used interchangeably with "darling." "I've always been fascinated by them even before I was on the stage, when I was still in school. I'm old enough to remember the headlines when John Barrymore married that young high school girl.

"When I began to act in the professional theater, one of the first jobs I had, I had no lines, I was just on the stage in a play where the lead was played by Diana Barrymore. And of course, I wanted her to be the essence of theater, the essence of that amazing family, but she couldn't be; it was too late. Her discipline was gone, and I wished I could somehow put her all back together again. But I just loved it that it was a Barrymore."

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