At Playbill, All the Cafe's a Stage
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, March 2, 2007
As far as rendezvous spots for discussing budgetary constraints on upcoming productions of "Edward III" go, the Playbill Cafe on 14th Street NW works quite well.
It did, anyway, for Ian Armstrong and Leigh Anna Fry, who took their repose and plates of quesadillas in a back booth of the dark, stained-wood bar earlier this week. The two -- producer and associate producer, respectively -- would present a united front when they brought the bottom lines to their Washington Shakespeare Company cast.
Note: That's the Washington Shakespeare Company of Arlington and Clark Street Playhouse, not the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Penn Quarter and considerably bigger budgets, though that crew shows up here almost as often.
"Where else can Michael Kahn eat looking at a picture of himself?" Playbill owner Elsayed Mansour asks. It's a tough one to answer. In his own home, one would think, but there's no time to call and investigate.
Up front, Jill Parson is at the keyboard doing a little up-tempo Cher, and Mansour, who nine years ago next week opened the doors of the divey theater watering hole with partner Jeffrey DeMontier, has more to show us.
The tiles, for instance.
"Great!! Cosmos's. Yeah!" That one is Debbie Allen's. Apparently she was big on exclamation points when she wrote it June 29, 2002. The process: Finish a play or be kind of famous, then grab a marker and sign a tile.
"You must be exactly the way God meant you to be." Sweet, huh? Credit Scott Lowell, the guy who played Ted on "Queer as Folk." Apparently he swung by on 5-11-01.
Oooh, here's one: "Bless You Beautiful People. May You Always Bless Vaginas."
Oh, Eve Ensler, you know we will.
"She's a wonderful woman. A wonderful woman," Mansour gushes. "In here every day for lunch and dinner during her run. Every day." (Her run back in 1998, according to the tile, not the recent Omarosa-theatrical-debut visit.)
Here's the thing, lawyers have a corner on almost every bar in town. And if it's not them, it's the journalists. Or Hill staffers or bike messengers or those guys who wear sunglasses on top of their heads at night. Actors need cocktails, too.
And sometimes they need a microphone and an audience
and a crack at an Elton John hit. Right, James Garland?
"A friend of mine told me to come. . . . He dragged me there one night and told me to sing," says Garland, who is 28 and making his way in the world as a freelance actor. He doesn't need to be dragged anymore. Now he comes because they serve whiskey and he "likes the atmosphere," and he "knows Sayed."
Actually, everyone knows Sayed. Mansour is the type to greet every other patron with a hug and a question about how rehearsals are going this time around.
He cooks for the dinner rush, and then he and DeMontier -- together for 25 years -- sit and listen. Open mike with Jill Parson and the keyboard is on Mondays. Karaoke with Parson and a bevy of imbibing thespians happens Thursdays.
It got to be sort of a scene for a while there, with people using the stage -- and by stage we mean a small corner with two couches and a coffee table -- as an informal audition spot.
Not so much anymore. A contingent of public-radio types has been kind enough to break the tension and make it their preferred karaoke parlor as well.
So is Playbill (full name, 1409 Playbill Cafe) still kind of a schmoozy, see-and-be-heard hot spot for local actors? "These are like the inner secrets of our community," Garland protests. Well, okay.
Anyway, Mansour needs us to keep moving. Past the posters for "Chicago" and "Miss Saigon" and "Gem of the Ocean" -- now at Arena Stage -- past the stack of postcards promoting other shows, past walls of framed art by a couple of artists/regulars and past the sign on the kitchen door proclaiming "Clothing Optional Beyond This Point."
Ah, here it is. The theater. It was a couple years ago now that Mansour and DeMontier converted a little-used banquet room into a 60-seat black-box theater. Like the rest of the joint, it ain't fancy. But for the folks from Solas Nua, a company dedicated to Irish productions, it's a fine spot for their monthly play readings. (This Monday it'll be "The Sugar Wife" by Elizabeth Kuti.) And it'll work for the one-woman show Alexandria's Meat & Potato Theatre will put on in April.
But wait, back in the bar's metaphorical spotlight, a performer named Baby Alice has some hear-me-roar spoken-word poetry to offer. Very nice. Very impassioned.
But it's getting late, and we'd like to leave on a lighter note.
Whaddya say, Jill Parson? Will you play us out happy?